Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Ballyshannon Technical School One Hundred Years Ago


Ballyshannon Technical School 1914 was the  first in County Donegal. The school was in the three storey building in the centre foreground, between the Courthouse and the former Methodist Church,  St. Anne's  Church is on top of the hill.

                                                                                                                                                   
Technical/ Vocational education in County Donegal had its beginnings a century ago in Ballyshannon which linked with Letterkenny in providing the first two schools in the county. This article looks back to the early days in the first school on the Mall, Ballyshannon and the people who paved the way for others to follow. The great pioneer of technical education James O’ Neill was the first principal of both Ballyshannon and Letterkenny Technical schools at the same time in 1914. He resided in Ballyshannon and later became the first C.E.O. of Co. Donegal V.E.C. with its offices in Ballyshannon from 1930 to 1949. For almost 40 years the school was situated on the Mall overlooking the renowned Assaroe waterfall.  From 1914 until the era of the Second World War Ballyshannon Technical school provided the only available post-primary education in the community. The only alternative was for those with sufficient income or who won a scholarship to go off to boarding schools. The school was established in a most historic period coinciding with the First World War and the independence struggle. Its legacy to the local community still continues in 2015.

Technical Education from Pettigo to Bundoran 1902  
As early as 1902 James O’ Neill, a native of Larne Co. Antrim, had come to County Donegal as an itinerant woodwork teacher and devoted his life to the provision of technical education  for the people so that they could be self sufficient. Itinerant teachers travelled around the county spending upwards of a month in locally rented accommodation, to which they transported their equipment, enrolled classes and provided hands on service to isolated communities. James O’ Neill travelled extensively throughout the county including Buncrana, Letterkenny, Killybegs, Ardara and Ballyshannon. Local instructors such as Ellen Hannigan in Pettigo were employed to provide crochet classes for four hours a day. By 1914 there were sprigging classes in the courthouse in Pettigo with further classes in Lettercran in a room in Mr. Flood’s house. Meanwhile the Bundoran Co-operative Home Industry and the Bundoran Carrickmacross Lace and Crochet Group taught skills and enabled the students to sell their finished products. Ms. McKenna who was later to be employed in the first technical schools in Ballyshannon and Letterkenny conducted cookery classes in Ballintra. In Belleek a lace group was organised and conducted by Ms. Slevin which operated four hours a day and three days a week.

Ballyshannon had two groups with Ms. Mulligan and Ms. Margaret McMenamin providing instruction in lace and crochet respectively. Classes sold their lace products on the open market but with the outbreak of World War 1 the value of the work dropped and earnings fell by 50%. Early technical education had its humble beginnings in hired accommodation with itinerant teachers and locally based skilled instructors providing a valuable service to people whose education had ended with primary school. The opening of schools in Ballyshannon and Letterkenny in 1914 was to provide the first permanently based technical schools in the county.

Ballyshannon Technical School 1914
In 1914 the two largest towns in the county were selected by County Donegal Joint Technical Instruction Committee to establish the first permanent technical schools. Locally much of the talk in 1914 would have been about men enlisting in the army at Finner Camp and going off to fight on the Western Front in France. The roadway outside the  technical school on the Mall  in Ballyshannon would have been busy with salmon fishermen coming and going, to the Assaroe waterfall and the Mall Quay nearby. James O’Neill was appointed Principal of both Ballyshannon and Letterkenny Technical schools which both opened in October 1914. Undaunted he took on the challenge and commuted between both locations by C.D.R. train. The logistics of running two schools so far apart required military precision and frequent reference to the railway timetables. Mr. O’ Neill was also required to conduct a short course of instruction in some other part of the county during the summer holidays. Generations of local people from the urban and rural areas around Ballyshannon were provided with educational opportunities to follow on from their primary education. 

In 1914 the search for a building to house the first technical school resulted in the selection of a three storey building on the Mall beside the Courthouse. The building had originally been a warehouse in close proximity to the harbour at the Mall Quay. The building was leased from the Sheil Trustees and was to be the home of the technical school until the present building was constructed on College Street in 1952. (Subsequently the building on the Mall was to be the home of the Catholic Club, the Boxing Club and the local library. The site is nowadays occupied by a private residence between the Tyrhugh Centre and the former Methodist Church). John McCaffrey, architect, who had previously been Principal of Armagh Technical School, planned the alterations to the building in 1914. On the ground floor were the Mechanical Drawing, Manual Instruction and Metalwork rooms; the first floor housed the Domestic Science room while the second floor had the Commercial Department and an Art room. There were a number of offices, stores and toilets. Ballyshannon Technical school had a most attractive location as it directly overlooked the Assaroe waterfall which was the most beautiful natural attraction in the town.

The Technical School on the Mall was to provide exceptionally high standards in draughtsmanship, carpentry, joinery and metalwork and many local offices and businesses were to benefit from the skills learned in the typing and commercial departments in the school. Brother Hugh Gallagher O.F.M. a native of Mullinaleck Co. Leitrim, recalled attending the Technical School on the Mall where he made a horse cart under the guidance of Louis Emerson, which he later drove home from the school. The school also provided skills for those who were forced to emigrate in search of employment and many emigrants and older members of the community acknowledge the educational opportunities they received and which equipped them to find employment. Many successful local businesses credit their origins to the Technical School.

Educational Opportunities in the era of the First World War
By November 1914 a total of 144 students were enrolled in Ballyshannon Technical School on the Mall which must be some kind of record as the proposal to open the school was taken in April of the same year. This enrolment also reflected the demand for further education in the community. Students were drawn from a wide catchment,  encompassing the areas in and around the town, extending to Bundoran and Kinlough areas and out to the Rossnowlagh and  Ballintra areas. Fermanagh students were also a significant feature in the school and the bicycle was widely used as a means of transport. It was to be a further 50 years and more before school transport enabled generations of students from the wider area to go on to second level education with progression to third level. In 1914 students had a choice of four main courses of study in the school namely; Commercial, Domestic, Farmers and Building Trades plus an Introductory Course. To encourage wider participation and to make education accessible to all, the school had enlightened scholarship schemes. The top 15 students who obtained highest marks for attendance and homework in the session 1914/1915 were given free education in the following year. As many families would have had economic difficulties, another enlightened grant was that given to students who had over 80% attendance as they had half their examination fees paid for Department and RSA examinations.James O'Neill, although not a native speaker,had a tremendous love of the Irish language and the Gaelic League, and ensured that staff and students throughout the county were given Irish courses to keep the language alive.

School Life and the Commute to Letterkenny
In 1914 classes in Ballyshannon Technical school began at 3 p.m. for day students and night classes commenced at 7.30 p.m. Some staff including the Principal commuted between Ballyshannon and Letterkenny and taught classes in both schools. On the 12th April 1915 Ms. McKenna, the Domestic Economy instructor, had a predicament which she solved in a novel manner. She had missed a train at Letterkenny on her way to teach in Ballyshannon and was unable to arrive there before 8 o’clock. She wired instructions to one of the students to conduct classes until her arrival! Some staff who are still remembered from the school on the Mall include Mr. O’ Neill, the Principal, Ms. Hilda Boyle, Mr. T.W. Smyth, Ms. K. McKenna, Ms. O’ Doherty, Charlie Stuart and  Louis Emerson. Mr. Francis Doherty N.T. Creevy National School taught the Introductory Course in the evenings after completing his days work in the primary school. Michael Walsh was the secretary and Patrick Patton and his son were caretakers in succession in the school on the Mall. In subsequent periods Louis Emerson and Paddy Gallagher  who both  arrived in the county during the 1930’s were to continue the pioneering role of technical education in Ballyshannon.

Paddy Tunney, renowned author, ballad writer, historian and singer recalled in his book “The Stone Fiddle” attending the old Technical School on the Mall. After finishing primary school he and many others cycled in the Belleek road to Ballyshannon and the following are a few of his reminiscences of the school and one of his teachers, Ms. Hilda Boyle:

"When I finished school in Derryhallow, my course was set for Ballyshanny on the winding banks of Erne, where at the Vocational school; a wry old bachelor from Oughterdrum told me that headsheaf would be put on my learning. My abiding memory of the school on the Mall is the music of Casca Aodh Ruaidh that filled our ears as we listened to Ms. Hilda’s recitation of Herrick’s “Fair Daffodils” or struggled with her dissertation on self-balancing ledgers. In the school on the Mall overlooking famed Assaroe, we gathered to garner wisdom and learning.”

In the years prior to the border being established, Ballyshannon was the market town and educational centre for areas such as Belleek and Garrison in County Fermanagh. Concerns were expressed in the 1920s during the Boundary Commission review that the border would hamper the local economy by cutting off part of the town’s natural hinterland in County Fermanagh. 

Gaelic Football team in Ballyshannon Technical school 1936/1937
Front (l.tor.) P.McIntyre, J.Gallagher, H.Maguire, J.McGahern (captain), J.Feely, J.Gallinagh, S.Cleary, E.McIntyre
back (l.tor.) F.Grimes, S.Slevin, B.Loughlin, K. Connolly, L.Slevin, J.McGarrigle, W.O'Donnell

 Legacy of Vocational/ Technical Education in the Ballyshannon Area
At the very beginning of the 20th century teachers travelled out to local communities such as Bundoran, Belleek, Ballintra and Pettigo and provided educational training in technical skills for the people. By 1914 with the opening of the Technical School on the Mall in Ballyshannon, generations of local people were equipped for the world of work and for highly valued apprenticeships. Later in 1952 with the building of a new Technical/ Vocational school on College Street, a new era of educational opportunity gradually opened up, with technical and academic subjects to Leaving Certificate level, and with computerisation and commercial courses to equip students for a fast changing world. New opportunities also opened up for access to 3rd Level and all this was made possible by the pioneers who laid the foundations a century ago in the old school on the Mall. James O'Neill died on 12th July 1951 at his residence in College Street opposite the Vocational school. He is buried with his wife Ellen  in Abbey Assaroe in his adopted Ballyshannon.
 
Ballyshannon Vocational/Technical School has left a lasting legacy in the local community through its involvement with the establishment of Magh Ene College in Bundoran and with the amalgamation of the three post-primary schools in Ballyshannon to form Coláiste Cholmcille in 2000. The Technical School building in College Street Ballyshannon still provides for the changing needs of the local community and is now renamed The Adult Education and Training Centre. County Donegal V.E.C. has taken on a broader role and today is called Donegal Education and Training Board guided by current C.E.O Mr. Shaun Purcell. Today there are fifteen schools in the county with seven Adult Education and Training Centres, Gartan Outdoor Education Centre and many resources and facilities to meet the ever changing needs in the county. Errigal College is a continuation of Letterkenny Technical School founded alongside Ballyshannon in 1914 and   celebrates a century of continuous second level education in 2014/2015. The school will be marking its centenary with  a commemorative book and Ballyshannon Vocational/ Technical School published a book prior to the amalgamation of the three schools in Ballyshannon. Major changes and developments have occurred in the past one hundred years since the  foundations of technical education were laid in County Donegal, by that great educational pioneer, James O’Neill and his team  in Ballyshannon 1914. For further information on the history of the Ballyshannon area log on to ballyshannonmusing.blogspot.com

A  Local History Book suitable for those at Home and Away
"Ballyshannon. Genealogy and History" reveals newly researched history and genealogy of the town, extending as far as the Rossnowlagh, Cashelard, Corlea, Clyhore, Higginstown and Finner areas. Includes the parishes of Kilbarron and Magh Ene. It contains the full story of  The Green Lady which  was recently performed in Ballyshannon  to great acclaim. The genealogy material provides detailed guidelines for anyone tracing their roots in the area or anywhere in County Donegal or Ireland. The book contains 500 pages and is richly illustrated with stunning colour, aerial photography, original illustrations and rare photographs of the area not seen before.
Also available from Anthony Begley for postal enquiries email anthonyrbegley@hotmail.com

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