The History of St. Attracta’s National School, Charlestown
The oldest record of a teacher at the school is that of Mr. Michael Costelloe, thought to have been from Culmore, Swinford. He is recorded as Principal in 1873, described as unmarried, age 22 years and with an annual salary of £24.00. In 1874 he is known to have had two ‘monitors’ – James McCabe and Michael Hurst. Both of them were 14 years old and earned an annual salary of £6.00. (A monitor was an older boy or girl appointed to help the teacher in greatly overcrowded classrooms. A monitor often went on to become a teacher.) Mr. Costelloe taught at the school until at least 1879.
There is evidence of a school in Bellaghy since 1839. In 1843 there were 167 boys and 58 girls on the rolls there, though much smaller numbers would have attended on a regular basis. Michael Brennan taught in the Boys’ school and Margaret Brennan in the Girls’. On May 17th 1848 Bellaghy School was closed, with teachers and pupils transferred to Lowpark School. This move must have caused much overcrowding. Years later it was decided to extend the school, with two additional wings built onto the front. The ‘new’ school opened in 1886, with a new manager – Canon Thomas Loftus, who was Parish Priest at the time. Now there were six classrooms, three for boys and three for girls, with six teachers in all. Money for the project is thought to have come from a variety of sources, including local funds and the Board of Works.
In the early days classroom walls were whitewashed, with long bench desks for rows of children. Of course there was no such thing as uniforms. Children wore their everyday clothes to school, many going barefoot in the summer months. Some little boys wore ‘petticoats’ until about the age of six! This was usual at the time in Ireland. The belief was that the fairies would steal small male children, so they were disguised as girls. The petticoats were sometimes made of flour-bags – many people were very poor and nothing was wasted.
Facing the shop, the Boys’ school was on the right – Mrs. Murphy’s house was joined to the main building and was part of it – while the Girls’ was on the left. To the rear was a playground – dusty in summer, full of muddy puddles in winter. A high concrete step led to the front porches on either side, a challenge for the Infants. The two larger classrooms were divided by wood and glass partitions, which could be folded over completely if necessary.
Many events affected the country in the following years – the start of World War I in 1914, the Easter Rising in 1916 among others. For the children at Lowpark National School in 1918 though, there was more to do than just play football or catching. Across the road was a big field, owned by Mr. W.E. Mulligan of The Square. Every day the children sat on the front wall to watch the British soldiers camped there in their tents. Local people were obliged to supply the camp with milk and vegetables, and in return they were given ‘war bonds’ – a form of investment.
As far as the children were concerned, the best bit was when the soldiers started training, with the sergeant-in-command bawling out the orders. On Monday June 3rd, however, a terrible thing happened. One of the soldiers was accidentally killed while performing target practice with his comrades. His name was Lance Sergeant Harry E. Evans of Norfolk, England. He was 43 years of age. Nobody nowadays knows for sure how the accident happened and there are a few different versions of the event. Sergeant Evans was buried in Bushfield Cemetery.
As the years passed, Lowpark National School became more and more dilapidated. As in many schools at the time, the only heat came from open fires with turf supplied by the parents. The turf was stored in large wooden boxes in the porches where the children’s coats hung. Toilets were in a block behind the school, often flooding out onto the floor. By the nineteen fifties the school was in need of many repairs. Windows were cracked, plaster peeled off the walls; there was only one basic electric light in each classroom, with no sockets.
In the meantime, the Marist Sisters had opened a new Convent and Girls’ Secondary School in 1952 only a short distance up the road in Lowpark. In October 1953, Sr. Thomasina was appointed to the staff of the Boys’ national school, the first Marist sister to teach there. In 1954 Sr. Ursula was appointed Principal of the Girls’ school.
Two years later, on April 24th, 1956, the first sod was cut on the site of the new school, which was to be called St. Attracta’s, in honour of the local patron saint. Now the children at Lowpark National School watched as the walls went up, the roof went on, and excitement mounted at the sight of it all. This was the same field on which Sergeant Evans had been killed almost forty years before.
At last the great day came. The new school opened its doors and the children trooped in. A long corridor ran the whole length of the school, with six classrooms opening off it. At either end were the toilets – no more dashing out in the rain – and luxury of luxuries – a water fountain! There were wash-handbasins, proper towels, soap… There were even cloakrooms with a numbered hanger for each child’s coat. The teachers had their own room beside the cloakrooms. There were lots of lights and sockets, new desks, shelves, beautiful new presses, pictures on the walls, waste-baskets… Best of all was the central heating – the days of bringing sods of turf to school were gone forever. The Girls’ school was to the right as you face the school, with the Boys’ on the left, each with its own front door. The schools were divided by a door across the centre of the corridor. The corridor itself had red tiles. There were three windows known as ventilators in each classroom. These windows were located high on the walls, with a handle that opened them when you turned it.
Behind the school was a smooth concreted yard with a shelter for wet days. After the dust and mud of the old schoolyard, this was wonderful. The girls had their own yard and the boys theirs. Strict rules made sure each kept to their own space. Behind the yard was an enormous field, awash with long grass and wildflowers in summer months. The boys soon made a bald patch with their games of football – few girls played football at the time. There was a short walk over to a little green gate. This led to a lane – a shortcut to the back of the Convent. The older girls often sat swinging on the gate and talking, though sitting on the gate was forbidden!
The school was officially opened on January 22nd, 1957 – a cold wet day – and blessed by Most Rev. Dr. James Fergus, Bishop of Achonry. The girls attending St. Joseph’s Marist Secondary School, along with their teachers, were also present. After the official opening, everyone was told to assemble in the yard behind the school for a photo to be taken. The photographer climbed onto the roof of the shelter and all were instructed to look up so that faces could be seen. Today, these photos are a record of that historic day.
The teachers at the time were Mr. Cassidy, Mr. Swords and Sr. Thomasina in the Boys’ school, with Miss Mulligan, Mrs. Giblin and Sr. Ursula in the Girls’. Mr. Cassidy and Sr. Ursula were the Principals. Sr. Ursula had a great love of flowers. Geraniums crowded the windowsills in her classroom, while outside she created flower borders all along the paths. From time to time her pupils were called out to weed – a task not much better than learning grammar or fractions! The classrooms were swept by a rota of children in the evenings. On the day of the holidays, Sr. Ursula supplied rags and cans of sweet-smelling floor polish. The desks were pushed back, the floors swept, and the children applied polish to the floorboards, then skated round on rags to shine them off – great fun!
During the nineteen fifties, times were hard. There was massive unemployment and emigration, and many families left for a better life in England or America. Eventually the school dropped to a four-teacher, with an empty classroom in both Boys’ and Girls’. Sometime during the early sixties, the empty classroom in the Girls’ school was set on fire. It happened overnight, when a disturbed person broke in and set the place alight. Fortunately the damage was mainly superficial. In 1964, Mr. Paddy Merriman became Principal of the Boys’ school, while Sr. Brendan replaced Sr. Thomasina.
As the population continued to drop, Corthoon N.S. on the Swinford road closed, and was amalgamated with St. Attracta’s. Lecarrow N.S. – in the neighbouring parish of Carracastle- closed its doors in 1968 and they too amalgamated with the town school. This was followed by the amalgamation of Glann N.S. in 1969. These amalgamations introduced the first school bus, bringing children from the area once served by local schools. Now the school was back to six teachers again, and in 1970 the Boys’ and Girls’ schools were themselves amalgamated, with Mr. Merriman as Principal over all. As the economy began to revive in the 1970’s, many families returned from England. Soon the school was bursting at the seams. There were up to fifty children in a classroom, rooms half the size of the present ones. Desks were crammed up against the back wall and all the way up to the top. Eventually, a seventh teacher had to be appointed, but there was no classroom space. A compromise was reached while plans got underway to extend the school. It was decided to use one of the rooms in the Town Hall – the present Arts’ Centre – as a classroom. Every morning the class assembled at the school, then walked with their teacher to the Town Hall and back again in the evening.
In 1978 the new extension to St. Attracta’s was complete. The walls between each two original classrooms were removed, thus doubling the size of each room. Two airy spacious classrooms were added on at either end, and a general purposes room built at the front. A staff-room and office were provided, while in the classrooms desks were replaced with tables and chairs. These new facilities were a wonderful boon to teachers and children alike. As the years slipped into the nineteen eighties however, a recession greatly affected the Irish economy and once more emigration took its toll. School numbers continued to fall – never again would a seventh teacher be required – and eventually staff numbers fell to the present level of four main-stream teachers, supplemented by Learning Support staff.
The past few years since the present recession began have been challenging for schools everywhere in the country. Financial cutbacks, reduced special needs hours and the increased pupil-teacher ratio have made life more difficult in the classroom. St. Attracta’s however, has more than met those challenges head on and continues to thrive – a vibrant successor to the little school across the road that first opened its doors in 1846.