In 1930 approximately 500,000 children were attending national schools in the Free State or twenty six counties. In the same year statistics reveal that roughly 30,000 students were enrolled in secondary schools in the twenty six counties. Also in 1930 we know that only 1,000 students sat the Leaving Cert Examination, roughly 700 boys and 300 girls. A brief glance at some statistics for 2010 – 2011 show how far we have advanced since 1930. In the 2010 – 2011 academic year 356,000 students attended a second level school of some variety – secondary, vocational, community school or comprehensive. In the same academic year or to be precise at the end of it in June 2011 almost 58,000 students sat the Leaving Cert Examination.
In 1930 it is fair to say that only the reasonable well off could attend a secondary school. While national schools were free secondary schools required a fee to attend and in the struggling 1930’s – the era of the Great Depression, most families could not afford the luxury of paying for their children’s secondary education. Perhaps in the larger towns and cities there was some possibility, either through sacrifice or scholarship, that students from poor families might succeed in continuing their education but in smaller towns such as Castlepollard, where no secondary school existed at all, the reality for most young people was their formal education ended the day they left their national school for the last time.
When we look at our young students in sixth class in their primary school today it is impossible to imagine them not continuing their education for at least another five or six years but instead being forced to seek some sort of employment or livelihood aged twelve or thirteen. And yet that is exactly what faced approximately 90 per cent of the pupils who finished their national or primary school education 1930.
The Ireland of 1930 was a far different one from that of say fifty years earlier. Apart from the fact of gaining Independence and Self-Government for twenty six of our thirty two counties other changes had taken place as well. The age of the motor car had arrived, and the age of electricity had begun, some manufacturing firms had been established, housing and sanitation standards began to improve, farming had become more mechanised. All these developments required a greater technical knowledge than was necessary here to fore. The Government of the day realised they needed a workforce with technical skills. Up to now secondary schools concentrated on supplying a need for Civil Servants or School Teachers or for professionals such as the Law or Medicine or Banking but the country now needed reasonable well trained tradesmen as well. How were young people to gain employment when their education ended at sixth class and who had received little if any scientific or technical instruction?
The answer was to provide another type of secondary education form the one being provided by the existing academic school run mainly by the Clergy and the religious orders. The new secondary school would be State Run and funded and would mainly focus on providing a technical or vocational education. Schools which would turn out tradesmen or craftsmen in carpentry, construction, plumbing, fitting or welding and girls who could cook, sew, do book-keeping and later shorthand and typewriting.
In 1930 Dail Eireann passed the Vocational Education Act whereby each county was enabled to set up a Vocational Education Committee to oversee the provision of Vocational or Technical Education at a county level. The new committees replaced an earlier county body called the Technical Instruction Committee. It was this committee that had already established technical schools in Athlone and Mullingar. The Technical Instruction Committee, just like the newly established Vocational Education Committee was composed almost entirely of County Council members with some co-opted members such as members of the Clergy. It was thanks to the Westmeath Technical Education Committee, the prior to the arrival of Westmeath V.E.C., North Westmeath had already been provided with some Technical Education albeit of a temporary or short term nature. In 1912 Mr. P.J. Lyons was conducting classes in Woodwork on Thursday evenings in Finea. In 1922 a Miss. K. Madden was employed by Westmeath Committee of Agriculture and Technical Instruction to give classes in Home Spinning in Castlepollard. Mr. Peadar Nea, a native of Coole, was also employed as an itinerant teacher of Irish, travelling to different centres by bicycle giving Irish classes.
In 1934 Westmeath V.E.C. began providing day continuation classes for young people in the Castlepollard area. These classes were provided in the Kirk on the Dublin Road – now the residence of Martin Fagan. In 1934 52 students, 18 boys and 34 girls enrolled for classes. Continuation classes meant that subjects studied in National School were now continued in the Vocational School at a more advanced level with the addition of practical subjects such as Rural Science, Woodwork and Domestic Science. The late Mr. Jim Doherty, Woodwork teacher, was one of the earliest teachers to work in the Kirk. He recalled how difficult things were back then – trying to teach several subjects to different classes in one room which lacked either electricity or sewage facilities. In 1935 he noted the situation improved greatly when his Woodwork classes were moved to the Town Hall formerly the Market House. Despite now renting two premises in Castlepollard to provide Technical Education it became obvious to Mr. M.J. O’Boyle C.E.O. and to the committee that the situation was unsatisfactory and that Castlepollard needed a proper purpose built Vocational School if Vocational Education was to thrive in the area.
In June 1936 Westmeath Vocational Education Committee invited tenders from building firms for the construction of a new three roomed Technical School in Castlepollard. The committee chose J.V. Kelly and sons from Tyrellspass who quoted two thousand five hundred pounds for the construction of the school. The new school was to be built on land purchased from Mr. Joseph Lynch, located in Water Street.
In September 1937 the Westmeath Examiner carried a brief announcement that the new Technical school in Castlepollard was to open on Monday the sixth of September at ten a.m. This was the first Vocational School built by Westmeath V.E.C. in the county.
According to school records thirty seven students enrolled for the one year course on offer in the new technical school in Water Street in 1937. The new school contained three classrooms, a Woodwork Room, a Science Room and a Domestic Science room. The four teachers employed that year taught a range of subjects including Woodwork and Drawing, Cookery, Rural Science with an emphasis on Horticulture and Farming as well as English, Irish and Mathematics. The staff also ran three evening classes in the school. Indeed from the very start of Vocational Education in North Westmeath the holding of night time educational courses referred to back then as Evening Classes, was of great importance to the staff and the Vocational Education Committee.
There were a number of teachers associated with the early years of the new school – local people here in Castlepollard recall Mr. Whyte, Mr Jim Doherty, Mr. L. Kennedy and Miss Campbell. Mr. Doherty returned to Castlepollard as teacher in charge in 1938 and with the help of Mr. Phil Murray, caretaker, laid down the grounds that for many years were such a striking feature of the school.
In 1940 Mr. Patrick Byron a Rural Science teacher, was appointed teacher in charge and he was to hold this position for the next nine years. During his time as head teacher Mr. Byron married Miss Campbell the Domestic Science teacher. Also during Mr. Byron’s tenure Mr. Michael J. Curran, a native of Co. Galway was appointed to the post of Woodwork teacher in the school. Mr. Curran’s sister Barbara worked nearby in Coole National school where she taught for many years. Mickey Curran, as Mr. Curran was called, was to teach Woodwork and Technical Drawing in Castlepollard until his death in October 1979 and during those years he gained the respect and affection of all he taught and of the wider community he lived amongst.
In 1947 the Department of Education introduced a new examination – the Day Vocational Group Certificate – specifically to cater for (Technical) students attending Technical schools. This examination was based on a two year course of study and this meant that numbers in Vocational Schools began to increase.
In 1949 Mr. Byron left Castlepollard to take up his new post as C.E.O. of Co. Meath Vocational Education Committee. Mr. Sean O’Loughlin, a native of Lismacaffrey, Co. Westmeath, was transferred from Killucan to serve as Head Teacher in Castlepollard while Mr. Tadgh Dineen who had taught for some years in Castlepollard was transferred to Killucan where he served until his eventual retirement. Mr. O’Loughlin, like his predecessor Mr. Byron, was a Bachelor of Agricultural Science and taught Rural Science as well as being headmaster of the school.
Thanks to the introduction of the Group Certificate Examination, numbers in the school increased. There were now sixty students divided into two groups, first and second year, and this meant that extra space was required. In September 1949 the V.E.C. purchased a second hand Nissen building at a cost of €142 and this was erected behind the main building making Castlepollard Technical School a four roomed institution. The Nissen Hut as it was called had a stage at one end and this allowed the staff to put on plays and concerts in it.
Mr. O’Loughlin continued to develop Adult Education and under his direction evening classes were held in many halls and National Schools throughout the region. Classes in Irish, Woodwork, Cookery, Drama, Farm Accounts and Rural Science were held in Balrath, Fore, Collinstown, Carpenterstown, Multy, Crookedwood and Boherquill – to mention but a few of the locations where Evening Classes were held in the 1940’s and 1950’s – as well as in the school itself. One could say it was a case of as the mountain could not come to Muhammad then Muhammad must go to the mountain. Few teachers possessed a motor car and local hackney drivers such as Mr. Paddy Halpin of Church Street were employed to drive teachers and in many cases bring equipment that was needed such as cookery utensils or woodwork tools, to the various centres where classes were being held.
In September 1958 Mr. Kevin O’Reilly, a Kerryman, a B. Comm graduate from University College Cork was appointed to the staff of Castlepollard Technical School. Within a few short years of his arrival Kevin became Principal of the school when Mr. O’Loughlin was appointed as C.E.O. of Westmeath V.E.C. following the death of its first C.E.O. Mr. Michael J. Boyle.
In 1965 a new Metalwork room was built behind the main block and another very important subject was now available to students attending the school. Student numbers increased dramatically when the Vocational school introduced a three year Intermediate Certificate course in September 1966. As well as the standard Vocational subjects the school now taught more academic subjects such as French, History and Geography.
In 1968 Myles Cosgrave arrived to teach Rural Science and he was to remain there for the next forty one year’s gaining the affection and regard of all who came to know him. In 1970 Phil Murray – who had been caretaker and gardener par excellence since the opening of the school in 1937 retired. He was succeeded by his neighbour form across the road, Paddy Corrigan, whose wife Bridie worked as kitchen attendant in the school. Both Paddy and Bridie worked hard inside and outside the school so that despite its growing age it always remained in excellent condition. Thanks to its magnificent glasshouse and well maintained gardens the school supplied a steady flow of vegetables and fruit for sale to the people of Castlepollard for many years.
The 1970’s saw the school continue to grow and new teachers such as Laura Smyth and past pupil Jim Whyte now joined the staff. Laura taught Book-Keeping, Commerce and Secretarial courses in shorthand and typing and endeared herself to many by her warm personality. Jim Whyte made the Metalwork room a vibrant and engaging place where students became adept at forge and lathe.
In the early 1980’s as the school continued to expand staff numbers began to increase. Bill Ryan, a native of Mullingar, was appointed as teacher of English, History and Geography. At the same time Oliver Gallagher arrived as our first ever Careers Guidance Teacher – a post he also held in Killucan Vocational School. Tony Healy was transferred from Mullingar Vocational School as Woodwork Teacher and Ann Flanagan replaced Mrs. Curran as Domestic Science or Home Economics teacher as it was now called. They were quickly followed by Geraldine Noonan, Mathematics and Geography, Marie McMahon who taught Irish and Mathematics and Christine McNamee who taught Chemistry and Science and by Michael Bennett who taught English and Remedial.
By 1985 the school had changed its appearance considerably thanks to the number of new buildings that had been added to cater for increasing numbers. In 1973 a new Secretarial prefab had been erected – next door to the Metalwork room. In 1978 a new prefabricated Woodwork room had been built to the right of the main building. In 1984 a large three roomed prefab was erected where the vegetable garden had stood, one of those rooms doing duty as an Art room where the school’s first Art teacher, Kevin Flood, introduced students to the magic of painting and puppet-making.
In the mid 1980’s Paddy Corrigan retired as Caretaker and was replaced by another resident of Water Street, Michael Cassidy. Michael proved to be a very versatile caretaker capable of turning his hand to practically everything and fixing it when necessary.
In the changing Ireland of the 1980’s the importance of Education continued to grow and it became obvious that Castlepollard Vocational School must now provide a Leaving Cert course for its students. Following pressure from the staff and from V.E.C. member Donie Cassidy, Westmeath V.E.C. finally agreed to sanction the running of a Leaving Cert course in the school in 1985.
Class of 1985
In 1987 history was made when seventeen students who had completed five years study in the school sat their Leaving Cert exams in the Vocational school that June.
The fact that the school was now a Senior cycle one meant that student numbers continued to increase. By 1988 the school had 180 students and needed extra rooms. Discussions arose about the possibility of a new school but nothing came of them at the time.
In 1991 the school, now called Colaiste Cionn Torc, released a promotional video to encourage pupils to attend the school.
In 1995 Mr. Kevin O’Reilly retired after many years of honourable service to Vocational Education in North Westmeath. An outstanding teacher with a love of his native culture, he was a very good Principal who commanded the respect and admiration of both staff and students.
Mr. Jim Whyte, a native of Clonave, Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath, a former pupil of the school who was taught by Kevin succeeded him as Principal in September 1995. It was during Jim’s Principalship, with Myles as Vice Principal, that (Castlepollard) Colaiste Cionn Torc underwent the huge change when the computer became a vital part of the school furniture. A new prefabricated complex containing classrooms, offices and toilets was erected on the old pitch at the back of the school to cater for the increasing school population. Probably Jim’s greatest achievement, apart from the many hurling triumphs he masterminded, was his ultimately successful struggle to see a new vocational school built on a green field site in Castlepollard.
In 1997 the school was granted its first permanent school secretary with the appointment of Celeste Dermody. Celeste proved to be not just a remarkably efficient and courteous secretary but also a very helpful and cheerful addition to the staff of the school.
In November 2004 the doors of the old school in Water Street closed for the last time and the staff and students took up residence in a very modern state of the art school on the Mullingar road. A new chapter in the history of Vocational Education in North Westmeath had begun.
September 2009 saw another significant change when Mary Coyle succeeded Jim Whyte as Principal and Olive McCormack became Vice Principal in succession to Myles Cosgrave. Both ladies have proved to be a formidable le team and under their management the school has continued to flourish providing an excellent education for students who continue to grow in numbers as the years go by. Long may it continue to do so.