1928 – 1933

The 80th anniversary of the founding of Newcastle West Vocational School/ Desmond College/ Gaelcholáiste Uí Chonbá was celebrated in 2014. It seems appropriate now to attempt a brief history of the foundation and subsequent development of the school and to review its place in the community.

In 1928 when six acres in Gortboy (where the school campus is now located) were up for sale, Fr. Pat O’ Carroll asked Matt Noonan of Bishop Street and William Cahill of Clouneskeane to act as guarantors for a loan from the National Bank of £600 to buy the land from Mrs. Kennedy of The Square.

After it was bought, it was used as a sports ground for the people of the town and many well-known athletes competed in the events that were held there.

Under the 1930 Vocational Education Act, 38 VECs were formed, 27 counties (including Tipperary North and Tipperary South), 4 city boroughs and 7 large town VECs. It introduced Vocational Schools with a greater emphasis on trade, commerce and practical courses.

There were subsequently two types of courses in the schools – the school of ‘Continuation’ i.e. beyond primary education from 14 years until 16 years, and ‘Technical Education’ to train for employment or improve skills if in employment typically began at 17 years of age or older.

‘The 1930 Vocational Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation passed by the young Dáil of eight years. It was to generate a revolution in the attitude towards education as well as the type of education on offer.

It raised manual work to the level of craft and at the same time, placed a new emphasis on the learning of subjects such as Mathematics, English, Irish, History and Geography as well as Scientific Disciplines. It caused people to believe that students should get as thorough a grounding in their training for manual work as the professional worker gets for his duties.

But the task ahead was monumental – schools to be built, teachers had to be trained and recruited, and the Central Administration had to be established.’

“The Act identified the Department of Education as being the responsible department and established new employing authorities – the Vocational Educational Committees.

The people who run the VEC (the members) are elected by the County Council after each local election but after that the VEC is completely independent for the next 5 years, accountable to the Minister of Education and the Government Auditors.”  Seán Rushe, CEO

Following the formation of a Vocational Authority for Co. Limerick, composed of a chief executive officer and committee, as provided for in the Vocational Act of 1930, a small start was made in Newcastle West.

Classes in Metalwork, Domestic Economy, and Continuation subjects had been held in the Carnegie Library and Gaelic League Hall since 1932, but it was soon obvious that a permanent building was essential.

0001 : A photo of the Carnegie Library located in the Market Yard
A photo of the Carnegie Library located in the Market Yard
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This building was designed by Richard Caulfied Orpen. The plans were drawn up by J.D. Leahy, Cullenagh, who was the builder. The library was opened on November 13th 1916.

The Carnegie Trust, which was founded by the Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded this building. Between 1897 and 1913, Carnegie promised over £170,000 to pay for the building of about eighty libraries in Ireland. Sixty-six of the libraries were built and sixty-two of them have survived.
In 1920, the local RIC and military “went berserk over the shooting on Constable Masterson and shot up the town, burning amongst a lot of other buildings, the Carnagie library.” An Leabharlann

The library lay in ruins for a few years and rebuilding commenced in 1924. James D Leahy died before its completion and the work was completed by John F Ambrose.
Limerick Journal 2009, Margaret Franklin


0002 : The ornate Celtic Crest of The Gaelic League
The ornate Celtic Crest of The Gaelic League
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0003 : Gaelic League Hall, Árus na Gaeilge 1926
Gaelic League Hall, Árus na Gaeilge 1926
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The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 with the aim of restoring the Irish language. The Gaelic League organised Irish language classes all over the country. Some of those teachers and their students became teachers within the VEC system.

Pádraic Pearse
At this early stage in our compilation, it is worth considering the following inspirational article which contains excerpts selected from an educational essay included in ‘The Complete Works of Pádraic H. Pearse’. The concepts included are enveloped in the Vocational School Programme.

An Ideal Education
By Pádraic H. Pearse, published in the Irish Review in June 1914

0004 : Pádraic H. Pearse 1879-1916 https://www.britannica.com/biography/Patrick-Henry-Pearse BBC Hulton Picture Library
Pádraic H. Pearse 1879-1916
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“I would urge that the Irish school system of the future should give freedom – freedom to the individual school, freedom to the individual teacher, freedom as far as may be to the individual pupil. Without freedom there can be no right growth; and education is properly the fostering of the right growth of the personality.

In a true education system, religion, patriotism, literature, art and science would be brought in such a way into the lives of boys and girls as to affect their character and conduct. Education should foster and inspire…..

The words and phrases of a language are always to some extent revelations of the mind of the race that has moulded the language. How often does an Irish vocable light up as with a lantern some immemorial Irish attitude, some whole phase of Irish thought!

Thus, the words which the old Irish implied when they spoke of education show that they had gripped the very heart of that problem. To the old Irish the teacher was ‘aite’ (fosterer) the pupil was ‘dalta’ (foster child), the system was ‘aiteachas’ (fosterage) words which we still retain as oide, dalta, oideachas. And is it not the precise aim of education to ‘foster’? Not to inform, to indoctrinate, to conduct through a course of studies but, first and last, to ‘foster’ the elements of character native to soul to help to bring these to their full perfection….

Philosophy was not crammed out of textbooks but was learned at the knee of some great philosopher; art was learned in the studio of some master artist, a craft in the workshop of some master craftsman. Always it was the personality of the master that made the school, never the State that built it of brick and mortar, and drew up a code of rules to govern it. I do not know how far it is possible to revive the old ideal of foster and foster child. I know it were very desirable…..

What a teacher should bring to his pupil is not a set of readymade opinions or a stock of cut and dry information, but an inspiration and an example; and his main qualification should be, not such an over mastering will as shall impose itself at all hazards upon all weaker wills that come under its influence, but rather so infectious an enthusiasm as shall kindle new enthusiasm.

Our English-Irish systems took, and take, absolutely no cognisance of the differences between individuals, of the differences of localities, of the differences between urban and rural communities, of the differences springing from a different ancestry, Gaelic or Anglo-Saxon. Every school must conform to a type. The teacher has not been at liberty, and in practice is not yet at liberty to seek to discover the individual benefits of its pupils, the hidden talent that is in every normal soul, to discover which and to cherish which, that it may in the fullness of time be put to some precious use is the primary duty of the teacher…..

I knew one boy who passed through several schools “a dunce and a laughing-stock” the national board and the intermediate board sat in judgement upon him and had damned him as a failure. Yet a friend and fellow-worker of mine discovered that he was gifted with a wondrous sympathy for nature that he loved and understood the ways of plants, that he had a strange minuteness and subtlety of observation – that, in short, he was the sort of boy likely to become an accomplished botanist.

I knew another boy of whom his father said to me; “he is no good at books, he is no good at work; he is good at nothing but playing a tin whistle. What am I to do with him?” I shocked the worthy man by replying “buy a tin whistle for him.”

A colleague’s philosophy of education was “If a boy shows an aptitude for doing anything better than most people, he should be encouraged to do that, and to do it as well as possible.” Manual work, both indoor and outdoor, would I hope be part of the programme for every school.

The idea of a compulsory programme imposed by an external authority upon every child is the direct contrary of the root idea involved in education.
In these chapters, I have sufficiently indicated, the general spirit in which I would have Irish education system recreated. We can all see that when an Irish Government is constituted, there will be an Irish Minister for Education responsible to the Irish parliament; that under him Irish education will be drawn into a homogeneous whole.

And then vivifying the whole we need the divine breath that moves through free peoples, the breath that no man of Ireland has felt in his nostrils for so many centuries, the breath that once blew through the streets of Athens and that kindled, as wine kindles, the hearts of those who taught and learned in Clonmacnois.”…..

Therefore, an opinion would be that a lot of the hopes, aspirations and ideals of Pádraic Pearse’s vision for an Irish educational system were introduced in their second level technical schools across the country, under the Vocational Act 1931.

The former essay was written less sixteen years prior to the introduction of the Vocational Act. Thus, because of the nationalistic fervour that prevailed at this time it is likely that many of the teachers in these schools would have been highly influenced with the same patriotic views and teachings.

On a similar vein with this theory, Mr Pádraig Collery, principal of the school in 1984, on the 50th anniversary of the school – then expressed the following with conviction:

“Believe it or not the Vocational School in Newcastle West is fifty years young this year and as everybody knows it is thriving and prosperous and is growing and expanding steadily, year by year. With the establishment of Vocation schools two most essential requisites of any proper system of education (which, unfortunately, we inherited from our English overlords) viz., a sense of freedom for each individual and secondly adequate inspiration were part and parcel of the new system.

Prior to this there were no State Technical Schools and no State Art Schools and the cultural values of our people- our music, songs, art, dances, etc., were barely mentioned and some of them not at all.”

Irish Press
The following article sourced from the Irish Press Saturday 12 March 1932 written about a Wexford new school would also support this belief to some extent.

A National Experiment by Máire Ní Criagáin.

In North Wexford a large house surrounded by beautiful trees, I came to the “Tuath” school. I walked up the drive and viewed girls playing Camoguiodheacht.

The Principal of the school was kindness itself in the trouble he took to explain this big experiment. It is under the Co. Vocational Committee and the Co. Committee of Agriculture and the inspectors of both visit it.

It is a day school with sixty three on the roll. The pupils are any age between fourteen and twenty and some girl pupils even over twenty years of age. They are mostly from the district but some are from quite a distance and are staying in the locality.

An entrance examination about seventh class National School standard has to be passed before a pupil is accepted. There is a fee of five shillings a session and there are two sessions in a year. The timetable shown was Irish, English, Geography, Domestic Science, Engineering, Farming accounts, Manual Instruction, Agricultural Instruction, Hurling, Football, Camoguiodheacht, Traditional Irish Singing and Dancing, all printed in Irish.

In the first room, girls are being taught Geography on the most modern lines, in the next room an Irish class for senior boys is in full swing. Further down the corridor young stalwarts, boys under sixteen all working for dear life at benches with chisels and blocks of wood. That their teachers’ attention was taken off them for a considerable time did not make the slightest difference to them nothing could stop them.

I soon discovered the secret, they are being taught by an enthusiast, and incidentally I heard later a philosopher and storyteller when he had them to himself. In the senior class boys over sixteen the pupils are taught in-laying specimens.

Then there is the engineering class where every boy is a potential mechanic and there is no slacking. The boys are encouraged to talk of their plans for the future and nearly 90 % want to be behind the wheel of a car /lorry.

…..Every encouragement is given to boys to go back to the land, to find out ways and means of developing the farms and see the possibilities of side-lines like poultry keeping, bee keeping and trades.

The Girls Work
The girls are to be given a thorough grounding in household management, cookery, dressmaking, laundry work, dairying, poultry keeping, keeping accounts, as well as the other subjects.

Some will return to their farms and apply what they have learned to their own homes. Others hope to take up positions as housekeepers where they will be responsible for running the house where a reliable, trained person is needed. Most of these girls are good Irish speakers. Lastly there is the traditional Singing class once and the Dancing class twice a week.

“Is it really a folk school?” I asked.
“Well” the principal answered hesitantly “Our Body is Vocational and our Spirit is Folk that is how we stand at present.”

Mol an Óige
This “Tuath” scoil is at its crawling stage indeed, I should rather say in its cradle, a child of great promise with efficient, well trained nurses.

“Mol an óige ‘s tiocfaidh siad” If it grows to the vigorous manhood its parents hope for it the Model County will have done something for Ireland of such impact that the present generation cannot estimate its value.

Ar ais go Caisleán Nua Thiar
Site for the School

Then in 1933, a one acre site, from the aforementioned 6 acres, was acquired from the Church authorities and a payment of £100 to the Land Commission made the site free hold. When Matt Noonan died, William Cahill signed over his claim to the Church.

Shortly after this the remaining five acres were put up for auction. They were bought by John Quaid, chairman of the vocational committee, on behalf of the committee, and this subsequently provided space for a large school garden and playing field for Newcastle West Vocational School.

The proposal for the building of the school itself was genuinely welcomed by the people of the town. The priests; Canon Duane P.P., Fr. Pat Carroll C.C. and Fr. Michael Ryan C.C. seemed to have been very enthusiastic and formed a special committee to further the work with many local businessmen.

The members of the committee formed in 1933 were; Jim Phelan, T.J. Cronin, Tim O’ Neill, Michael O’ Halloran, John O’ Shea, Willie Raleigh, and Seán Brouder. One of these, Seán Brouder, as a member of the Vocational Education Committee, in his official capacity, gave the project strong support.

The fact that the school was ready for use a year later, in 1934 is sufficient proof of the great work done by all concerned including the builder who was Mr. Maurice Holly from Tarbert.

0005 : 1933: Building the school. Back: Mr. Holly, Gideon Riedy, Maurice O’Donnell, _____, _____, and Ned Riedy.
1933: Building the school.
Back: Mr. Holly, Gideon Riedy, Maurice O’Donnell, _____, _____, and Ned Riedy.
(image 0005)
This family of Riedys were involved in many building projects in Newcastle West for generations. Gideon Riedy’s craftsmanship in wood is to be seen in the courthouse.

His sons Thomas and Amos built the neat row of houses on the Rathina Road and Thomas was clerk of works for Connolly Terrace. Their sons Christy and Paddy continued the workshop and building business and built some rooms in the Vocational School.

Now in their third generations, Anthony and Damien continue the trade.