Sunday 30 April 2017

Students have the freedom to grow spiritually and creatively

Work hard, play hard: Adam Byrne, Shane Lait, Patrick McCrann and Brian Leonard at Glenstal Abbey School. Photo: Brian Gavin/Press 22
Work hard, play hard: Adam Byrne, Shane Lait, Patrick McCrann and Brian Leonard at Glenstal Abbey School. Photo: Brian Gavin/Press 22

David Raleigh

When you drive up its mile-long entrance avenue hugged by ancient trees rooted between the many streams and lakes on its 500 acres, it's easy to see why Glenstal Abbey in Murroe, Co Limerick, has the best- ranked secondary school in the State.

Its naturally beautiful surroundings, including unspoiled views of the majestic Galtee mountains, have no doubt helped inspire its students to academic excellence.

In all, during the last eight years, 81pc of the Glenstal's senior boys progressed to university, with the remainder going to other colleges.

As the old adage goes, success breeds success, and, with annual fees ranging from €11,350 for day boarders to €23,450 for non-EU boarders, success here is "expected", says the school's headmaster, Fr William Fennelly OSB (Order of Saint Benedict).

"Given the socio-economic background of the students you'd expect it at one level," he says. "Am I underselling it? Yes, but at another level, it's kind of what we do - the kids that are here are very lucky to be here, for lots of reasons."

In 2015, and for the first time since the Celtic Tiger days, Glenstal was oversubscribed for first year pupils a whole year in advance.

The trend has continued.

Glenstal, where rugby is compulsory for first years, may be hoping to find a future Munster superstar as it aims to grow its student population to a maximum of 270. Presently there are 248 students (188 full-time boarders and 60 day boarders), and 38 members of the core teaching staff. A further 34 members make up the total teacher population, including tutors, sports coaches, a librarian and eight housemasters.

There are also 100 full and part-time employees on site working in finance, maintenance and the monastic farm.

There are 36 monks living in Glenstal; six of whom teach in the school.

"Everybody talks about what differentiates us [from other schools] - what's different about us is. There is a monastic community living here, and that shapes a lot of what goes on," explains Fr Fennelly.

Glenstal's architecture is another weapon in its uniquely rich and heady history.

Originally built as a Norman Revivalist castle, it became a Benedictine monastery in the mid 1920s before being opened up by the monks as a secondary school in 1932, with just seven boys on the roll.

Since those early days, the campus has spread out beyond the original castle and into a modern, vibrant, forward-looking school, with state-of-the-art facilities - a €6m modern building extension officially opened in January 2014.

Despite obvious pressures to maintain high standards, it's not all work and no play for the students - it's more a case of work hard, play hard. It's all encouraged by a Christian ethos of "offering students the freedom to grow spiritually and creatively".

The list of extra-curricular activities seems endless: kayaking; foreign tours; drama club; a live battle of the bands competition, rugby, soccer, hurling, tennis, fencing, golf, athletics, badminton, basketball, orienteering and rowing. There's even a "cardiovascular suite" and a six-lane 400m running track, along with an abundance of woodland pathways to explore.

In Glenstal, music is as sacred as education, Fr Fennelly explains, with "between two thirds and three quarters of students involved, either studying music or an instrument, or being part of the choir."

He adds: "Music is very important, because it reaches through to a totally different part of the human person in a way that the more content-heavy curriculum doesn't."

Despite Glenstal's Catholic ethos, a diverse mix of boys from varied cultures and religions come to learn. More than 90pc of students are seven-day boarders, including an overseas contingent from Europe and the Middle East. The majority of Irish day and full-time boarders have had fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins previously attend.

"Like every school principal in the country, I could tell you that we have the best maths and science teachers, and that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is wonderful.

''But, I think you have to try and reach beyond the mere content of curriculum, so we can shape the pupils and equip them with tools for life.

"I'd love to tell you that I've got magic in the water here, and that everyone is perfect - of course we're not," says Fr Fennelly.

"This place isn't perfect either. But we certainly have a very strong ambition to be aware of who the students are - and that comes about in trying to set ambitions and expectations for them too.''

Sunday Independent

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