Less room at inn for traditional nativity
Multi-faith schools shift towards alternative, all-inclusive plays in 2015
Tommy Turkey doesn't like what he's hearing. The farmer who owns him is haggling with turkey traders - his days are truly numbered as Christmas looms. So when backs are turned he makes a run for it.
"There are 10 children in the family," explains Sharon Dawson, a pupil of Scoil Aonghusa Community National School in Mallow, Co Cork, adding "and they are very poor. So my character tells them to sell the turkey so they can have a nice Christmas. But the children are really sad to think that Tommy will end up on someone's plate!"
The children plead with their parents to protect their family pet but needs must and Tommy, played by Tadhg O'Riordan, refuses to fall foul to the turkey trader's wicked ways.
The play Tommy Turkey Runs Away is being staged at the multi-faith school in place of the traditional nativity play as principal, Mary O'Riordan explains. "We understand that belief is a fundamental part of who you are and shouldn't be ignored and we celebrate that with the children and don't ignore that aspect of their lives. But when it comes to the Christmas play we want to make sure that absolutely no one is excluded and that every single child has a major role to play in it," she said.
Scoil Aonghusa opened its doors in September 2014 with 44 pupils and this year has seen that number grow to 80.
About a quarter of the parents are Irish. Next year, a new, dedicated school building is to be built to cater for the rapidly expanding community school.
"We have 18 different nationalities here and children from Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal Christian, Muslim and non-faith backgrounds. We use the 'Goodness Me, Goodness You' (GMGY) programme which is a multi-denominational religious programme. Also, for three weeks in April we bring in 'Leaders' for each faith and for those children who come from families with no faith.
"No child is made feel different and we want them to be proud of who they are and about where they come from," explains Ms O'Riordan.
On a wall in the corridor are the flags representing the countries from where the school population hails - among them the flags of Canada, Ghana, Nigeria, Mauritius, Togo, Tunisia, the USA, Slovenia, Taiwan, Congo, Latvia, and Ireland.
As the school children mingle at break-time all they talk about is the upcoming play. And Mary O'Riordan believes that the themes which run through it are fully in keeping with this time of year.
"The children in the play care for each other and their little poultry pet, they think of others rather than themselves, they are grateful for what they have and are not selfish or demanding of material gifts. In many ways our little play encapsulates lots of the important messages we associate with Christmas."
Scoil Aonghusa was the first community national school established outside of the greater Dublin area, There are now 11 comumunity national schools, run by local education and training boards (ETBs)
During rehearsals for Tommy Turkey I notice a number of the girls wearing their Holy Communion dresses - "yes, at the start of the year they will meet the Canon and together they will draw up a programme of preparation for communion or confirmation but this will take place mainly outside of school hours.
"Because we don't spend part of our day walking up to the church or decorating the interior of a chapel we are able to use that time for other things and the system certainly works for the children we have here," says the principal.
Indeed the popularity of community national schools across the country is gathering pace. And Peter Mullan of the Irish National Teachers Organisation told the Irish Independent that more and more schools are adapting more general winter stories than the nativity itself to reflect the multi-faith and multi-cultural aspect of its school population.
"Most schools across Ireland now have children from a range of different backgrounds., so the traditional nativity play of the manger, baby Jesus and Three Wise Men is sometimes adapted or modernised.
"And, in some cases, schools decide to do something more general for this festive time of year. As a result everyone in the school is included in the play," he says
Indeed, the recent announcement by Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan that that the privileged status of religion in primary schools, as set out in Rule 68, is set to be removed, may well see more alternative themed plays at this time of year in the future.
Back in Mallow 11-year-old Tumelo Ebonam, whose family comes from South Africa, explains that the play, which they will perform tomorrow night in the local GAA hall, has universal appeal in the school.
She says: "It's really fun and there are some very funny lines. I never had a major part before but I'm the mother in Tommy Turkey Runs Off and it's so exciting. At first I was nervous standing up in front of everyone but I get a little more confident every day."
For Tadhg O'Riordan, aka Tommy, there's a certain irony to his role. I ask him what he'll be tucking into for dinner on the 25th? "Oh turkey, definitely," he says with his head mask tucked under his arm.
In the final scene Tommy, who by now has lost a lot of weight, returns home to the jubilant children and he's not on the dinner menu on Christmas Day. Their feathered friend gets a reprieve, until this time next year at least!