Jerome Reilly: Take away the school, kill the local community
Education cutbacks are a death sentence for rural villages, Jerome Reilly finds in Trumera, Co Laois
For Liam O'Neill there can be no surrender. He believes the battle to save the country's primary schools and their teachers is part of a larger conflict -- a fight for the survival of rural Ireland.
The school principal at Scoil Naisiunta Thromaire, a small Irish-speaking national school in Trumera in rural Co Laois just a few miles outside Mountrath, is also the incoming GAA president.
He believes the education cutbacks contained in the Budget austerity plan, which will increase the number of pupils needed for the retention of teachers, is tantamount to a death sentence for many small parish communities.
And, despite last week's slight softening of the planned cuts by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn following howls of protest in every constituency, Mr O'Neill is convinced that it is those who live in the country who are paying the heaviest price since the downturn hit. The fear now is that, over the next three years, schools will be under pressure to keep their teachers each September.
Minister Quinn has come under immense pressure from rural members of his own party, including a number of senators, and Fianna Fail Education spokesman Brendan Smith said the minister was trying to give the impression that he had rowed back on cuts at small schools when he had not.
"Essentially, the Government has announced that small schools facing cuts can appeal these cuts if they can prove their pupil number will rise significantly over the coming years. This is nothing more than an attempt to take the heat out of the anger about this unpopular Budget measure," he said.
For Liam O'Neill the question is not about economics. "Small communities like ours are anchored by their national schools. Take away the school from a place like Trumera and the community no longer exists. The GAA club would inevitably fold as well," he said.
His roots in the school run deep. His father was also headmaster, and his mother's aunt was school mistress before that. His family have given the school more than 100 years of service. He looks at what happened to the nearby hamlet of Kilbricken, which was once a hive of activity.
Kilbricken station, on the Dublin to Cork line, opened in 1848 but closed for goods traffic in 1975, and finally closed altogether in 1976. The Kilbricken Inn, which also served as a shop and post office, is now shuttered and the national school, a fine building with old-fashioned stone outhouses, is deserted and derelict.
The words of Goldsmith's The Deserted Village come to Mr O'Neill -- a poem he has taught to a few generations of youngsters in Trumera.
But times are altered; trade's unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain.
"The numbers in any national school will fluctuate. The fact of the matter is this community suffered a hit in the Seventies. There were three national schools in the parish but two of them are now closed," he said.
"We now look out across the green fields and see the traffic of the country passing us on the N7. We have the noise pollution from that. We know it represents progress of a sort, but has life improved for this community with the closing of Clonard school, Kilbricken school, the post office, the pub and the train station?"
Learning support teacher Laura Martin and her colleague Fiona Boyle take the youngsters through their lessons. At playtime the children converge in the school playground with their hurls and helmets -- a beacon of life during the day, when most parents work away from the parish. Only two families in the 2012 roll call at the school are full-time farmers.
Labour Senator John Whelan has led the charge against the cutbacks in rural national schools. "My serious concern is that this was viewed as purely a teacher numbers issue by Minister Quinn and his officials. It has to be viewed in a broader context," he said.
"As originally envisaged, it would have had a devastating impact on the sustainability of life in rural ireland. Schools are integral to the viability of communities, especially in the context of increased emigration, increased unemployment and the loss of Garda stations, post offices and a raft of other community hubs. It can't be all about book balancing. We have to look at the social consequences. If we lose schools in September this year, the following year or the year after, it will lead to rural depopulation and rural dereliction. We won't just have ghost estates, we will have ghost villages."
Despite the apparent U-turn on the issue, it now looks as though some parts of the country will still be devastated, especially in the West.
In Galway East -- a constituency that hasn't returned a senior minister in living memory -- eight schools are affected. Roscommon-South Leitrim also has eight schools facing teacher cutbacks; Longford-Westmeath has six schools under threat; and Donegal South West, five.
Labour Senator John Kelly from Roscommon told the Sunday Independent he was deeply concerned that from a per head of population perspective, "Roscommon seems to have got the greatest hit, with eight schools under threat of losing a teacher."
He added: "I am not happy about that. I believe that by purely assessing the savings involved we forget the social and economic benefits small schools are to rural areas. I am years campaigning for fair play for rural Ireland and I will continue to push the Minister for Education to give a degree of leniency to schools that may lose a teacher over one or two pupils."
Senator James Heffernan is also unconvinced that the threat to rural schools has receded. "Although the minister has said that there is an effective appeal procedure in place, I believe that the changes this year are the thin end of the wedge. As a former teacher, it is my view that the changes next year and the year after will have the potential to be devastating for rural life in Ireland. Should schools lose teachers and be forced to close down, it would be the last straw for life in rural Ireland," the senator said.
"In Co Limerick there are around 60 schools with four or fewer teachers. These schools are the heart of their communities. If they were to be lost, it would be a major societal blow for those communities and parishes and indeed to the future of organisations like the GAA which is organised on parish lines."
Meanwhile, Enda Kenny's political heartland of Mayo which is the third largest county, but only 15th in terms of population, has just four schools affected.