The Dursey Island Schoolhouse: A building steeped in history
Construction of the national school (what is now the site of the Dursey Island Schoolhouse) began in the 1880's, but it was not ready to open until August 1891. The sturdy building occupied a commanding position on rising ground behind the village. In construction it was stone-built, with a slated roof and boarded floor.
The school opened with thirty-six pupils on its rolls. The sole teacher was Catherine Dudley, who retired from the post in 1895. Ellen O'Sullivan took over in 1895, followed as principal teacher by Eugene "Owen Mór" O'Sullivan in 1904.
During the mackerel harvest season in the 1890s and early decades of the twentieth century, pupils were allowed holidays from school so that they could help the adults in the labour intensive fish-curing process. Generally, children entered the school when they were five or six years old, to complete their education in the same school nine or ten years later. From 1968 onwards, with the introduction of free secondary schooling for all Irish children, Dursey children aged thirteen or fourteen continued their education at the secondary school in Castletownbere.
By 1917, pupil numbers had risen to forty-four. Many teachers taught in the two-teacher national school over the years following the foundation of the State in 1922. When the first compulsory primary certificate examination was held in 1943 (Dursey's population was 131 at this time), the pupils crossed the Dursey Sound by ferryboat in the morning and walked to the examination centre at Lehanmore national school, where they all passed with flying colours.
On occasion, the schoolhouse was also used as a social gathering place, when the station Mass was celebrated on the island. This tradition, still practised in the locality, derives from the Penal Times in Ireland, when Roman Catholic religious observance had to be conducted clandestinely (secretly). The local priest celebrates a Mass in a home with the family and neighbours, and afterwards they all enjoy refreshments and conversation.
The school and its teachers served the island community well down through the years. Sadly though, with the passing of each decade, the gradual population decline was reflected in the falling numbers of school-age children and after the Second World War this led to a one-teacher school.
When Mary O'Neill took up her teaching position in 1971, she had seven pupils, but four years later, only five remained. The minimum number of pupils to keep a school open at that time was six, so arrangements were made for the five pupils to continue their education on the mainland.
The final week arrived at the end of February 1975, marking the close of a significant chapter in the island's history, when Mary shut the door on the empty schoolroom for the last time.
Partial extract taken from "Discover Dursey" by Penelope Durell.