Changing Schools, Imagined – 2

Ena (Helena) Davis with a teacher at Mullaghduff NS 1931.

On the open turf fire inside the house a large pot of potatoes and a small skillet of meat hang from the crane, cooking; other small pots sit in the heat of the fire. On the table is a large bowl of cold potatoes, a smaller one with pieces of cooked pork and cups of water. The returning children grab the food and stand around the table eating.

“Take something quickly and then get your jobs done. I’ve to start salting the sides of bacon.” says Ena’s mother Annie lifting the lid on the potatoes.

“Oh, yes! I’ve good news for ye all! ” she says brightly.

“You’re going to a new school, Mastersons. We’ll have a donkey and cart next week and I have made ye new clothes.” she continues.

“What!” exclaims Ena, “Leave our School? Why?”

Phyllis is now listening intently, watching her big sister. Herbie and Reco have gone outside to bury the pig’s guts and waste.

“Enough of that, Ena. Books and desks with ink, and the school is very well kept. There’s too much Irish in Mullaghduff, it’s wastin your time.” says her mother.

“But I like Irish! The Master says that if I keep working at it, I’ll get a medal.”  Ena is shocked.

“Don’t cross me now, girl. We’ve our minds made up. You’ll all be starting next week. You’ll know many of them there too.”

“If I spoke to me mother like that, I’d feel the lash of the birch afore the words fell from me mouth. The Divil’s standing up in her.” scolded her Aunt coming into the house.

“But how will we get to school. Walk? It’s over 3 miles?” says Ena ignoring her aunt.

“I told you already we’ll have an ass and cart by the weekend, and Herbie will take you all there and back.” counters Annie.

“Herbie? He goes to school too.” Ena says, now realising that Herbie and Reco already know about this.

“No, he’s finished, he’s needed around here.”

“But Mammy …”

“Stop it now! Before I do reach for the birch.”  her mother says firmly.

“Ena, see if Jack needs changed. And get the bissim to these floors, then give them a wash. Phyllis! Water from the well! And take Cecil with you.”

The table is quieter than usual despite the tasty meal.

“Have you heard the news yet? A new school next week, you’re all off to Mastersons, at last!” says their father breaking the silence.

Ena nods and looks at him blankly.

“Ye’re not excited girl?”

“No. I’ll miss my friends.” she says quietly.

“Your friends will still live in the same place. And you’ll make new ones. What did you learn in that place anyway?”

“Irish, Daddy, and”

“Irish!” he cuts across her.

“Nothing! That’s what you’ve learned. Could any of you could tell me when to plant the spuds or set the cabbage plants, or sow the turnips? No! I have to teach ye that myself. The Irish won’t fill your belly, girl. You’ll do better in Mastersons. You’ll see, you’ll like it.” And he continues his eating.

They eat in silence until Ena points and quietly asks,

“Bainne, Please.”

They all look up. Her father stops eating, puts his fork down, pauses and laughs. He shakes his head and passes her the milk. Uncle Alec winks at her, as her Mother and Aunt scowls across the small table. She knows her father well.


1. Ena got her medal for achievement in Irish.

2. The story is set in 1934, when Herbie would have been 14, Reco 13, Ena 11, Cecil 10, Phyllis 8, Wallace 7 and Alf 5.

3. Thanks to Padraig Fitzpatrick for his review of the story details and his confirmation that the arrival of the ass and cart was key to the change to Masterson National School, and of my Grandfather and Grandmother’s attitude to the Mullaghduff school.

4. Reference: The Deserted School Houses of Ireland Book by Enda O’Flaherty from The Collins Press – September 2018. There is a wealth of information on schools such as Mullaghduff, on the authors website and blog. Thanks to Etta Kerr (nee Gillmor, Boihy House, Dromahair) for the pointing me to this book.

Changing Schools, Imagined – 1

Mullaghduff NS – OSi Cassini 6inch raster mapping dated 1830s to 1930s.

At the end of the school day they stack their clean slates at the front of the room. The Master waits for silence; they know his routine and fall quiet.

“Téigí abhaile anois. Slán agus beannacht.” 

(You all go home. Goodbye and blessings)

And they are up and out as fast as they can squeeze through the door.

“Bí ciúin!”

(Be Quiet!) he shouts as the last of them exit the room and the small yard next to the road explodes in a high-pitched cacophony of children’s screams and voices.

Ena and Phyllis play tig with a group on the road until, panting they fall down in the grass at the side of the road and pick summer flowers. Herbie and Reco, with the older boys talk in a huddle outside the low school wall while one of them plays with a handball. Cecil is with the younger boys throwing stones across the recently tarred road. Gradually the children drift off in various directions, homeward.

“Lets go!” shouts Ena to her siblings.

“They’ll be wondering where we are.  Maybe there’ll be boxty.” she says as she runs off but remembers that a pig was killed that morning and there would be tasty bits of pork for dinner, and black pudding. She was glad to be at school that day of all days; she hated the squealing of the pigs being killed, it went on and on, there was no hiding from it and then there was that awful smell. Ah, now she remembers, the extra jobs waiting for them, we’ll be in trouble.

They walk up the lane, Herbie, Reco, Ena, Cecil and Pyhllis, the girls trailing behind. Their Aunt, Mary Jane is waiting for them at the head of the lane, hands on her hips.

“Wha kept ye all? Year mother told ye not to delay! Ye childer knew there’d be extra work wid the men off at Brannan’s roof? At tha school all day and there’s not a brain between ye. Arragh will ye come on! Herbie ye should know better!” she says waving her arms after them like she is gathering hens.

“Look at the state of ye girls, cover in dust and dirt. Com‘ere and I’ll give ye a brush down afore ye go inside”

“No, no. I’ll do it.” Ena says brushing herself down quickly. She’s a bit afraid of her aunt who is old and sometimes very cross. Her spinster aunt had been there as long as she can remember, like her Uncle Alec; she was regularly at odds with her mother and always seemed to be complaining; her Uncle Alec was different.

Wallace and Alf come running to meet them, chewing on bits of meat with greasy hands and mouths. Wallace has stayed at home for the day to look after Alf, who grabs Ena by the waist wanting to play, but the eleven-year-old shakes him off.

“Not today young cub! I’ve got jobs to do.”

Continued in next blog.

At National School in the 1930s.

In the next three blogs I will focus on the school lives on my Mother, Ena and her siblings during the 1930s and 1940s. Firstly at Mullaghduff National School, then through an imagined story and finally at Masterson National School and at “The Tech” in Manorhamilton. These blogs will be shorter than previous ones.

Mullaghduff National School Photograph 1931.

This photograph of the forty-four pupils and two staff of Mullaghduff National School was taken in 1931. In picture Reco (10 years old) is sixth in from the right on the back row, and possibly in the same row Herbie (11) three over to the left; Ena (8) stands beside the teacher on the right; and Cecil (7), I think sits on the ground beside the teacher on the left.  Phyllis (5) does not appear to be there, if indeed she had started school at that time. At home were Wallace (4) and Alf (2) and Jack (John) wasn’t yet born.

The picture tells a wider story. It was probably taken before the school broke up for the summer and the older pupils left. While the children have dressed for the occasion many don’t have shoes, this being an expense their families could not afford. Many of the older boys appear to project a stern and serious expression to the camera; they are aware of being captured in print, something unfamiliar to most their parents. A few of the girls look too old for the school. However, as the only formal education available at the time they stayed on at national school until 13 or 14 or as long as they could.

The Larkfield farmhouse sits on a small rise about 200 yards off the Manorhamilton to Carrick-on-Shannon road. This trunk road running from Carrick-on-Shannon to Bundoran was surfaced with tar and chippings by the late 1920s. A daily bus service ran each way but otherwise there was little motorised traffic. On school days the children would turn left at the bottom of their lane and walk towards Killargue, other pupils joining them as they covered the mile distance to the two-roomed schoolhouse sitting on the left by the roadside. They each brought a turf for the school fire, a lunch and a bottle of milk or tea. Books were being introduced at the time although it is most likely that the students still used slates and slate pencils; the cost of these and other expenses were met by the parents. 

Mullaghduff NS was a state school with a local Catholic Church management as it had been for many years before Irish independence. The school is listed in an 1859 schools survey. It was common that children of rural Protestant families would go to their local school, having no means of transport elsewhere.

The collapse of Richard Davis’s cattle shipping business, and consequent near bankruptcy was some 5 years previous, although the family were still in severe financial straits (see the earlier blog – Richard Davis, Swindled). Along with Richard and Annie and their eight children, Richard’s older brother Alec, aged 62 and his older sister Mary Jane, 67, were living there; twelve mouths to feed.  My Grandmother was under considerable strain caring for the growing family and the keeping the household together.  They were sustained to a large extent by their farm produce. Milk, taken daily to the Killasnet Coop Creamery and the sale of store cattle brought in welcome cash. However, in 1931 their labour was the prime resource and the older boys would soon join the effort.

Ireland was changing during these times. The Irish Free State would be ten years old the following year and was moving towards a new constitution in 1937. The Protestant population of the 26 counties fell by 30% from 1911 to 1926 as many families felt uneasy with the changing values and culture of the new Irish Free State. Border counties particularly, like Leitrim saw many families leave for Northern Ireland or other parts of the UK. The Davis family at Larkfield were not sheltered from these pressures.

Mullaghduff National School closed in 1956 with pupils moving to a new National School in nearby Killargue. In 2001 Ena, Cecil, Reco and Wallace attended a school reunion in Killargue Community Center, from where the above picture was sourced. As children going to Mullaghaduff school with their neighbours they strengthened bonds of community and established friendships that would last throughout their lives.


1. Thanks to the unknown provider and photographer of the above school photograph.

2.  For background to the evolution of the Irish National School system see: The National System of Education, 1831–2000, Tom Walsh. Chapter 2 from Essays in the History of Irish Education, edited by Brendan Walsh, Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2016.

3. Protestant population decline between 1861 and 1991 see

4. And again thanks to Padraig Fitzpatrick his review of dates and detail.