The history of Scoil Barra is very well captured in the following excerpt from Scoil Barra’s 25th Anniversary publication ‘Scoil Barra – A Coming of Age’ (compiled and edited by Orla Murphy in 2010). The article ‘Scoil Barra’s Beginnings’ was written by Pat Naughton, retired Assistant Principal, and member of Scoil Barra’s initial staff grouping of 7 teachers appointed in Sept. 1985.

Scoil Barra’s Beginnings

When we think about the beginnings of Scoil Barra, there are any number of beginnings we can think of . . . was the beginning the day someone in a Department of Education planning office said ‘Ballincollig needs a new school’? Or maybe it was the day the school’s site was secured, or the day the foundations were poured? Did the school begin when the first child entered the building in September 1985, or was it at its official opening two years later? Some might see the real beginning as the day the first sixth class group ‘graduated’ in June 1988. Whatever we term as the beginning, we know that 25 years ago, Scoil Barra was born. A quarter of a century on, it’s not a bad time to look back on some of those ‘beginnings’.  

From the time Ballincollig was designated to be one of Cork’s population growth centres or satellite towns, it was inevitable that the provision of education and schools would be an important element of the ‘new’ town that Ballincollig was to become. In 1970, there was one National School catering for both boys and girls. Secondary education was not available in the town until 1976, when Ballincollig Community School opened. Coláiste Choilm took in its first students in 1987.

Shortly after the first new housing estates appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the school population began to increase. By 1975, it had become necessary to establish a new primary school to cater for the rapidly expanding young population. Thus, separate primary schools now enrolled boys (Scoil Eoin) and girls (Scoil Mhuire). Yet within a few years, even these two schools were ‘bursting at the seams’ and had to install prefab classrooms to accommodate the children. It had now become obvious that the provision of school places was failing to keep pace with projections for Ballincollig’s population growth.

Gaelscoil Uí Ríordáin was established in Coolroe in 1983, but the need for further school places was becoming more urgent, especially in the west of the town. However, progress towards new schools was slow. A site in Coolroe Heights, earmarked for what would become Scoil Barra, ran into planning difficulties. Then, Cork County Council sold a site in Innishmore to enable planning and construction to get underway. As construction began in 1984, the Church of Christ Our Light was opened on an adjacent site. Ballincollig Community School also stood nearby, making the site for Scoil Barra more attractive for parents who wanted their children at primary and post-primary schools on the one ‘campus’. To this day, the setting of Scoil Barra is admired, the hills above Inniscarra providing a scenic backdrop all year round, but especially pleasing in summer. And one of the school’s huge ‘plusses’ is its fine playing field, the envy of many primary schools in the district.

The appointment in May 1985 of Michael Farrell as Scoil Barra’s first principal set the staffing of the school in motion. Michael, a native of Buttevant, came to Scoil Barra from Scoil Eoin in Ballincollig, having previously taught in Scoil Chríost Rí in Turner’s Cross. He immediately became involved in detailed planning for the school which was to open some four months later. Elsewhere in this publication, Michael is modest in his description of the work required of him in getting Scoil Barra started. I will be less modest on his behalf and say that he did Trojan work in that period, and its benefits are to be still seen to the present day.

One of the first tasks was to invite parents in Ballincollig to send their children to the new school. In order to make the first year more manageable, children would be accepted from Junior Infants to Fourth Class. Just over 200 children were enrolled for September 1985, with two Junior Infant classes and one each of classes above that. Many of the children above Junior Infant level transferred from local schools. The initial enrolment was an important vote of confidence in Scoil Barra. Moving their children from established schools took courage on the part of parents. The co-educational nature of the school undoubtedly attracted many parents, allowing them to have their children in one school. From that start, enrolments would exceed 600 within 10 years.

A staff of six teachers was appointed in June. As one of that original group, I well remember the first occasion on which we assembled and were introduced to each other. This was late in June, and involved a long meeting in Michael Farrell’s home, along with a tour of the almost-completed school building. We were impressed. We were also daunted by the task ahead as we realised how much work had to be done before opening day in September.

We arranged to meet for two days of planning in mid-August. Those planning meetings took place as the painters and decorators were putting the final touches to the building, including lining the front yard as a staff car-park. Among the practical matters to be decided were: which rooms would house which classes, which doors would be used for entrances and exits, how breaks would be organised and supervised, how children would know which books to buy, how discipline would be established from the outset, and so on.

One of the first things we had to do was to raise money to fund the start-up. The Department of Education grant for classroom equipment was just over a hundred pounds – for the entire school. We went out in pairs begging from local businesses and organisations. I recall we raised about £300. Given the times involved, when the economy was in a poor state, and unemployment was high, this represented real generosity from many in Ballincollig. For a number of years after, parents were being asked to help defray routine costs. (Twenty-five years on, how much has changed, you might ask!). We were fortunate that a number of parish building projects were grouped into one parish debt, and as parishioners contributed generously over the years, the huge debt was paid off by the mid-1990s.

Much has changed in the school over 25 years. Donal O’Sullivan now steers the Scoil Barra ship, faithful to the original charted course. Staff have come and gone, many into positions of educational leadership. Our past pupils have gone out into the world bringing with them many happy memories of this school. (Increasingly, they are now returning to enrol their own children in Scoil Barra!). The pupil population is now more diverse – it’s not unusual to hear French or Russian spoken in the schoolyard. The school buildings have been extended. The resources and equipment of the school have been enhanced to a great degree. Interactive whiteboards that bring the Internet into the classroom have replaced  dusty blackboards. Trees that were planted as saplings now tower over the building.

Much that is good continues: children still love to learn. They still make us laugh and make us cry. They impress us, amuse us, frustrate us and delight us in equal measure. They still run with glee in the summer sports days. They still gaze in wonder at Santa on his Christmas visit. They still play, sing and dance in school musicals and concerts. They have strong views about many social, justice and environmental issues that we as adults don’t seem to manage very well. The children are what the school is about.

Children today wear the school’s crest on their uniforms. Designed and introduced in the early years of the school, its symbolism says much about the school’s mission and outlook. A bird soars above the waters. Spirit, courage, creativity and imagination are possible when roots, values and traditions have been established from the start. As the saying goes, ‘we need to give our children roots and wings’.

A wonderful thing about a school is its everlasting youth.  Many of us who teach in Scoil Barra today will not be in the school 25 years from now (and some will be departing much sooner than that!). Our staff photographs will fade on the corridors’ walls. Yet new infants will arrive each September to begin their schooling adventure. May Scoil Barra always be a place of joy for them all.

Pat Naughton