Carnaun School Organic Diary – Aug 2007 Farewell

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Reeling in the years

“l defy anyone to sink a fork more than four inches into the ground anywhere in Carnaun” a local farmer told me in 1963 the year I was appointed principal teacher of Carnaun National School.

I was teaching in another local school for a year before that but was delighted to come back to my own school where I had been taught by my father and my aunt.

“Carnaun” means a “heap of stones” or “cairn” and gets its name form a little hill south of the school also called “Cloghar Goill” — the home of Goll Mac Mórna a leader of the Fianna, and later in medieval times called  “Carnaun Castle”.

Building from scratch

The little playground was limestone with a thin covering of soil through which rock showed in places, so much of the first year was spent “reclaiming” with pick and crowbar and sledge. The bigger pupils who lived near the school worked after school clearing away the stones and replacing it with soil from the “long acre”, the grassy margin along the roadside. I can still remember the smell of lime when I cracked the rocks with the sledge!

The garden in the corner of the playground was made up of a mixture of ashes from the school fire, turf mould from the reek of turf and some soil from the “long acre” for which we had to compete with the local farmers as they needed it for top dressing as much as we did.

We sowed whatever the children brought — potatoes (spuds) dipped in lime, cabbage, turnips and mangolds. Not many children nowadays would know what a mangold is but then it was grown as fodder for cattle and it was often left to the farmer’s children to bring out a cart full of turnips or mangolds to the sheep and cattle in the winter fields.

Whatever plants survived in the cold frame were taken home and planted by the children as we had no space for them in the schoolyard We did not have great success with our garden at first as “there was no need for it” as “everyone had one at home” and the Department of Education frowned on it. The wonderful Agriculture Science programme under the British regime had years before been scrapped in favour of the Irish language. In the 1980s there was again “no need for it” because “you can get all that stuff in the shops nowadays”. So now instead of getting a head of cabbage or lettuce with the dew sparkling on it in the morning you got a battered yellow one over the shop counter.

Official recognition

Later on, the Department of Education introduced healthy living as part of the curriculum; we got pyramid charts showing how much fruit and greens one should eat to be healthy and now we could enjoy “schoolwork” in the garden without too much interference from officialdom. We got a load of proper topsoil and a cart of “horse-dung” and suddenly the garden was “on” again and we grew a variety of vegetables. I still remember the ecstasy on a child’s face when eating a pea from a pod for the first time. The rest is history!

While the school was being renovated, we acquired two acres, from the farmer next door, giving us lots of space. We applied for organic status, did our conversion period and now the school and playground are officially “organic”.

While we still have to dig the holes for the trees with the crowbar and sledge it is now much easier to get loads of topsoil to fill them.

Every important school occasion for the past 15 years has been marked by the planting of a tree so each tree and shrub in the schoolyard has a story to tell. We planted a white beam tree for the “Good Friday Agreement” in the north of Ireland and there were times when we felt like cutting it down again when the various parties fell out with one another. We marked the millennium by planting an oak tree for everyone in the senior class and we can now boast of a line of 15 oak trees along our meadow path. Before the sixth class leave school, they normally plant a mountain ash.

Integrated curriculum

ln our school we have an “open door policy” and since we began to integrate information and communication technology into our curriculum, start a website and take part in sustainable development projects internationally, we have lots of visitors to our school and the children delight in taking them for a tour of our heritage train in the school grounds. I rarely went with them as it was their work and I would only be ‘gluing their pitch’.

Sadly, all good things come to an end; I retire from teaching this summer (the ‘powers that be’ in the Department of Education and Science think that I am too old to continue) and there will come a day when I will be taken for a tour of the school grounds for the last time.

They will show me with pride the work of many children who modelled a ‘Tír na nÓg’ out of rock with very little help from adults. ‘We do not have a caretaker we do most of the work ourselves’ they well tell me. We will walk past the vegetable garden and I will hear ‘It’s not so much about producing a big amount of vegetables; it’s about our organic way of life’. In the bird garden I will be shown the buddleia; ‘a shrub, from the Himalayas, that will grow anywhere, and where there were thousands of  butterflies, one day, last year’ and to the old front garden where they will tell me as if I were someone else, how ‘Finbarr pulled this red fuchsia bush, out of his garden at home, with a horse he was training, took it to school where it became a white fuchsia and later it was cut back and now it is not a fuchsia at all’. (The root stock had taken over)

They will tell me about the ‘Mandegoud Spring Garden’ called after a partner school in the Netherlands; the ‘Lambert Grove’ planted after the Lambert Symposium in 1998, the ‘Peace Tree’ (Called after the ‘Good Friday Agreement) where some of the children will shout “No” while others will shout “Yes”. They will tell me about the construction of the ‘Wildlife Pond’ during the “worst rainstorm ever” and ‘You should hear the racket the frogs make when they are spawning’ and bring me through the wildflower meadow and talk about ‘beautiful wild flowers that are only weeds when they are in a farmer’s crop of oats’ and we will sit, a while, in the meadow to listen to birdsong, the lowing of the neighbours’ cattle or just the silence of the countryside.

We will go along the ‘fox tracks’ to the meadow path beside the line of oak trees to the ‘Norman Keep’ where ‘Finbarr nearly got the sack, years ago because he had his class outside, when the Department Inspector arrived’. They will tell stories of flowers and trees and birds and bees, of horses and ponies and the ‘old school pony’ and how the families took turns bring him home at weekends’ and ‘when they had guinea pigs’ and ‘we were thinking of having chickens but who would mind them at weekends?’ They will tell about all the friends who ‘helped us’ with our work down through the years.

The children will integrate all subjects of the curriculum in their heritage walk, will show me how to take the temperature of their school-made solar panel or the compost bin, with the laptop. They will recite poetry and sing sogs and we will have a great time!

Legends recalled

Seated in the shelter at the wall mural depicting the history of the Carnaun area, I will hear tales of ‘Raiftearaí the Poet’ and Liam Joyce our very own Highwayman’. The Garden Mural’ will be their pride and joy and I will hear about all the ‘Environmental Awareness prizes won by the school through the years and ‘that’s us working in the organic garden’ and ‘that’s Finbarr with the camera’.

The Myths and Legends mural will bring the tales of Goll Mac Morna and his brother Conán Maol Mallachtach Mac Morna or Conan the Barbarian as he is known nowadays, Fionn and the Fianna and Oscar and Diarmad and Gráinne, and Queen Meadhbh and Alill and Lúgh and Lúgh’s mother Éitlin, the heroes of old, who gave their names to places in the locality and ‘how St. Patrick gave the people peace of mind by giving them one god to worship instead of many’.

And I will listen with wonder and awe to these very well educated because it is their school, it is their garden, it is their story; and I was lucky to be part of it!

And later when they have gone, I will sit on the ‘old teacher’s seat’ beside the garden and remember a time of bare feet and cows on the long acre, foddering turnips and mangolds, horse and donkey carts, backband and bellyband and britchin, stacks of hay and corn in haggards, cattle gadding from the warble fly, ploughing and harrowing, picking stones and digging spuds, milking cows and feeding calves, a time when, in spite of long hard working hours, people had time to stop and talk and when all journeys were nature walk sand when people were praised for their work with a ‘God Bless’ and a time that instead of blaming others, going to courts and tribunals and losses were ‘offered up’.

I will remember the fun we had in Carnaun School!

Editor’s note: This article was, the last of many, written in Carnaun School, Athenry, from 2006 onwards, for IOFGA’s Organic Matters Magazine, Editor Cáit Curran!

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About this record

Written by Finbarr O'Regan

Published here 21 Feb 2024 and originally published Carnaun School Organic Diary - August 2007 Farewell

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