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16 September 1999 Edition

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Remembering the Past: An educational experiment

By Aengus O Snodaigh

IN JUNE 1905, Pádraig Pearse and his sister, Margaret, travelled to Belgium on a fact-finding trip to see bilingualism at work, the educational system and the teaching methods, especially as they dealt with the Flemish language. The five-week trip was to have a major influence on Pádraig and was the catalyst for his experiment in bilingualism and the establishment of an Irish-language school.

What he saw on his visits to Belgian schools inspired a series of 30 articles which he published in Conradh na Gaeilge's An Claidheamh Soluis between 1905 and 1907. His articles describe the way bilingualism worked in practice. Pearse was convinced of the need to demonstrate that bilingualism worked and that children reared with equal proficiency in Irish and English would not be disadvantaged but would be likely to improve their overall level of education.

From the start, Conradh na Gaeilge had recognised that for Irish to survive, the educational system in Ireland needed to be overhauled. Its attempts to make headway on this front had not yielded any tangible results from an educational establishment which was, in the main, anti-Irish and, at the very least, sceptical of bilingualism.

Even when Pearse suggested the idea of setting up a bilingual school in Dublin, some of the leaders of the Irish-language movement were not convinced and hesitated in supporting Pearse in his bold adventure.

Pearse was determined, though. On 8 September 1908, St Enda's opened its doors at Cullenswood House in Ranelagh, Dublin. With the financial help of his brother, Willie, and some donations from personal friends, Pádraig began his pioneering day and boarding bilingual school.

Pádraig was headmaster, Thomas MacDonagh was assistant headmaster, Margaret Pearse, Joe MacDonagh, Con Colbert, Michael Smidic, Vincent Brien, Joseph Clarke were teachers, while William Carroll was in charge of physical education. Lectures or talks were given occasionally by many of the leading figures of the revivalist, radical and revolutionary movements, including Eoin Mac Néill, Edward Martyn, Alice Stopford Green, Dr Douglas Hyde and Mary Hayden. Mícheál Mac Ruaidhrí gave gardening classes. An all-round education was given, as set out in an advertisement for the school before it opened:

``Apart from its distinctively national standpoint, St Enda's School will adopt several new and important principles in educational aim and method. Features of this system will be the direct method teaching of modern languages and bilingual instruction in all other branches. It will devote special attention to science and `modern' subjects generally. While aiming at producing scholars, St Enda's will aim in the first place at producing strong, noble and useful men.''

The school remained in Cullenswood House for two years and moved to The Hermitage, in Rathfarnham, County Dublin, in 1910 because it was necessary to move ``to a place sufficiently extensive in all respects for the requirements of a first-class college''. The prospectus added that it had ``a fully-equipped science laboratory'' and that its 50 acres would ``afford ample facilities for all games, as well as scouting, nature study, etc''.

Its sister school, St Ita's, founded in September of that year to ``attempt to do for Irish girls'' what St Enda's was doing for the boys, remained in Cullenswood House. At the time, Rathfarnham was still regarded as a rural town and it was the isolation

of The Hermitage which attracted Pearse to it, as he believed that the fewer distractions for the pupils the more they could learn.

The ideals of revolutionary Ireland, Pearse's dynamic spirit, and educational vision were reflected in the school's ethos and teaching. That brought its own problems, not least of which was the falling numbers of day pupils. When it opened its doors in Cullenswood the school had 20 boarders and 50 day pupils. The following year this grew to nearly 50 boarders and 100 day pupils, but when it moved to The Hermitage, the numbers went down.

Financial problems were to beset the school until its closure in 1935. It was bailed out by nationalists and republicans at home and abroad in the intervening years. In 1914, Pearse made a fund-raising tour in the United States and succeeded in raising enough money to forestall closure. The debts continued to mount, nevertheless, and with events outside of the school taking up more of his time, Pearse was unable to concentrate on fund-raising.

Those years saw St Enda's become the focus of many of the radical and revolutionary groups of the decade. It provided shelter, training areas, bomb-making facilities, and meeting rooms for the Irish Volunteers, Fianna Éireann and the Irish Republican Brotherhood before the 1916 Rising. It was a hive of activity up to the day of the Rising with many Volunteers setting out from the grounds into Dublin on the morning of the Rising. Fifteen ex-pupils fought in Rising and many more fought later in the Tan War and Civil War.

Desmond Ryan, the revolutionary and historian, said of the school he attended:

``It was a moral and intellectual stimulus to come under the influence of such a master. He did not wish to turn out so many replicas of himself, his opinions and prejudices. It is significant that none of his pupils came to have an identical outlook upon life as his own, although they had one and all, something of a philosophy in common, together with a great reverence for their master.''

After the Easter Rising, British soldiers occupied The Hermitage, but Mrs Pearse, who'd been involved with the project from the very start, reopened in Cullenswood and moved again to The Hermitage in 1919. Money was raised which allowed her to buy out the property from the landlord, William Woodbyrne, in 1920. On her death in 1932, The Hermitage passed to her daughter, Margaret, who lived in it until her death in 1969. Since then it has been cared for as a Pearse Museum and public park by the 26-County state.

Cullenswood House was used as a safe house on many occasions during this century. Michael Collins had a secret office in it at one stage. The building fell into disrepair from the 1930s but has been restored after a long campaign in 1997 by a voluntary committee and now houses Gaelscoil Lios na nOg - a fitting tribute to Pádraig Pearse's educational dream.

The revolutionary bilingual schools founded by Pádraig and Willie Pearse, St Enda's, and St Ita's, were founded in Cullenswood House, Ranelagh, this week 91 and 89 years ago respectively.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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