By JACKIE KEOGH
It was two decades ago on March 15th that the Gaelscoil in Skibbereen had its humble first beginnings.
‘It started off in Townshend Street, where the Skibbereen Community Resource Centre is now, and moved to the campsite in Tragumna Road,’ said the principal, Aisling Ní Néill, who is hoping that Gaelscoil Dhochtúir Uí Shuilleabháin will one day have a permanent and purpose-built facility.
‘Our premises at Gortnacloghy, at the rear of Rossa College, is suitable for our needs at present,’ said Aisling, who was appointed principal in 2008, ‘because it is large enough to accommodate our 66 pupils, our three teachers, our two special education teachers, and our naíonra playschool, which accommodates up to 20 children and their four leaders.
‘When the school began there were just 21 pupils enrolled, but that number has increased year-on-year because of the growing interest in our Irish language and culture.
‘It is not just a West Cork phenomenon: the increase in popularity of Gaelscoileanna is evident right throughout the country.’
It has been proven that the most successful approach to learning a language is to be completely immersed in it. But that is just one of the reasons why these schools have become so popular: There is also an ethos in the smaller Gaelscoileanna that parents consider to be a good fit for their children.
Aisling said: ‘We are a Catholic primary school but we run an ethical education programme in tandem with that to cater for everybody regardless of their faith.
‘The ethical education programme is similar to the programme used in other multi-denominational schools, such as “Educate Together”, and gives pupils a broad introduction to other religions and cultures.
‘By being immersed in the language from their very first day the pupils learn the language and end up speaking the language without any great difficulty so it is, within a matter of weeks, very easy for them to do all of their subjects through the medium of Irish.
‘Parents initially worry that learning different subjects through Irish might be difficult,’ said Aisling, ‘but that is not the case because speaking Irish becomes second nature to them.’
But it is not just the curriculum that keeps them interested: extra-curricular activities, such as the puppetry club, the school choir, as well as learning the accordion, tin whistle and guitar are fun events that keep them happily chatting as Gaeilge.
‘Drama is a big part of the school’s extra-curricular programme: every year Gaelscoil Dhochtúir Uí Shuilleabháin puts on a drama performance as part of it Seachtain na Gaeilge celebrations.
This year, the pupils performed in a competition, Coirm, in Fermoy and won two awards – one was for their use of props, and the second was for music.
The children and their parents made the puppets and anyone who has seen them has been struck by the fact that they are evocative of old Irish legends, such as the stories of Oisin and Tir na nÓg, as well as the ever popular Children of Lir and the Brown Bull of Cooley.
At Gaelscoil Dhochtúir Uí Shuilleabháin the children also have fun while learning about the environment and they are delighted to be working towards achieving their third Green Flag for water conservation.
The school has recently expanded its school garden courtesy of Rossa College. In time, the plot of land will be used to grow vegetables, as well as flowers to adorn the school.
According to the principal, Aisling Ní Néill, ‘the education of young people has evolved and changed over the last 20 years and today, I believe, it is more child-centred, more active and more inclusive than ever before.
‘Children learn how to work as part of a team and the school’s sports programme is a big part of that. The children also come to understand that learning goes beyond what can be found in books. They take an interest, not just in their school, their community and their environment, they also learn to take a world view too.
‘But for now we will be spending the next week or two preparing for our 20th anniversary celebrations,’ said Aisling.
All past parents, pupils and friends of Gaelscoil Dhochtúir Uí Shuilleabháin are welcome to gather at the school on Saturday, March 15th from 2pm until 5pm to celebrate the 20th anniversary.
The Cork sports personality, Sean Óg Ó hAilpín, and Paidí Ó Lionaird of TG4 fame will be the guest speakers on the day. It promises to be a relaxed social event with plenty of good food, drink and music to mark the occasion.