Living conditions were very bad in the Claddagh during the Great Famine. Most people there made their living from the sea but they refused to adapt to new and more effective fishing techniques which would have improved their catches, and so their income was affected and poverty ensued. Most of the fishermen there had put their nets in hock just to keep their families alive. Equally, Claddagh people were opposed to education, as their sons would grow up to be fishermen, they felt no need to send them to school. This form of opposition began to soften and eventually in 1827, a national school opened roughly where the statue of Fr Tom Burke is today. The quality of education there was not great so the Dominicans decided to take things into their own hands and build a school that would develop and improve the practical skills of seamanship and fishing for the boys to make them more self-sufficient. The girls would be taught fishery-related skills such as lace-making
One of the Dominicans, Fr Rush, went to London and managed to collect £1,300 towards a new school and construction began. They started by filling in a large area measuring 75’ x 60’ of sea-swamp, 17’ below the level of the quay. The first stone of the school was laid on February 21, 1846. While the building was under way, a proposal was made to the Board of National Education for a three-roomed school comprising a boys’ room, a girls’ room, and an industrial room, each room measuring 50’ x 25’ being a distinctive school on a different floor, which accounts for the three-storey design of the building. The industrial room was for the nautical school.
It was a classically-inspired architect-designed Victorian building, a complete contrast to the vernacular cottages surrounding it. A prominent statue of a Claddagh fisherman was placed over the advanced central bay of the façade. Occasionally, in the first year, the attendance went over 500, but the average daily number was about 400. The school taught sail-making, spinning, netting, and how to make spillard and gurnet lines. The school applied for a grant for the erection of a square-rigged model vessel in which all the duties of seamanship could be taught, but no funds were available. As a result, the fishery-related disciplines provided by the school began to decrease. An 1852 report stated that “No steps have yet been taken, owing to the lack of funds, to secure industrial training for the children and the education provided is purely literary”.
Nevertheless, the daily attendance was about 350 students, a very high figure for the time.
Four years after the school was built, a new building on the adjacent site was built for the widows and orphans of “those who perished at sea”. It was called St Mary’s Cottage and is known today as ‘The White House’ which houses the regional section of the OPW.
An 1884 report stated: “Some 30 years ago, earnest efforts were made to establish this industry by training young men and women of the Galway coast in net-making and in spinning the hemp and flax into twine for the purpose, but there remains no trace of the manufacture, which seems to have disappeared with the decline of the country and the emigration of the people for whom it had provided partial employment.” The piscatorial element of the school officially ended in 1887.
By 1892, the management of the school had been handed over to the parish. The headmaster for a time was John (known as ‘Daddy’ ) Quoyle. It is interesting that Mrs Lohan, one of the teachers, taught spoken Irish, the living language, and not ‘book Irish’. The Piscatorial School continued as a national school until 1933 when the two Claddagh schools were amalgamated into the new school which was constructed as part of the destruction and re-erection of the Claddagh village.
The Piscatorial School was then used as an employment exchange, known locally as ‘the Claddagh Bank’, until 1989. It became a training centre for Youthreach between 1993 and 2006. It was vacant until 2006 when it was sold by the Dominicans to local man Michael Gibbons. He has done a magnificent job of renovation on the building and next week, he will hand it over to a company called Rent the Runway which will have some 150 people working there by the end of the summer.
Almost 50 years ago, an old Claddagh resident told me that he remembered the statue of the fisherman up on the roof of the building. It was blown down in a violent storm and smashed into pieces. It turned out to have been made of a red chalk-like substance and he said that there was red graffiti all over the Claddagh for weeks afterwards. The one pity is that a replica of the statue could not be placed on the roof. As you can see from our photograph taken c1890, it was iconic. The drawing we show was the design for the proposed elevation of the building. It included a small bell tower with a weather-vane in the shape of a fish on top, very like the bell tower on the church at the time, but obviously, the architects changed their minds and put the statue there instead.
Our information today is taken from an excellent Archaeological and Historic Buildings report compiled by Anna Carey from Knocknacarra, and also from a pamphlet entitled Two Galway Schools in which the late Alf MacLochlainn wrote the section on the Piscatorial School.