The Irish Church Missions was the missionary wing of the United Church of England and Ireland. They were a very rich organisation and at the height of their endeavours, had an income of between £30,000 and £40,000 a year in this country alone. They first came to the west of Ireland, to Clifden, in 1849. Soon after a school was established in Galway, where a child might be given an evening meal and a night’s lodging after his attending a Bible class. They had two houses in Merchants Road, one named ‘The Dover School’.
They felt a new mission schoolhouse and dormitory were needed in Galway and through the generosity and help of Captain George Wale, who was in the Coastguard Service here at the time, the premises known as Sherwood Field Orphanage was built in 1862. It was under the superintendence of Reverend E Ellis and was given the ‘Bishop’s licence’, which meant it could be used as a place of worship. It was a boarding school and housed mainly children from Connemara, the Galway orphans being housed elsewhere in the county. They were taught (often through Irish ) reading, writing, geography, arithmetic, English grammar, and handwork, and the Bible was introduced on every possible occasion. The food consisted mainly of Indian meal and brochán, the soup that gave rise to the term ‘souper schools’. In times of famine it is hard to blame anyone who allowed their children to be proselytised in a ‘bird’s nest’ like this. Locals thought the building was haunted, and many gave it a wide berth.
It ceased to function as an orphanage about 1906, and shortly afterwards it became a recreation centre for the British army where they played cards and held musical evenings. When the British left in 1922, a caretaker named Jackson took charge of the building. In 1926 it was bought in trust by Louis O’Dea for the Knights of Columbanus.
The building was of beautiful cut stone and consisted of a church and schoolroom facing south, a dwelling house in the centre facing west — this had a porch on the west side. Behind was the refectory and upstairs the dormitories. In all there were 12 rooms.
From 1929 to 1931, the McHale Summer School was run here, organised by Fr O’Farrell SJ and Eamonn Waldron. Tomás Bán Concannon and Tomás Ó Baoill taught written and oral Irish there, and Máire and Mona Ní Scolaí taught traditional singing and dancing. At one time there were 384 pupils and they held céilis at night. In 1931 the Department of Education bought the building and on April 24, 1933, Douglas Hyde opened an all-Irish national school named Scoil Fhursa after the “laborious preacher and famous visionary” St Fursey, who was born on the island of Inchiquin on the Corrib.
There were 32 pupils on the first day, and nine more joined before the end of the school year. There were two temporary teachers from Dublin at the start, Eibhlín Ni Bhaoill and Eilis Seoighe. They were eventually joined by Bean Uí Duignan and Bean Uí Sedwards and later by Nora Ni Neachtain, Bean Uí Bhroin, Iníon Ni Bhreathnaigh, and Cáit Ni Ríordáin. This ‘mini-Ghaeltacht’ began to flourish and in the last 75 years many thousands of children have gone through the school and they are represented in every walk of life both here and abroad.
For special occasions such as First Communion, the girls wore a beautiful pleated white báinín frock with a brat (cloak ) lavishly decorated with Celtic design which was attached to one shoulder with a Celtic brooch. The school always seemed to do very well at the Feis Cheoil and at schools’ drama festivals. Today’s pupils have a very smart brown school uniform.
As they are coming to the end of their 75th year, they are celebrating this important anniversary with a coffee morning on Sunday next from 12 noon until 3pm. They are building up a collection of old school photographs and many of these will be on show. All past pupils are welcome, and their parents and their siblings, and if you have any Scoil Fhursa photographs you will be especially welcome to this nostalgia-fest, and to see how things have changed in the few years since you were there.