From humble beginnings to a digital school of distinction

In 1961, Seán Keane, a parent of a child with an intellectual disability, wrote a letter to the Connacht Tribune. He was looking for what all parents want for their children, a chance for them to achieve their full potential whether they be disabled or not. He got no response, so two months later he wrote again, this time a reply to his own letter. The National Association of Mentally Handicapped in Ireland had just been established, it saw the letter and it asked the local Irish National Teachers Organisation in the shape of Mick Raftery and Mícheál McSweeney to call a meeting.

A temporary committee was established. They met regularly in the Chamber of Commerce offices. On November 26, the group held a public meeting in St Patrick’s School to form an association. Dr Brian McNicholl, a paediatrician, told the meeting that there was a complete lack of services for ‘mentally disabled’ children. The newly formed association recognised the importance of establishing a school for these children. They were undaunted by the lack of information and of proactive support. A premises for the school was proving difficult to find until a Miss Crowe offered to rent her house (named St Joseph’s ) on Newcastle Road, next door to the association’s chairman, Kevin O’Rourke. Two rooms were converted for use by the children. On January 27 1964, the school opened its doors with 12 children on the rolls. It opened for two hours in the morning.

Initially, an experienced Montessori teacher Chris Conneally was acting principal, until the Department appointed Mary McGagh to the post. She moved on after a short space of time and Chris took over again. Other members of staff were Breda Keane, Kay McGeogh, and Ann Brennan. School transport was a problem so a rota of voluntary drivers was organised by Joan McNicholl and Imelda Carroll. The goodwill among the people of Galway was becoming contagious.

In 1956, a site was purchased at Snipe Avenue from a Mr Naughton. In the beginning the school used a three-room timber dwelling constructed from second-hand prefabs. When people saw these prefabs, they thought, “Oh my God”, but once inside the buildings, “Joy was contagious”. In a few years the school expanded to a six classroom unit, with additional extensions being added. It used prefabs linked together as they were less costly and could be erected in a relatively short time. The school continued to grow in spite of less than ideal conditions.

Everything was child centred, ensuring that ‘each child’s handicap was first recognised and then, as far as possible, forgotten’. The school gradually extended its services to children throughout the county. In the early 1980s pupils started participating in the Special Olympics.

Snipe Avenue was now too small, some of the prefabs were deteriorating, conditions were crowded so a major campaign for a new school began. Several alternatives were suggested, upstairs in St Enda’s, the Holy Family School, etc, but these were all rejected and the pressure was kept up on politicians and the authorities. It worked.

In 1990 a new school was sanctioned for a site on Thomas Hynes Road and the build-up to the move to the new premises caused great excitement. “When are we moving?” Nora would ask every day, and John would ask if he could help carry the desks. The move happened in June 1993.

Since then the school has been given resources to accommodate pupils with autism, the social outreach with Coláiste Iognáid was set up, new classrooms have been added, they have become involved in activities such as science and maths awards, Green Schools, art competitions, handwriting, gardening, write a book competition, National Greenwave Project, photography, etc. The most recent award is the Digital School of Distinction, the first special school in the country to get this award.

The current enrolment is 66, with pupils aged from four to 18. The pupil to teacher ratio was 14:1 in the beginning and is now 8:1, and for pupils with autism it is 6:1. All subjects have been adapted specifically for students with special needs. The staff includes the principal, deputy principal, 11 teachers, part-time teachers in woodwork, music, and PE, 21 special needs assistants, bus escorts, caretaker, and secretary. The parents are partners in all activities. The highlight of the school year is the Christmas concert and nativity play, followed by Santa Claus’ visit organised by the Lions Club.

Ability West funds a nurse, a general assistant, physiotherapy, speech, language, and psychology as well as respite for families.

In the 50 years since the opening, St Joseph’s Special School has gone from strength to strength, providing a vital service to the community. It is a credit to the determination and perseverance of the founders, the dedication of the staff led by principals Chris Conneally and Breda Dolan, the co-operation of the parents, and the goodwill of the people of Galway. Because of cuts to multidisciplinary support services due to a reduction of HSE funding, they still need help in fundraising, and in this they are particularly grateful to groups such as The Kiltullagh Community Choir who put on a special concert for them. They also need more computers and someone who might volunteer to advise them with their IT infrastructure. On Tuesday next at 11am, St Joseph’s Special School (known to many as Snipe Avenue School ) will have its 50th anniversary celebrations, and still they manage to ensure that “the joy is contagious”. Congratulations to all concerned. Go maire sibh an chead!

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