Sunday, 21 April 2013

Grey hairs at Gormanston, grey waters at Greystones

Grey waters, grey rocks and grey sands at Greystones, Co Wicklow, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

At the end of a busy teaching weekend that came immediately after a busy working week, I went out to Greystones, Co Wicklow, this afternoon for lunch in the Happy Pear and a walk on the beach.

There were grey clouds overhead, and only a few anglers on the beach, with no-one going for a walk or a stroll. The sand and the waters were grey, and we had only reached the beach when the rain came down.

The weather vane and tower on the Carnegie Library in Greystones ... leaning to one side this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We walked back to the car, and on the way it appeared the weather vane and tower on the Carnegie Library in Greystones, dating from 1911, was leaning to one side.

We decided to drive north to Bray in the hope that the rain would ease off and that we could have a walk on the beach there.

We parked at the car park at the south end of the promenade, near the Boat House Coffee Dock. But the rain was still pouring down.

Once Spring begins, Bray is a popular venue, despite the weather (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As the evenings began to stretch out, the Dart brings many day-trippers to Bray on Saturdays and Sundays. The amusement arcades fill up, the small seafront shops are decked out beach balls and toys, and ice cream is on sale everywhere – no matter what the weather is like.

But by the time we parked the car in Bray this afternoon, parents and small children were huddling against the walls of the buildings along the promenade. It was time to give up on those hopes for a breach walk and to head home.

The water tower at Thomas Prior Hall, the former Masonic Girls’ School ... venue for the Gormanston dinner on Friday night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Earlier in the weekend, I took a break on Friday evening today to go to the annual meeting and dinner of my old school union. I do not go every year, and it is good to be surprised by who I meet when on the years I turn up.

This year’s annual Gormanston College dinner took place in the Thomas Prior Hall, part of the Bewley’s Hotel in Ballsbridge, tucked away neatly behind stunning greenery and an iconic water fountain. This hidden gem was a Masonic school from the late 19th century for almost a century, and has since been restored to its original beauty.

Bewley’s Hotel stands on the corner of Merrion Road and Simmonscourt Road in Ballsbridge, right beside the Royal Dublin Society.

The Masonic Female Orphan School was founded in 1792 to educate the daughters of deceased Freemasons. But the school expanded, a new Masonic Girls’ School was planned for Ballsbridge in the second half of the 19th century.

The school was designed by McCurdy and Mitchell, the architectural practice of John McCurdy and William Mansfield Mitchell. McCurdy and Mitchell also designed the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin; many of the buildings in Trinity College Dublin, including the Anatomical Museum, the School of Physiology, and the Chemistry Building; parts of Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham; and Lowther Lodge, north of Ballsbridge, which every schoolboy in Gormanston who went on beach walks or played beach cricket knew as “Filgate’s”.

McCurdy and Mitchell designed the new Masonic Girls’ School was designed in the Queen Anne style, and the foundation stone was laid on 24 June 1880 by Duke of Abercorn. The cost was estimated at £12,000, and the building was brought “almost to completion” by the building contractors Gahan & Son, who went bankrupt in process. The building was completed under the supervision of William Bolger and the new school opened in 1881. The final cost of building came in at just under £15,000.

The school stood on 10-acres site and as well as schoolrooms included a library, dormitories, recreation and dining areas, around two sides of a quadrangle. The school entrance was beneath a corner tower that was not merely ornamental but also contained all the works connected with the water supply of both the building and the bathrooms.

A beautiful terracotta fountain in front of the main building was bequeathed by a Mr Sawyer who was not a Mason. Inside, despite the military style order, cleanliness and sparse impressions, the rooms were airy and bright and the dormitories were cheerful. As far as possible, the fittings and furniture were made and bought in Ireland.

The large assembly hall, which was the venue for our Gormanston dinner on Friday night, stood beside the main buildings was erected 10 years after the school was completed and was used as an assembly hall for prayers and meetings. The hall still boasts ornate oak-panelled walls, stained glass windows, original mosaic tiling, a choir balcony and a vaulted wooden ceiling.

The Masonic Girls’ School continued for the next 90 years. After the school closed in 1970, the building was bought by the Royal Dublin Society and renamed Thomas Prior House after one of the founding members of the RDS.

The school was bought by the Wexford businessman Bert Allen in the late 1980s and became a Bewley’s Hotel in recent years. In 2008, the Moran Hotel Group bought all the Bewley’s hotels in Britain and Ireland.

When the Thomas Prior Hall was used for filming The Apprentice, it became a popular venue for conferences and other events. Thomas Prior Hall is now a popular conference and event venue. It has been voted both Best Wedding Venue in Dublin by Wedding Dates and Top Wedding Venue.

Gormanston Castle at the heart of Gormanston College ... the last friars have moved out of the castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Some of the first boarders who moved into Gormanston in 1954 were at the annual dinner and meeting on Friday evening.

At the meeting, we were told by Father Ailbe Ó Murchú that the last friars have moved out of Gormanston Castle, and the future of Gormanston College is now being discussed by the Department of Education and the college trustees.

Earlier in the week, the trustees issued a statement saying they have initiated a process of review and planning for the future of the college and its educational mission – how to effectively respond to the current needs of the catchment area in a viable and creative manner. They are arranging to begin detailed discussions with the Department of Education and Skills on all options available to the college, including possible entry into the “Free Scheme” as part of crafting a new future for the college.

The bell at Gormanston College ... the first schoolboys moved into the college in 1964 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Later, at dinner, I found myself seated between Tom Cannon of the class of 1964, who was in the same school year as my eldest brother (1964) and Liam McDonald (1965), whose brother and cousins had been close friends when I was living in Wexford in the mid 1970s. I raised a glass to absent friends and to the memory of those from my year who have died in 1969.

As I strolled out into the bright night on Friday, I hoped the future of Gormanston College was not the same as that of the Masonic Girls’ School. It would be sad to see Gormanston Castle becoming a wedding venue or hotel. And perhaps, I thought, I should go to next year’s dinner to celebrate the first students moving into Gormanston sixty years ago in 1954.

Vico Cottage, Strand Road, a one bedroom-cottage for sale on the Seafront in Bray, Co Wicklow, this afternoon ... the estate agents are quoting €130,000 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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