24 October 2023

My old school in
Gormanston plans
a new build that is
more than a facelift

The school buildings at Gormanston College are typical of mid-1950s architecture … are they about to go? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am like anyone and everyone who went to school in Ireland, I imagine, having regular dreams in which I dread looming ‘Leaving Cert’ exams, in my case in Irish, Maths and Science.

Despite my parents’ best efforts to bring my Irish up to scratch, including sending me for a month in the Kerry Gaeltacht in Ballinskelligs, I managed to scrape through barely with a pass on a pass paper in Irish. Precocious teenager that I was, I had learned more about French kissing than Irish grammar that summer in the mid-1960s.

Despite my eldest brother’s best efforts to bring my Maths up to scratch – he was six years ahead of me in Gormanston and studied maths at UCG, UCD and then at PhD level in Duke University, North Caroline – I managed to scrape through with a bare pass on a pass paper. I still wonder whether I am barely functional when it comes to numeracy skills.

Despite everyone’s best efforts to bring my science up to scratch – although there was no music at home, not even a record player, there were a number of chemistry sets – I managed to scrape through with a flimsy pass on a pass paper that combined both chemistry and physics. I still remember the poor benighted science teacher who asked me to leave the lab when I turned up wearing a poppy in my jacket in November and when I compounded his exasperation by my failure to grasp what he was saying about the periodic table.

I had been in the A stream throughout primary school. By the time I was sitting the ‘Leaving Cert’ I had slipped back to the C stream, and was taking some subjects in the D stream. My teachers seemed to have more confidence in my potential than I showed at exam time. Had there been exams in drama or debating, say, I might have left school with more than two honours (the equivalent of two A Levels). I console myself that English and Geography represent one arts and one science subject, but who counts up an additional six passes?

I still have dystopian dreams about missing classes and failing exams (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I still have occasional dreams – perhaps everyone else does too – in which I fret about not having prepared adequately for those end-of-school exams. Irish was compulsory in schools in those days, and a fail mark meant failing the whole gamut of exams that year. To fail maths would have been an embarrassment for my brother who had tried but failed to coach me in his chosen subject.

I got a summer job with an insurance company in Dublin when I finished the exams that year. Failure would mean going back to school to repeat another year. When I rang the school to hear my results, my favourite teacher told me assuringly that my results were good enough (as thy were in those days) to get into university and to do anything except medicine or dentistry.

But in recurring dreams, I still find myself running along the school corridors in Gormanston, barging into the wrong classroom, or feeling numbed by the realisation of the consequences of missing yet another Irish class because I have let time flit away in the art room or the music room.

With my 6C stream on the main steps at Gormanston in 1969

Now, it seems, those classrooms, science labs, art rooms, music rooms, even the school chapel and the sports pavilions are to be no more. Am I going to have to change the locations in those dreams, or are they too indelibly etched in the caverns of my mind and in memories that have been consolidated over more than half a century?

All those questions surface now that I hear that the go-ahead has been given for a new school building at Gormanston College after an appeal against the decision of Meath County Council to grant permission was rejected by An Bord Pleanála.

When I was there, Gormanston was a private, fee-paying boarding school with about 400 boys aged from 12 to 18. The facilities included a school chapel, a language laboratory, music rooms and art rooms, football pitches, athletic tracks, ball alleys, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a gym, a theatre, a sports pavilion and a nine-hole golf course.

Few of us probably realised in the 1960s how privileged we were. Yet most of us probably realised we were part of the next generation of leadership in many fields of Irish life, including business, politics, the arts, public administration, agriculture, sport, journalism, medicine and academic and church life. Many of my year still keep in touch through a What’s App group.

The school was built beside Gormanston Castle in the mid-1950s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The main school building beside Gormanston Castle is a protected structure, built in 1956 in cast iron and concrete in a style that is typical of the mid-20th century. It is a multiple-bay, four-storey school, built around two central courtyards inspired by English public schools or the courts or quads of a university college. The two-storey projecting granite framed entrance, where we stood on the steps for class and year photographs, is an imposing and interesting feature with the steps leading up to the timber panelled double doors set in glazed entrance.

The design and detail of the sports pavilion, with its clock tower and the viewing gallery overlooking the playing fields, was also built ca 1956 and it too is said to be representative of architectural design in the mid-20th century.

The school chapel is said to have been inspired by Coventry Cathedral, which was being built at the same time. The details include the breakfront entrance, the angled concrete panels and windows, the stained glass windows and the etched glazed doors, all making it a mini-replica of Sir Basil Spence’s cathedral in Coventry.

The school chapel is said to have been inspired by Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first boarders arrived at Gormanston Castle in 1954 and the new college officially opened in 1956. My brother arrived at Gormanston as a schoolboy in 1959 and I followed in the 1960s. We were happy there, but we were never there at the same time.

. On the night before 1 April 1969, some of my year group climbed the water tower by one of the ball alleys and hung an effigy for all the school community to see on waking the next morning. The whole escapade was shrouded in secrecy and the instigators of the prank remain unnamed.

A lot has changed since then. The school moved from being a fee-paying school to the free school scheme in 2014, and today Gormanston is a state-run co-educational school under the patronage of the Franciscan order, catering for 430 pupils.

Change has also meant progress, but now the school’s board of management says the existing 1950s school buildings is not ‘suitable for continued use as a school. The existing building is no longer fit for purpose.’

It is planning new school buildings, and wants to build a state-of-the-art, purpose-built school that can cater for up to 1,000 pupils. The new two-storey, 37-classroom building with a total floor area of 10,753 sq m is to be built on the opposite side of the road to Gormanston College and Gormanston Castle.

The local newspaper, the Drogheda Independent, reported last month that the plans include a general-purpose hall, a multi-use hall, a special needs unit, library, staff rooms and photovoltaic roof panels. There are plans too for three grass sports pitches, five hard surface ball courts, outdoor seating and breakout areas, a sensory garden, a tech yard, new landscaping, 96 car parking spaces and 360 cycle parking spaces.

What changes are ringing for the future of the school buildings in Gormanston? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The planning application coincides with the transfer of ownership of the school’s proposed new site from the Franciscans to the Educena Foundation, in anticipation of a new school becoming built. The school does not own the site of the existing school, and instead is a long-term tenant. The redevelopment and refurbishment of the existing school is complicated by the fact that Gormanston Castle and the school buildings are protected structures

A resident of Gormanston who appealed the county council’s decision to An Bord Pleanála claimed the existing school building ‘would be permanently used to house refugees, which would double the population of Gormanston.’

However, the school board points out that the preliminary surveys and assessments of the site ‘were carried out in 2021, which pre-dates the invasion of Ukraine.’ They say ‘this matter is of no relevance to the assessment of the development.’

I have no idea what the future holds for those buildings that I can recall in detail in my dreams, including the classrooms, the study halls, the dormitories, the refectory, the corridors, the staircases and the school chapel.

One Lord Gormanston is said to have created the sculpted yew walk as a triangular-shaped cloister to appease his daughter and dissuade her from becoming a nun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As schoolboys we dared each other to listen at night for the baying of foxes on the lawn in front of the castle that was said to precede the death of a memberf of the Preston family. The supersition gave its name to the student-produced magazine, Tally-Ho!

What is going to happen to the trees lining Cromwell’s Avenue or the cloister-like yew walks where we were forbidden to go for fear we set them alight while smoking?

What does the future hold for the monks’ graveyard or the once carefully tended and manicured greens of the golf course?

But, perhaps, the 1950s buildings, including the dormitories, class rooms and refectory, could provide ideal accommodation for Ukrainian refugee families. It would fit in with the Franciscan values that have been at the heart of the school for decades.

I can just imagine a future generation of Ukrainians having recurring dystopian dreams, running through those corridors, anxious about missing classes and worried that they are going to fail their final exams in science, maths – or even Irish.

The stained glass in the college chapel … inspired by the glass in Coventry Cathedrsl (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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