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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (149) 24 October 2023

The Cathedral of Syracuse, in the city’s historic core on Ortigia Island, was originally a Greek Doric temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XX, 22 October 2023).

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

My reflections on the Week of Prayer for World Peace concluded on Sunday, and my reflections each morning for the rest of this week are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on a church or cathedral in Sicily;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Inside the cathedral that is built around the Temple of Athena, first built ca 530 BCE (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Cathedral of Syracuse (Duomo di Siracusa), Sicily:

The Cathedral of Syracuse (Duomo di Siracusa), the Cattedrale metropolitana della Natività di Maria Santissima, is the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Siracusa. The cathedral, in the city’s historic core on Ortigia Island, was originally a Greek Doric temple and is a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site.

Syracuse or Siracusa in Sicily is a city rich in Greek history and culture, with classical theatres, temples and other architectural sites. The 2,700-year-old city was known to the Romans as Syracusae, to the ancient Greeks as Συράκουσαι and to the mediaeval Greeks as Συρακοῦσαι, and was once one of the major powers in the Mediterranean.

The island of Ortigia was the heart of the first Greek city at Syracuse. The Fountain of Arethusa is a freshwater spring planted with papyrus and filled with bream, mullet and carp. It is said to have been described in the Delphic sayings that brought the first Greeks to the site. According to a legend, the nymph Arethusa, hunted by the river god Alpheus, took shelter there after swimming across from the Peloponnese and was changed into a fountain by Artemis.

Syracuse was the birthplace of Archimedes, who had his Eureka moment in his bath there. It was there Aeschylus saw his last plays, Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Released, staged in the Greek Theatre, Sappho and Pindar were visitors, and Plato taught there.

Syracuse was allied with Sparta and Corinth against Athens, dominated Magna Graecia, and was its most important city. By the fifth century BCE, the city equalled Athens in size. Cicero once said Syracuse was ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.’

Syracuse was founded in 734 or 733 BCE by Greek settlers from Corinth and Tenea, led by Archias. It was known as Συράκουσαι (Syrakousai), Συράκοσαι (Syrakosai), or even Συρακώ (Syrako), and may have taken its name from marsh called Syrako. The ancient city began on the small island of Ortigia, and grew to become at one time the most powerful Greek city in the Mediterranean.

When Gelo came to power in 485 BC, he expanded Syracuse, and built the new quarters of Tyche and Neapolis outside the walls. His new theatre, designed by Damocopos, gave the city a flourishing cultural life. The theatre attracted leading Greek cultural personalities, including Aeschylus, Ario of Metimma, Eumelos of Corinth and Sappho, who had been exiled from Mytilene (Lesbos).

When Gelo defeated the Carthaginians under Hamilcar at the Battle of Himera, he commemorated his victory by building a temple to Athena.

In the fifth century BCE, the walls of Syracuse enclosed a city of 120 ha (300 acres). But, by the 470s BCE, the people were building outside the city walls. By 415 BCE, the population of greater Syracuse was 250,000, the same size as Athens.

Gelo was succeeded by his brother Hieron I (478-466 BC), who was eulogised by poets and visited by Pindar.

In the late 5th century BCE, Syracuse was at war with Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars. Syracuse enlisted the aid of a general from Sparta to defeat the Athenians, destroying their ships, and leaving them to starve on the island.

In the early 4th century BCE, after preventing the Carthaginians from capturing the whole of Sicily, Dionysius the Elder (405-367 BCE) built a massive fortress on Ortigia and walls around Syracuse. He was described as ‘cruel, vindictive’ and ‘profane.’

Syracuse expanded its territories, conquering Rhegion and establishing outposts in the Adriatic, including Ancona, Adria and Issa. Dionysius was as a patron of art, and during his time Plato visited Syracuse several times.

Syracuse was engaged in successive wars with the Carthaginians until Hieron II came to power and inaugurated a period of 50 years of peace and prosperity. During his reign, the mathematician, philosopher and engineer Archimedes lived in Syracuse. His contemporaries included the writer Theocritus.

The new altar or Ara was erected and enlarged in the mid-third century BCE by Hieron II (265-215 BCE) to commemorate the liberation of the city by Timoleon. It was the biggest altar of its kind in Magna Graecia, and 450 bulls were slaughtered there at the annual Panhellenic feast.

Syracuse fell to besieging Romans, led by Marcus Claudius Marcellus, in 212 BCE. A small party of Roman soldiers scaled the walls, took control of the outer city and killed Archimedes. A captain named Moeriscus then betrayed the city and opened a gate near the Fountains of Arethusa, letting the Romans in.

Syracuse was plundered and its day of glory had passed. Under Roman rule, the decline of the city declined slowly, although it remained the capital of Sicily and an important port for trade between East and West.

The Latomia del Paradiso is a Paradise today, with a garden of citrus, oleander and bay trees. But for the slaves who worked in the quarries there, including 7,000 captured Athenians, it was their hell on earth, as they carved out the rock for temples, theatres, pillars and monuments.

One cave they carved out is known as the Orecchio di Dionisio or the ‘Ear of Dionysius’ because of its shape and its echo. The cave is 60 metres long and 20 metres high, and the legend grew that through a hole in the top of the cave Dionysius could listen to the planning and plotting of the slaves as they worked away at the rockface. However, its name is a late innovation, and was given to the cave by Caravaggio. Nearby is the grave of Archimedes.

The Teatro Greco is one of the largest and best-preserved theatres from Greek civilisation. The cavea of the theatre is one of the largest ever built by the Greeks. It has 59 rows, of which 42 remain, and is divided into nine sections with eight aisles. At one time it could seat 15,000 people.

The Apostle Paul stayed in Syracuse for three days on his way from Malta to Rome (see Acts 28: 12), and it once served briefly as the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

The imposing cathedral on the Piazza Duomo is built around the Temple of Athena, first built ca 530 BCE. The Temple of Athena was a Doric temple with six columns on the short sides and 14 on the long sides. The statue of Athena on the roof of the temple carried a golden shield that caught the glittering rays of the sun and served as a beacon for sailors on the Ionian Sea.

The first cathedral or Duomo was built in the seventh century by Bishop Zosimo incorporating the great Temple of Athena, with the temple columns used like a skeleton for the walls of the cathedral.

Under Arab rule, the cathedral became a mosque, but it became a cathedral once again when the Normans captured Syracuse. They built the roof of the nave and provided the baptism font with a marble basin, cut from a block still marked with a Greek inscription and supported by seven bronze lions.

The cathedral was rebuilt after the earthquake that devastated Sicily in 1693, and the façade was rebuilt by Andrea Palma in 1725-1753, with a double order of Corinthian columns, and statues by Ignazio Marabitti.

The cathedral is a relatively late example of the High Sicilian Baroque style. The double order of Corinthian columns on the façade provide a classic example of carved Acanthus leaves in the capitals. The full-length statues on the façade are the work of the sculptor Ignazio Marabitti.

Inside, the cathedral has a nave and two aisles, rustic walls and Baroque details. The font with a marble basin dates from the 12th or 13th century. The ciborium or altar canopy was designed by the architect Luigi Vanvitelli. The statue of the Madonna della Neve (‘Madonna of the Snow’, 1512) is by Antonello Gagini.

The Temple of Apollo on the Piazza Emanuele Pancali was the first of the great Doric temples built in Sicily. It was adapted as a church in Byzantine times and was used as a mosque when the Arabs ruled the city.

After the fall of Rome, Syracuse was recovered by the Byzantine Empire in 535, and from 663 to 668 Syracuse was the capital of the Byzantine Emperor Constans II.

The city remained the centre of Byzantine resistance to the advancing Muslim conquest of Sicily until it finally fell to the Aghlabids in 878. During two centuries of Muslim rule, the capital of Sicily was moved to Palermo, the cathedral became a mosque and Ortigia was rebuilt along Islamic styles.

The Byzantine general George Maniakes reconquered Syracuse in 1038 and sent the relics of Saint Lucy to Constantinople. The castle on the cape of Ortigia still bears his name.

Syracuse fell to the Arabs again, but in 1085, the Normans captured Syracuse after a long siege. The Normans rebuilt parts of the city and restored the cathedral and other churches.

Syracuse was struck by two earthquakes in 1542 and 1693, and a plague in 1729. After the 17th century, much of Syracuse was rebuilt in the Sicilian Baroque style. The city has a population of about 125,000 today and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The columns of the Temple of Athena provided the skeleton for the walls of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 12: 13-21 (NRSVA):

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14 But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15 And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16 Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18 Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20 But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

The Teatro Greco in Syracuse is one of the largest and best-preserved theatres from Greek civilisation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers: USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Praying for Peace.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by the Revd Tuomas Mäkipää, Chaplain of Saint Nicholas.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (24 October 2023, United Nations Day) invites us to pray in these words:

We give thanks for the United Nations and the work it does to foster international cooperation on difficult issues like trade and conflict.

The Collect:

God, the giver of life,
whose Holy Spirit wells up within your Church:
by the Spirit’s gifts equip us to live the gospel of Christ
and make us eager to do your will,
that we may share with the whole creation
the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Son, the light unfailing,
has come from heaven to deliver the world
from the darkness of ignorance:
let these holy mysteries open the eyes of our understanding
that we may know the way of life,
and walk in it without stumbling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

A cave carved by Athenian slaves is known as the ‘Orecchio di Dionisio’ or the ‘Ear of Dionysius’ because of its shape and its echo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The new altar or ‘Ara’ was erected and enlarged in the mid-third century BCE by Hieron II, was the biggest altar of its kind in Magna Graecia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)