Stokane National School Reunion
Rural Ireland’s predicament and promise
- by Michael Cawley, 9th September, 1991
This year, 1991, Stokane N.S. proudly celebrates a hundred years of existence, three generations of service to Tullylinn and many other townlands of Castleconnor parish. This entire place belongs so much to Ireland’s rural heartland that it would be correct to say what is good or bad for the one is good or bad for the other. While the school rightly celebrates its life and achievements, many years of pure happiness, there are dark clouds on the horizon. How ironic that a Sligo man in Brussels should have cruel news for the Tullylinns and Castleconnors of Ireland in this, Stokane’s centenary year! What tractors and technology began, GATT and the E.C. will finish.
The truth is that rural community is dying. The powers-that-be know it. But they won’t say it for fear of damage it could do them. And they have little comfort to offer to the victims. On the land, incomes are low, jobs are scarce and the morale of the country people is at rock-bottom. The writing is on the wall for a way of life and a fabric of society that was secure, spiritual, satisfying and self-reliant.
The destruction of the rural way of life was begun by tractors, machines and mass production factories. These technological inventions did away with manual labour. The pride of men and women who lived and worked on the land was physical strength and stamina and skills, all of which , you could say, are redundant in today’s world, except in the artificial setting of a heritage display or a folk park. Not that machines are the enemy of humans. Quite the opposite: machines brought untold improvements in the standard of living, putting an end to poverty and the slavery of the physical struggle. The “good old days” had a bad side, and it is only a short while since they ended. Only a sadist would look for their return.
When machinery and gadgets moved into the homes and on to the farms, they hit at the root of the people’s dignity and worth because they robbed men and women of their sense of usefulness and their capacity to make a contribution.
Arts, skills and techniques, which gave people confidence and a sense of worth in society, became obsolete overnight. For example, a thatcher has no place in today’s labour force. Neither is dressmaking or home baking in big demand.
I am proud of the inheritanceTullylinn and Stokane gave me in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. Although it was different from today’s, it fitted me out to face the world. A few points about that legacy I list below because I judge them as sound, enduring, wholesome and important to the formation of a person’s soul and character, not from the worldly goods point of view, a rural inheritance was nothing to write home about. People of today probably put far too much faith in possessions.
Rural origins, I believe, are good for you, whether the land is good or bad. Especially when you are outdoors most of the time as my generation had to be, in close contact with the mysteries and workings of nature, peace comes. The feeling of wonder and thanks shields you from the twin dragons of the modern generation, boredom and depression. The territory served by Stokane School included big bogs such as Kennedy’s Hill, Annagh, Gowlaun and other place names hard to spell. What wasn’t boggy was often marshy, the arable fields are only a fraction of the total area. We doubted the capacity of our place’s bad land to give us a decent start in life. Later, we would all learn about the world at large and be thankful.
A few sensations gave particular delight, such as walking barefoot in dewy grass, a drink of cool water from the well, munching a raw turnip. Buses and cars do not allow a child pleasures like these any more. The people of my place and time had a high regard for physical work, an outlook greatly approved of by teachers and all. Apart from keeping children out of mischief, work was a welcome share in the industry of the family and neighbourhood and nation. Through the physical challenges of our situation, we have an edge over today’s people.
There were great numbers of people about in country places. Once (and if I remember rightly, only once), I saw the attendance of Stokane reach the hundred mark. It must have been daunting to teach in those conditions.
Our rurality gave us another advantage in that we tuned in readily to many of Jesus’s sayings and stories which refer to nature and farming. Of special significance in the legacy that Stokane National School handed to me were the love of learning and of spiritual things. Knowledge and intellectual effort were for more highly rated than anything, except holiness of life and the school knows quite a few stories of pupils who strove in the cause of the mind and the soul.
Ours, then, was a secure, stable, healthy, happy and total way of life. But now, all is changed. Despite its appeal, that particular order of things is dead and gone, beyond retrieval.
The danger signals are everywhere, if you have eyes to see them and the stomach to admit it. One pointer to the crisis is the fewness of the young people who want to be farmers. They can weigh up career prospects as good as the next and who can blame them for being hard-headed and practical about their choice?
In jeopardy, too, are the national schools with shrinking rolls, a result of smaller families and emigration. A good few schools of our own diocese shut their doors through amalgamation in the last few decades and, even since amalgamation, five more are down to one teacher.
For the parishes, as well, alarm bells are ringing in the migration of people to Dublin and abroad. These population shifts call for a new distribution of clergy and Church personnel in many places.
This sudden, wholesale damage to Ireland’s countryside is rightly referred to as a haemorrhage, a glaring
national school. Nevertheless, it gets little attention from politicians and leaders. The reason is that the whole revolution which was not foreseen or planned for, spells out their failure and cowardice. And although it is only fair to point their responsibilities to Government and public people in general, it is another matter altogether to come up with remedies.
How many votes would a candidate gain from highlighting unemployment, emigration and the flight from the land?
Some other indicators in the current scenario tell us that Ireland is not what it once was. If we are honest we will not deny them, although they hurt a cherished image of ourselves as a pious, pure people. For example, in recent times, there is a new breed of Irish person around: unscrupulous and hard-drinking, they are, in J. J. Lee’s word “predatory” and the only brake on their activities is the Church.
And then, is going to be the face of the “new Ireland” after the revolution? A godless, materialistic place, eager to turn its back on its own heritage, aping foreign ways? Or will it be a spiritual, God-fearing island in a hostile world, a flag-bearer of the Gospel? How will the two great rivals, the spiritual and the material, fare in their contest for the soul of Ireland? Only time will tell, of course. Nevertheless, to provoke thought and speculation about the shape of things to come, I venture a forecast on a few specific matters.
When the winds of change have blown themselves out and when the dust has settled on the country places of the nation in general, I reckon you will see: —
Firstly, viewers will rule t.v. instead of it ruling them.
Secondly, only very big farms, each specialising in but one or two crops or lines of production. The agricultural population will stabilise at a small fraction of what it now is.
Thirdly, at least one-third of existing national schools will close.
Fourthly, practising Catholics will become fewer but Church communities livelier because faith will be based a great deal more on conviction and knowledge than State favour and social pressures.
Fifthly, women will be ordained to the Priesthood.
Sixthly, the lay people will rise far more than ever to the challenge of the Gospel. Sorrow after the Church glories of the past and the low spirits because of the moral decline of today, are apt to lead us to under-estimate the spiritual capabilities of the new generation and even of God himself.
Seventhly, the Church will emerge purified, the better for having gone through the mill. It, too, like the wheatgrain, has to die in order to live.
Eighthly, that tomorrow’s people will harvest from the revolution which we are part of, will certainly be the fruits of the good and bad which you and I are planting in this, our own day.