THE new Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Kieran O’Reilly, says the Government should look at innovative ways of safeguarding the future of small rural national schools in Clare.
Archbishop O’Reilly, who will remain on as administrator of the Killaloe Diocese until he is installed as Archbishop in Thurles next February, believes the Department of Education should be flexible in its approach to the retention of two-teacher and small rural schools.
In an interview with The Clare Champion, he said the Government shouldn’t operate a one-size-fits-all strategy, which may work in the east of the country but would be out of place in the West of Ireland.
“The Government has to adapt and adjust to social and demographic realities. I think we must always keep the importance of small rural schools on the agenda. Every voice in a local area must support our education system and the values it hands down to our children.
“We all have to keep our eyes very closely on this issue. When a national school closes down, the social fabric begins to disintegrate, which has to be protected in the interest of children living in local communities.
“I found a tremendous school system in very quiet corners of the diocese,” he said.
At the official opening of the new Ennis National School earlier this year, Archbishop O’Reilly voiced his concern publicly about the retention of small schools in the presence of former Education Minister, Ruairí Quinn, and urged him to apply a degree of flexibility.
He said all options should be examined, such as amalgamations with the direct input and consultation of the local community, before any drastic action is taken to close a small rural school.
Acknowledging that a number of successful education appeals were made by the diocese to the Department of Education, he said while the department has listened in these cases, the demographic movement of population to the east of the country would continue, unless local communities were protected.
Having visited the schools and witnessed their fantastic work, he is opposed to large rural areas being left without the vital role played by a local national school.
“If a national school closes down, the local GAA team goes, the local social gatherings go. It only struck me when I went into schools, how much part of the life of a community the school plays.
“It is a terrible thing if a school goes. It is like a deserted village. It takes all the good out of life. People need to keep this on the agenda. People must articulate what is central to local life and the values of a local community.
“We are working with the department and I am not against the department. I accept we have to be reasonable with demographic movements. But we must do everything we can to ensure this part of social fabric is upheld.”
He said visiting the primary schools in the Killaloe Diocese was one of his highlights of his four-and-a-half-year term.
“It is a pity I am leaving Killaloe. I really got to like the place a lot and the people were fabulous. Priests in Killaloe were wonderful to work with. I was getting very used to going into parishes and recognising people in the congregation and knowing people around the church.