Education and The Struggle to Survive

Dr. Vivian M. Timon

“Ní h’iad na fir mhóra a bhaineann an fómhar”

Evolution of National School Education

Ireland in the nineteenth century and indeed in the early part of the twentieth century was an extremely poor country. The West of Ireland, as described in Young’s Tour of Ireland, was exceptionally poor. The people of North Roscommon and in particular the families in the Parish of Fairymount (historically, the Parish of Tibohine), and in the villages adjacent to The Don National School, had very few resources. They were forced to eek out a subsistence living on very small farms and on land that was very limited in its capacity to grow crops; the nature of the soil (very wet heavy clay and peaty soils) and high rainfall limited these farms to the rearing of young cattle and growing a few ridges of potatoes, cabbage, swede turnips and onions. Most households raised hens (for eggs) and chickens and some fed a pig or two on the household waste. Potatoes were the staple diet of most families at this time. This was very painfully evident when in the years, 1845 – 47, the potato blight wrought a major famine across Ireland and in particular on the people of Connaught. More than one million people died and as many more took to the emigrant ships. National Population Census data show that the population of the Fairymount/Tibohine parish fell by more that 30 % in the years 1841 to 1851. Painful memories of 24 hour (night and day) burials of the dead in the old cemetery in Tibohine have been compiled and are recorded in the records of the Irish Folklore Commission. Little wonder that the ‘banshee’ would feature strongly in the old Irish stories and poems that Douglas Hyde collected in this area some years later, such as:

Dúirt bean liom go ndhúirt bean léi,

Go ndhúirt bean eile gur inis bean dí,

Go bhfaca sí bean ag bun na sceithe,

Agus bean nár bean acht sí bhean í.

As families struggled with ever-present poverty and the still vivid memories of the famine, aggravated by political domination and neglect, they began to realise that education was their only passport to survival – albeit a survival that was to entail the hardships and uncertainties of emigration for many of them. They were a very resourceful people meeting adversity and hardship with resilience and courage. Memories of the Penal Days when they were deprived of rights to property, education and political representation were also still vivid in their minds. To their great credit, an inherent appreciation and respect for knowledge and learning (an old Celtic tradition, kept alive through the Hedge Schools because of and despite political repression), quickly resurfaced once the Government and the Churches finally began to agree and implement a National Education Policy over the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

Building Schools

It was against this background that the old Don National School was first established in 1866. Some very considerable progress followed Government First Secretary, Edward G. Stanley’s establishment in 1831 of a Board of Commissioners to launch and direct a non-denominational national education system across Ireland. However, it took more than five decades of debate and confrontation between the Catholic and Protestant Churches and the Establishment to agree a ‘modus operandum’ in which to advance and manage the National School System. Certainly, significant progress was made in the school building programme. In 1836, with a population of almost eight million people, Ireland had only 1,300 schools, whereas fifty years later with a population of less than five million, there were 8,034 schools. The number of pupils attending Primary Schools rose from 475,559 in 1841 to 636,777 in 1901, albeit the population had almost halved.

However, many of the schools built in that period were of very poor quality. Records of schools such as the old Don National School in the 1870 – 80’s testify to this. For the most part, these schools were mud-walled, earthen-floored and thatched-roofed cabins. Little wonder that an Inspector, visiting the old Don School some years later, reported that the building was in such a very bad state, being cold, wet and damp and the children so cold and miserable that he sent them home. The initial building grants from the Board were very small and funding from Local Councils very irregular or non-existent. Some schools were vested in trust under the patronage of the local landlord: for example, the Don National Schools in Cortoon and in Cloonboniffe were built under the patronage of Charles Owen, The O’Conor Don, whose family home was at Cloonalis, outside Castlerea. However, the levels of financial support were very small. Funds for maintenance, usually administrated by the local Parish Priest, were paltry or non-existent and often the teachers had to repair and maintain the schools themselves. The pupils and their families had to supply the school with turf – a tradition that lasted in the area right up to the 1960’s. No doubt, the families around Cortoon felt much relief in 1904 when the old Don School was replaced with the present much more substantial stone and concrete building.

Teachers – Teacher Training

When the National School initiative was launched in 1831 there was a serious shortage of trained teachers. As with the school development programme, a prolonged confrontation developed between the Board of Governors and the main Churches as to the ethos and nature (denominational or secular) of teacher training. Initially, the Board initiated a three month (some years later to be extended to a two year course at Marlborough Street, Dublin) teacher training programme, mainly in the use of school books – the philosophy underlying this training programme was that teachers would be trained in communication and pedagogic skills but would not necessarily be knowledgeable themselves in the subjects they taught. “Teach what we instruct you to teach” was the order of the day.

The Teacher Training Ethos

Quite clearly, this teacher-training ethos was at total odds with the Irish tradition of teaching in earlier times and in the hedge schools, when teachers, often self taught, were competent in mathematics, engineering, languages (including Latin and Greek), philosophy and politics, such that Goldsmith would write: – “ And still they gazed and still the wonder grew that one small head could carry all he knew”. However, it was a deliberate policy on the part of the Government as it was feared that, in the aftermath of Catholic emancipation, well educated teachers might pose a threat to the establishment as leaders in their community. Certainly, records show that a number of teachers were taken to task by the Schools Inspectorate when and where they stepped outside the establishment line.

As the debate and disagreements on teacher training between the Churches and the Establishment continued and as the shortage of trained teachers became more acute two further teacher-training initiatives were launched. The Board decided to establish a ‘model’ school in each county as a teacher training centre and to introduce a system of “paid monitors”- a teacher support and training system that perhaps is best described in modern day terms as a ‘teacher-training apprenticeship programme’. The ‘Paid Monitor System’ is credited to an Englishman, Mr Lancaster, who promoted the system as a means of increasing the teaching capacity of fully trained teachers. After some years when the Board faced financial and political difficulties in establishing a sufficient number of ‘model’ schools across the country, the practice of training teachers ‘in-situ’ in the National Schools evolved. The Monitor system seems to have developed as follows:

The role of Monitors

Bright pupils in their 7th/8th year in school were identified and introduced to the system. For the first few years their main role was to assist the trained teacher such that he or she could teach a class of at least sixty pupils. The unique role of the Monitor was to stand in the corner of the classroom, behind a semicircle of brass studs around which the pupils would stand, and he or she would read and repeatedly read a particular lesson (e.g., mathematics tables) until the pupils could recite them by rote. Recently removed, those brass markings on the floor in the corner of the Master’s room in the Don School, bore testimony to this practice. Monitors were required to continue their ‘apprenticeship’ for four or more years during which time they sat examinations set and adjudicated on by the Schools Inspectorate and incrementally take on more demanding teaching assignments. They also attended specifically relevant short-term training courses as and when available. In this apprenticeship process, the ambitious and successful Monitor would graduate to Assistant Teacher and ultimately to Teacher, and indeed Principal Teacher. Later when formal Teacher Training Schools were established (Saint Patrick’s Training College, for boys and Carysfort College, for girls) in 1883, many of these monitor-trained teachers underwent a further two-year Teacher Diploma training so as to be recognised as fully qualified National School teachers at the turn of the century.

The Townlands Of Fairymount/Tibohine Parish


Attendance at ‘The Don National School’

In general, the families in the townlands of Carrowgarife, Lissergool, Cloonfad (some families), Cortoon (Cartron More), Buckhill, Aghacurreen, Moyne, and Barnacawley (some families) sent their children to The Don National School.

The National School Teacher – Role and Reward

As the door of the new Don National School was officially opened in 1904 – an impressive building (the current school) for its time – it might have been presumed that the role and functions of the National School Teacher were well defined. However, this was far from the truth. On the one hand, the teaching syllabus and the consequent training-learning demands on the teacher were changing almost yearly while the status and remuneration of teachers remained at a very low ebb. The only consistent feature throughout the evolution of a relevant syllabus for national school education in the nineteenth century was the primacy of the “Three R’s”, viz., Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, underpinned by a strong emphasis on English. It should be noted that the teaching of Irish was, for several decades, forbidden and when later and reluctantly accepted, particularly in the twelve Western counties, it was given little status by the Board and its Inspectorate. In 1900, its use was permitted as a medium of teaching English and later it was grudgingly allowed as an ‘extra’ subject’.

In an ever-changing curriculum, a range of subjects was foisted on the teachers and pupils alike, almost, it would seem at the whim of the Board and the Inspectorate. These included at an early stage, the Theory of Agriculture (later to be replaced by Nature Studies in 1907 and by Rural Science and Horticulture in 1912), Woodwork, Drawing, Singing, Drill and Physical Education for Boys, and Cookery, Laundry and Domestic Economy for Girls. Strangely, history and geography were only introduced into the curriculum in 1909. It took some seventeen years after the new Don National School was opened before the Government recognized in 1921 the Irish National Teachers Organization’s (INTO) concerns at the “overloading” of the National School Curriculum.

The Government’s scant regard for the role of the National School Teacher was also evident in the salaries that they received. In the early development of the National School programme, teachers were paid a very paltry sum from the Board on the understanding that the pupils’ families would supplement the teacher’s income with a fee. This resulted in many teachers having to find other work simply to survive. In 1872, an ill thought-out system of “payment by results” was introduced by Sir Patrick Keenan on the recommendations of the ‘Powis Commission’ but this was dropped some years later. By 1900, as the new Don School was being built, teacher salary scales for men were as little as £56 per annum at the entry grade increasing to £139 at the top of the scale; women teachers received considerably less. However, the role of the National School teacher began to change significantly following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Salary remuneration may not have improved as teachers would have wished, but the role of the teacher in the community did change. The National School Teacher now became accepted as a respected and valuable member of the community and usually was willing to provide help and support to the people, as and wherever they could. The age-old Gaelic tradition of the teacher, with a love of learning and knowledge and a desire (vocation) to teach, was soon to re-emerge. This desire was further embellished by a new set of aspirations and hope that characterised the Ireland of the Irish Free State, post 1922.

The Don School and The Timon Family.

The Don National School strikes at the heart and soul of many families in the townlands of Cortoonmore, Lissergool, Cloonfad, Aghacurreen, Buckhill, Moyne and Barnacawley. Perhaps, none more so than the Timon family from Tibohine and Lissergool that has been involved in national school teaching for the best part of two centuries, and in particular with the Don National School from the very beginning. In the aftermath of the famine, a particular interest in learning and teaching became apparent in the family of Michael Timon and Mary Mc Dermott in Tibohine. Four of their children born in the 1860’s and 70’s became teachers, a remarkable achievement for a family that had to survive on 13 acres of land. The oldest son, Patrick (born in 1863), initially trained as a Monitor in Tibohine National School (1878) and later taught in Killala, Co. Mayo where he later became School Principal. In 1888, he entered the newly opened – Saint Patrick’s Training College, Dublin, as its first student on the Roll Book. On completing the 2-year Teacher Diploma, he was appointed as Principal Teacher in the Don School on the 1st November 1889. His younger brother, Michael, followed in his footsteps some seven years later and after completing his Teaching Diploma, moved to Westmeath, as Principal of Multifarnham National School.

Two of Patrick Timon’s sisters also trained as National School teachers. Winifred, who taught in The Don School initially as a Monitor and Assistant teacher, later returned as a fully qualified teacher to the new Don Girls School in 1905. Her older sister Catherine also trained and taught in Tibohine Girls School and shortly after completing her Teaching Diploma at Carysfort College in 1900, moved to teach in Kilkenny. However, the Timon link with the Don School does not end there. Patrick Timon, as the new Principal teacher in the Don School, married Margaret Gallagher from Lissergool – the Gallagher’s were also a family with strong interest in education. Margaret’s father Patrick studied engineering at Durham University in England and at this time worked as a Surveyor with The Ordinance Survey Office of Ireland. Her brother, Patrick Thomas Gallagher, initially taught as a Monitor (1893) and Assistant Teacher in the Don School and later, after completing the 2-year Teacher Diploma course in Saint Patrick’s College, Dublin, in 1898, he taught as Principal of the Christian Brothers School, Westland Row, Dublin, until he retired in the 1950’s.

The next Timon to teach in the Don National School was my father, Pádhraig Ó Tiomáin (later to become known as Master Timon), son of the then Master Patrick Timon and Margaret Gallagher. He graduated as a National School Teacher in Saint Patrick’s College, Dublin in 1927. He taught in Carraroe National School, Connemara, Galway, for two years. On the retirement of his father, he was appointed Principal of The Don National School in 1929, a position he held until he transferred to become Principal of Fairymount National School, some thirty three years later. The Timon link with the Don School thickens even deeper at this stage. In his early years as Principal of The Don National School, Pádhraig Ó Tiomáin worked alongside Mrs Anne Sherlock (nee Dillon) who was the then principal teacher of The Don Girls School. On marrying her daughter, May Sherlock (my mother), a former pupil of The Don School, and now a recently trained National School Teacher in Fairymount, a further Timon was added to the National School Teaching profession. Nor was I to know that when I briefly taught (three weeks) as a substitute teacher in The Don National School many years later in 1954, I would be the ninth member of the Timon family to savour the pleasure and rewards of teaching in the Don School.

But I have many other pleasant memories of the Don school when as a student of Saint Nathy’s College, with longer holidays that the national schools, I would visit the school to meet up with my father. The quiet interest-to-learn atmosphere in the school and gentleness of the pupils stick out in my mind to this day. I feel very honoured and happy that I had that brief exposure to and experience of the Don School – an experience of a calm and relaxed school where teacher and pupil were working together. When I visited the school recently, I just knew it hadn’t changed. I just know that my grand father and my father would be so happy and so proud of the school to day as it celebrates its 100th Anniversary. It is a signal tribute to the families of the area and especially to the current Principal of The Don School, the School Management and the Teachers.

Comhghairdeas agus gach dea-mhian don Scoil – An Donn.


Atkinson, Norman, 1969. Irish Education – A History of Educational Institutions. Allen Figis & Co. Dublin, 1969.

Dowling, Patrick, J. 1971. A History of Irish Education – A Study of Conflicting Loyalties. The Mercier Press. Cork. 1971.

Durcan, Thomas, J. 1972. History of Irish Education from 1800 – With special reference to Manual Instruction. Dragon Books, North Wales. 1972.

McElligott, T, J. 1996. Education in Ireland. Institute of Public Administration, Dublin, 1966.

O’ Buachalla, Seamus.1988. Education Policy in Twentieth Century Ireland. Wolfhound Press.1988.

Young, Arthur, (1790). A tour of Ireland with General Observations on the Present State of that Kingdom made in the Years 1776, 1777 and 1778. Edited with introduction and notes by Arthur Wollaston Hutton, George Bell and Sons, London, 1892.

Author: Vivian Timon

My name is Dr. Vivian Timon. I am a scientist by training and have worked in AN Foras Taluntais, Ireland, first as a scientist and then as Assistant Director. I spent two years in North Carolina State University as Professor of Genetics. Later I joined The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and ended my 15-year career there as Senior Advisor, Science & Technology. In the year 2000, on retirement, I took a keen interest in Genealogy and Gaelic studies and went back to University (NUIG) to study the Gaelic language. During the past few years, I have built a Timon Family Tree now embracing over 1400 persons over more than 10 generations and published several articles relating to Genealogy and the History of the Timon Family in Irish and in English.

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