From bare necessities to best facilities
Holy Family School hosts concert and celebrations to officially open new premises
'We have the best facilities, the very best facilities. Our school has really set us up for life," sang the senior pupils with gusto as Holy Family celebrated the official opening of its impressive new school building.
The accuracy of the pupils' proud claim was clear to the hundreds gathered on Wednesday morning in the Cootehill school's hall, including Education Minister Norma Foley and Minister Heather Humphreys, and a host of other dignitaries. Despite being in full time use since September, the building retains the sheen of an unwrapped present. It's stunning.
The €13m price tag bought 26 classrooms spread over over three blocks, a home economics room, craft room, physiotherapy room, library and a spacious assembly hall which hosted Wednesday's celebrations. Outside there's wonderful all weather sports and games facilities for the pupils to enjoy.
The fact that the Best Facilities lyrics were sung by the pupils to the tune of The Jungle Book's Bare Necessities was also apt.
The school was founded in the 1960s by a small group of trailblazing volunteers in Carrickmacross but didn't remain there for long. Quickly earmarked by the Department of Education as a hub for both counties Monaghan and Cavan, it was relocated to more central Cootehill almost 50 years ago.
Catherine Moynagh was one of three teachers employed by Holy Family, along with the first principal Mary McMahon when it first opened in Cootehill on September 10, 1973. She recalls that education for children with learning disabilities was then a relatively new concept. For parents to entrust their children with the school was a big decision - yet 23 did that first year.
"I remember one parent telling me, when she put her child on the minibus to come to school, they got in the car and followed the bus and came right to the school and watched through the classroom window to see how their child was being treated, and that the child was happy. You can understand the anxiety," says Catherine.
While the school premises in 1973 was a new-build, over the decades a combination of lack of government investment in maintenance, and continual growth in demand for class places meant that, in recent decades, it fell well short of even the bare necessities.
Catherine eventually succeeded became the principal at Holy Family, and while the commitment to the highest quality of teaching was adhered to, she recalls the struggles they endured.
"The numbers grew and we had to use every space we had, for example there was a store room for PE, that ended up being a classroom, there were classrooms in corridors. It was our motto that you didn't say no to anybody, you made room as far as possible until it just ran out. And then we took on the White Star in town and rented it for a number of years."
Rachel, who will have taught in the school for 20 years come September, and succeeded Catherine as principal eight years ago, shares those dreadful memories. She recalls a paramedic room being converted to a classroom.
"I remember welcoming children in September into a tiny little room and parents crying when seeing where their children were going to be. But once the children were in and settled they realised it wasn't the building - it was all that went on in the building. But it was very tough for parents way back then."
Richard Stafford was one of the parents who was considering enrolling his daughter Rachel in the school a decade ago.
"It was a bit of a shock when we arrived at the school. I walked in the door and it wasn't quite what I was expecting. You have dreams for your kids, you want to make sure they get the best, to give them a great foundation for life. We walked into the school which looked a little bit shaky to say the least," he recalled.
Shaky was a tactful way of describing it. That Richard nevertheless decided to enrol his daughter to Holy Family speaks volumes of the passion with which the staff approach their vocation.
"Very quickly we realised once we started talking to the staff, while the physical building might not be in great shape, the soul was incredible."
In the background Catherine, the staff, the Board of Management and parents had already begun their campaigning, working with the Department, advocating for a new purpose built school. Richard noted there was a time around 2013 when the parents decided it was imperative action on a new school was taken.
"It was a challenge to get through each winter, to see would the school still be standing by January, things were that bad," said Richard of the state of decay.
They lobbied all the TDs, the Department, everyone they could and as Dr Rory O'Hanlon - a driving force behind the original school - said everyone began "rowing in the same direction". In 2015 there was a commitment to a new building.
All of the speakers were in awe of the work Rachel put in to project manage the new build and moves to temporary accommodation while the construction was undertaken. She was eager to point out that many people made the ambitious project become a reality.
"When Catherine talked about retiring and going, I wanted to make sure Catherine's vision was carried on. I'm principal now eight years, and even before that Catherine and Isabel (Lord) had been fighting hard to get the building," said Rachel.
It seems all the tough times were worth it.
"Never in our wildest dreams could we have envisaged the facilities that we find ourselves with today," said Rachel. "The building is now a focal point of our community, a place of learning, an excellent facility which no other school can compare to."
Catherine's delight too when speaking to the Celt was obvious.
"I was emotional coming through the door today, it was just wonderful," she marvels.
With the children's performances and interaction, taking guests for tours of the school, Wednesday's official opening stood as an amazing testament to how Holy Family is empowering its pupils and helping them to meet their potential.
Richard now reflects on "what a great decision we made" in enrolling his daughter Rachel at Holy Family.
"Unless you are a parent, or a member of staff or a pupil, you don't truly understand the difference and the impact that this school makes on people's lives," said Richard trying to regain his composure. "It's quite extraordinary."
And now they have the facilities to match. The very best facilities.
"The skills they learn are not always measurable," said Principal Rachel Moynagh of the Holy Family pupils. "The pupils learn to cope and to adapt to their own situation, they learn to deal with the challenges that life puts in their way, and more importantly they learn to take the opportunities that life presents to play a full and active part in society. they are the heart of our school, they are what makes us unique."