The proposed merger of St Bricin’s College in Belturbet and St Mogue’s in Bawnboy at a new school in Ballyconnell was unanimously rejected by hundreds of people in a public show of hands at a meeting on the issue in the Belturbet Townhall Civic Centre last Friday night.
The Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board (CMETB) has already sanctioned the plan for the new €15M school in west Cavan.
Arising from Friday’s meeting, a joint action committee will now be formed including representatives from both schools to drive and spearhead the campaign going forward. A meeting is also to be sought with the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh.
One the dynamic drivers of the St Bricin’s Retention Action Group, Elaine Birkett, chaired the meeting. She emphasised to the audience: “We can’t lose St Bricin’s. If we lose this school, we are losing one of the fabric pieces of our community. Once it is gone, it’s gone; it will never be coming back – that is the seriousness of this proposed amalgamation.”
She said that a representative of the CMETB had been invited to the meeting but declined to attend on the basis that they intend to engage with the communities and the parents of the first year students directly.
The St Bricin’s enrolment/open day will take place on Thursday, January 24, and it is an opportunity for parents to attend and back the school in its current location, suggests Ms Birkett.
Past students took to the stage to extol the virtues of St Bricin’s - among them Paddy Brady who went on to teach there for 27 years. “I am hoping and praying that they will never close St Bricin’s. We must fight and ask the local politicians to keep St Bricin’s open,” he said.
Fidelma Tinneny moved the audience when she suggested: “If we have €15 million available to spend on one brand new school – I tell you what – give €5million to Belturbet and €5 million to Bawnboy.”
Other speakers said it was paramount that Belturbet elect their own representative in the forthcoming local elections. It was also highlighted that the community successfully fought for the Leaving Cert Cycle to be provided in St Bricin’s in 1972.
Call to action
Urging people to get actively involved in the campaign, Ms Birkett said: "We have lost so much in this town and what did we do about it? Not a whole pile! So, if you are an agency like the CMETB – and we want to know the question to the question – why has this come out of nowhere? Why were we not consulted? If I was the ETB, I would be thinking to myself ‘they don’t really care down in Belturbet, it’s grand, we will be able to get this through. They won’t care!’.
“We need to tell them we do care. We need to ensure they have open transparent dialogue – no meetings behind closed doors. If they want to do proper stakeholder engagement, then present themselves to a meeting like this and answer the questions we all have for them. The only way that is going to happen is if we make our voices really loud.”
Fianna Fáil TD Brendan Smith was present and assured those in attendance of his support and that of his colleagues Cllr Sean Smith and Cllr John Paul Feeley. "We fight our case on the basis of no consultation; that this is not going to be accepted by the local communities," he said.
"We are totally opposed to it. We will support the communities in Bawnboy and Belturbet in their fight to retain their schools... These schools can grow and they have a huge amount to contribute to our society,” added Deputy Smith.
Making a contribution, Cllr Feeley said: “I believe there is a management issue and that management starts at the top of CMETB, John Kearney. Instead of proposing to close schools, he should be bringing forward detailed proposals as to how to enhance those schools, how to enhance the facilities in them and how to attract children to attend those schools.
“I fully support this campaign and the retention of these two schools and the need for further investment in them. What has happened by the ETB and by some people, undermining these schools and the facilities in them and the services they provide is disgraceful. They need support; they need further investment; they most certainly do not need closure.”
Most ominous threat
A former teacher in St Bricin’s, P.J. Bane told the meeting “there is no doubt this is the most ominous threat that Belturbet and Bawnboy has ever suffered”.
He suggested that "parent power" would win over the Department on this issue.
Liam Darcy, another former teacher in the school, told the meeting that St Bricin’s had produced entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors and vets.
He remarked that the urban area of Belturbet was "not a good supporter of the school” and said numbers needed to be improved.
“The students are there – they are going to the schools outside the area. Get the students in and there won’t be a problem,” said Mr Darcy.
Former strident Belturbet Town Councillor Seamus Fitzpatrick said what was required was “a reverse takeover. I don’t think it is wise to spend €15 million in Ballyconnell. Why not spend €5 million in Belturbet and €5 million in Bawnboy and let Belturbet progress the way it could and will?
“I am sick, sore and tired watching stuff go from here to Ballyconnell – the Social Welfare Office went; the County Council Office went; the dump went; the bank went; the health centre was built in Ballyconnell; the courts went, as did the Credit Union. When you ring Belturbet Garda Station, you get Ballyconnell!
“If St Bricin’s Closes, the guts and heart will be taken out of this community – where did the big clamour come from for a school in Ballyconnell?” he asked.
“What the ETB is doing now by proposing the new college for Ballyconnell, is rubbing more grease to the fat pig’s arse,” added Mr Fitzpatrick.
Martin Vesey, a parent representative on the St Bricin’s Board of Management, said that the Chief Executive of the CMETB, John Kearney, showed a lovely video of two schools being amalgamated in Clones. "I asked him at the end of the video, ‘how far apart were those two schools?’ He said ‘500 metres’. I said ours ‘were 15 miles apart – so it did not make much sense of showing a video of Clones!’
“There was no support for me – everybody nodded. It was a great idea –principals, everybody else”.
Petition in Bawnboy
Cllr Sean Smith revealed that a petition in Bawnboy already has in the region of 3,000 signatures.
“Here we have a local State agency doing this. We could blame politicians in Dublin; we cannot do that in this case. It is the local politicians in Cavan and Monaghan who decided to take this on board and proposed this dramatic and devastating attempt on our rural communities. Belturbet has been devastated – it is time now to stand up and be counted. It is our job to be with you; you can rest on our support – I hope we are successful,” said Cllr Smith.
Sinn Féin’s Damien Brady, who is a member of the ETB, clarified his own position. He said he had pushed the ETB on badly-needed extensions at St Bricin’s and St Mogue’s and the answer was “no”.
“When I then asked what was the story now, the CMETB said they were going to spend €15 million on a state-of-the-art school in Ballyconnell and that was one of the reasons, I suppose, I got behind it”.
Emmet Smith, from the People Before Profit Party said: “This is a fight-back against the CMETB and the policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and this policy is the strangulation of rural Ireland.
“They are amalgamating schools and closing down small towns in rural Ireland.”
To a thunderous round of applause, Ms Birkett declared: “We will keep fighting this and we will not let our schools close!”