Willbrook NS Reunion

Willbrook N.S. Reunion Gathering, 12th October, 2013.

What better year to hold a school reunion than the year of the gathering, 2013. The small rural school in the parish of Rath, Corofin, Co. Clare was located adjacent to Willbrook station on the West Clare railway line, made famous by Percy French. The first school in the parish under the state system of education was built at Creggaunboy (Willbrook) and was opened by Canon Michael O’Donovan, parish priest on 7th July, 1884. It consisted of one room until an extension was added in 1928 and the school divided into two separate classrooms. A total of one hundred and nine pupils were enrolled on the opening day. John O’Loughlin, Boula, was the first named child on the roll books. It closed its doors, due to a diminishing population, on 22nd June, 1988.

From time to time, down through the years, hints would be mooted about that a reunion should be held. This notion finally came to fruition on 12th October, 2013. Ideas were spawned, a committee comprising nine people was formed, a format was decided on and it was onwards and upwards! Meetings were held on seven consecutive weeks in the homely setting of my sister, Anne’s and brother-in-law Michael Burke’s house in Ennis. Members worked diligently through an agenda with an occasional interruption and many laughs on remembering a funny incident or Pudsy Ryan story associated with early school days.

An intensive search for the roll books proved abortive and posed a huge challenge for the committee! But no task was too great and two knowledgeable past pupils who live locally, Jack Hanrahan and John O’Loughlin, spent long nights documenting every townland in the parish of Rath and surrounding Willbrook school, naming every single family known to have resided there. It was from this invaluable list that contacts were made. The committee spread out like the tentacles of an octopus! Word of mouth was paramount. Fantastic goodwill ensued. Many locals took an amazing personal interest and were extremely generous with their time and energy in locating and contacting people who had long since left the parish. The nerve centre was a supermarket in Corofin where a very popular committee member, Sheila Organ, in the course of her working day, came in contact with many past pupils who willingly gave her names of people who wished to attend. This was a big asset in compiling numbers for the hotel. Tom Burke, from Moyhill, known in the seven parishes, served the committee well with his amazing long term memory.

Local print media, The Clare Champion, through Gerry Kennedy, local reporter, and The Clare People gave optimum coverage of the forthcoming event. Notices in the parish bulletins in Corofin and Ennistymon caught several people’s imagination also.

Many thanks to the local parish priest, Fr. Damien Nolan, who had no problem allowing a visiting priest, past pupil, Fr. Martin Griffin, to celebrate the Mass that was so vitally important. Due to exacting preparations by Kathleen Corbett and Margaret Mullins the church felt warm and welcoming with colourful floral arrangements adorning the alter. On a lovely balmy Saturday evening as the light was declining slightly, people from The U.S., The U.K., many parts of Ireland, locals and no so local assembled at Rath Church. Atmosphere was palpable, people who had not seen each other for several years, but with one common denominator, mingled together laughing, hugging, introducing, some with little trepidation that they might not recognise each other, many complimenting each other that “ they had held so well” despite the passing of time and the odd remark like “Mary”, or “Bridie, sure you never changed a bit” .

After weeks of preparation the long awaited reunion was finally happening! The Mass was moving and meaningful, the congregation feeling privileged that their very own Fr. Martin was setting the scene for a wonderful night of nostalgia. Readers, gift bearers, Eucharistic ministers, and the narrator were all past pupils. Even the Mass servers were grandchildren of past pupils. Monica Morgan, enhanced the Liturgy beautifully with her singing of most appropriate hymns. An engraved candle remembering deceased teachers and pupils was carried to the alter by Johnanna Leyden, a past pupil in her ninty-second year. Other gifts included a school photograph and an old “three-penny” catechism. The school bell was brought to the alter by Gerry, a grand-nephew of John O’Loughlin who was the first child to cross the threshold of the school in 1884. A globe representing those who made their homes in foreign parts was presented. A sod of turf reminiscent of the school fires burning, was carried by a young man, Thomas, who was one of the seven pupils present on the day the school closed and a son and grandson of the Organ family, caretakers of the school for decades. A basket of fruit, representing the picking of blackberries on the way home from school on Autumn evenings, was the final offering. Being back in the Rath Church evoked many memories, some tinged with emotion, more of happy days, like First Holy Communion day, and Christmas morning.

The candelabra, tastefully decorated with ivy, remembered by many from childhood, highlighted the pulpit area of the sanctuary magnificently. Beautiful slow airs were played at the Offertory and Communion by Pat Mullins and Brian O’Loughlin. They were joined by Caroline and Yvonne Casey, Keith O’Loughlin and Frank Ward in a joyous and uplifting rendition of jigs and reels as the congregation dispersed.

So it was on to the Falls Hotel Ennistymon, where Gerry, who carried the school bell as a gift in Rath Church, and member of The Tulla Pipe Band, in full Scottish attire, entertained the revellers with his wonderful piping. To a backdrop of the Inagh river in the still of the evening, tunes such as Clare’s Dragoons, My lovely rose of Clare, The Green Hills of Clare rang out from the steps of the hotel as the chatter of the happy punters and the click of the glamorous ladies’ heels sounded on the Liscannor stone flags. A spectacular welcome not to be forgotten!

A glass of punch and delicious finger food was served in abundance. It was a night of warm exchanges, renewing acquaintances, recalling funny stories, reminiscing, sadness at the thought of absent friends, and even suggestions of another reunion at another time. Clare sets were danced to the amazing traditional sound of the group of musicians who played in the Church, joined by All Ireland winning concertina player Conor O’Loughlin and Tony O’Loughlin. Fiddles, concert flutes, banjos, concertinas and accordeons spontaneously jelled together, producing brilliant music to the delight of the two hundred or so attendees. The gathering also enjoyed an occasional recitation as well as a few poems reflecting old school days.

People wandered in and out of the meeting room where many old photographs, dating as far back as 1934 were on display. Loud bursts of laughter could be heard as people recognised themselves in school photographs that had long been forgotten. Johanna Leyden who brought the remembrance candle to the alter was still recognisable from a pretty round faced little girl to an elegant Queen Mother like lady 79yrs on. A memory board had been set up displaying letters of apology from people who would have loved to attend but circumstances did not allow. Some put up notes of their recall of special happenings in Willbrook.

Mrs. Mary Hogan was my first teacher who nurtured me from junior infants to second class long before the days of white boards and computers. Counting coloured thread reels is still crystallised firmly in my mind! She was a kind, charismatic, motherly person who made sure the childrens’ milk bottles were lined up by the fire to be warmed for their lunches on cold, frosty, mornings. I can thank her incredible patience for my limited knitting and sewing skills today! A much-respected teacher from my school days, Mr. Pappy Cahill was well remembered. Icidentally, his son, Des is a celebrity sports presenter with R.T.E. Pappy was an innovative and forward thinking man who thought past the three R.s. Extra curricular was not a term of the time but we loved a day when he found time to teach us general knowledge. As a member of the well known Corofin Dramatic Society, he produced a one act Irish comedy, An t-Uduacht (The Will) by Mairead Ni Ghrada, for which the young Willbrook school children won The Taoiseach’s Cup in Scariff Drama Festival. The very coveted Carisle and Blake Premium Fund was awarded to him on more than one occasion. He recognised potential in many of his pupils, helping to steer them towards a career in later years. He sent four children to The Gaeltacht area of Coolea in West Cork, in the hard times of the fifties, to enhance their spoken Irish, and helped many on personal grounds.

A raffle on the door ticket created its own excitement. Winning a hamper, voucher or a splendid book,recently published, “The Parish of Corofin” by past pupil and historian, Michael McMahon would be the icing on the cake! No night of this calibre would be complete without a stipend to a charity of choice. Two donations of two hundred and fifty euro each were donated to Senior Citizens, Corofin and Pieta House.

The night was an outstanding success, beyond the wildest dreams of the hard-working committee. The thoughts that I had dreamed up when I knocked on M.J. Leyden’s door that sunny day in July and asked him for his thoughts on a reunion were well rewarded. His energy and enthusiasm never faltered. M.J. was the perfect master of ceremonies.

A wonderful reunion was celebrated by young and not so young. Mile Buiochas to people from all walks of life, who took the trouble to attend. Willbrook N.S. is still etched in the memories of hundreds from the year the G.A.A. was founded in 1884 until it closed its doors in June, 1988. A night to remember and a gathering to be remembered!

Go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo aris.
Mary Ward Browne.

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