Kieran Mc Feely 13th August 1987 by Tom Deeney
Mr McFeely taught in the Shantallow primary in school and later on was principal of Pennyburn school.
I arrived in the Shantallow school around about the start of 1950, the enrolment at that stage would have been in the low 200s about 220-230. The building itself was appalling. I had worked for 3 years after coming out of training in the Abbey in Newry which at that stage was probably the most up to date primary school in N Ireland. It had been completed in 1939, a matter of weeks before the war broke out and of course there was no more school building done during the war. Pennyburn school which replaced the old Shantallow school was the first primary school to be built in Derry after the war.
I had never seen the old Shantallow school, and I remember being horrified when I arrived in the school. There were dry lavatories, the school was heated by fires which the children had to light. There were 5 teachers: myself, Mr Dermott McDermott, the principal; Miss Cassie Coyle, the vice principal and she was the aunt of Mr Jim Quinn; the other 2 teachers were Mrs McGuinness who lived at Maybrook House on the Buncrana Road and Miss Kathleen McGettigan, now Mrs Kathleen Morrison. There was no running water at all in the building, the dry lavatories were foul and the place was rat-infested. There was little or no playground space. There was a small area behind the school where the children were taken to when the teachers wanted to take PE but it was impossible to take any kind of formal lesson there. The floors were in very bad condition. It was understandable why no repairs had been done to the building as we had been promised a new school and it would have been unreasonable to expect anybody to spend large sums of money on modernising an old building such as the old Shantallow school was.
Everybody was very happy. Teachers complained a bit but it was not like nowadays where if the temperature drops below 60 degrees you have staff at the door complaining about the cold. Nobody seemed to complain very much and certainly the children weren’t aware of the abysmal conditions in which they were being taught. There were no single desks. Most of the children were seated in long benches with seats fixed to them which were probably meant to accommodate 5 children at a time but due to circumstances they very often had to hold 10. I remember having to take 2 classes for a full year with 73 children in total.
There were 2 main rooms which comprised the main building, with a little porch leaning into the first classroom, in which were, Mr McDermott and myself, sometimes. He always was in that room, that seemed to be his room continually. I varied between one room and another. There were 2 main rooms each of which accommodated 2 teachers so you had 4 teachers in 2 rooms and there was a building referred to as the hut, outside usually occupied by Mrs McGuinness which catered for the infants.
I remember the senior pupils had to clean the dry lavatories, not the pleasantest of tasks. The only previous teacher I know of is the teacher whose vacancy was filled by me who was Hugh McGuinness. Hugh lived in Westend Park. I remember him but I didn’t know him personally, I never worked with him.
I suspect it was an early Victorian building, I have no secure grounds for saying that other than that I doubt very much whether architecture of that type would have been allowed even back in late Victorian times. I suspect it would be about 1840, possibly pre-famine.
The school closed in 1954. It was replaced by Pennyburn school the first school built in Derry post-war. It was designed by a very well-known firm of architects called Corr & McCormack, the 2 principals of which were Frank Corr and Liam McCormack. They were very proud of this building and many visitors were invited along to see the building because it was a very modern type of building.
In Shantallow school the infants were accommodated in the hut, the first and second classes were accommodated in one end of the inside classrooms and third and fourth classes were at the other end of the room. In the other classroom there would have been fourth or fifth class depending on the number of pupils which varied from year to year and they were portioned out as best we could. I remember one very nice year when I had one 4th class when Dermott McDermott at the other end of the room had 5th, 6th and 7th class, but that didn’t mean he had 3 times as many children as I had! Classes went up to 7th class. There would have been boys and girls there of 15 and 16 years of age. The leaving age was officially 14 but work was scarce and many parents simply kept their children at school rather than having them hanging around. The 1947 Education Act had been passed in England but had not come into effect in N. Ireland so the dual system of secondary education hadn’t started at that time, or rather the schools hadn’t been completed to conform with the act. Generally they left the primary school, Shantallow school to fend for themselves. Occasionally there would have been pupils who went to St. Columb’s, not very many, an odd one would go to the Christian Brothers Tech which fulfilled a great role in Derry at that time. There were many courses that they carried on which unfortunately have been lost. In those days there was the railway which was regarded as a very good job, to get a clerical job in the railway was a very good job, and there was a highly competitive examination to be gone through to get that job. Now the Christian Brothers Tech prepared boys for that, also for things like the Ordnance Survey and the Civil Service and the Christian Brothers prepared boys for the competitive exams for this, so the odd one would have gone there or the odd one would have gone to the old Strand Road Tech, but 99 out of 100 boys and girls would have left school. There was an examination to go to the Christian Brothers Tech. Prior to 1947 Education Act you could go straight into a grammar school if they could afford to pay, if they got their 11 plus they went into St Columb’s.
The comparison between the old Shantallow school and the new Pennyburn school was like heaven and hell. You now had a big airy classoom all to yourself, modern sanitation, everything was just right. There was not much change in the catchment area. Now we began to take in children from Springtown camp, the odd one would have gone to Shantallow school, now nearly all the children from the camp came to Pennyburn. You were now catering for the two ends of Derry society. You had the lower middle class areas owner-occupied areas and then you had the really deprived families coming from Springtown Camp. You would have had very well-to-do, by local standards, the local doctor’s or local business man’s son sitting in a seat right next to some of the poorest families that one could imagine, very, very difficult circumstances they lived in in the camp through no fault of their own. It never seemed to cause the slightest difficulty, none whatsoever. The middleclass parents would have had aspirations. They would have climbed a run or two on the ladder and they were anxious that their children should climb another run or two after them again. Whereas the others lived a day to day existence as long as we have enough food to eat today that would have been the height of their ambition.
The thing that impinged most on the school was the implementation 1947 Education Act. As a young assistant teacher I was not aware of it. This meant we lost all the 11 plus children. St Brecan’s and St Joseph’s opened and before you would have boys and girls up to 16 sitting in the primary school as they had nowhere else to go until the secondary schools were opened. Then they were moved out so we lost all the children aged 11 plus. This would have been during the early 1960s.
When Pennyburn Boys’ School opened we had about 290 boys this number would have been reflected in the Girls’ School also, after a few years that began to slide down, with the building of Belmont estate they began to creep up again, but with the implementation of the Education Act and the 11 plus children were creamed off, the numbers in the school fell drastically to the extent that I can remember Frank Corr the architect arriving down on an occasion with Dr Farren, who was then bishop. They paid a visit to Pennyburn school with the view to doing a survey as to the feasibility of it being converted into a secondary school because the possibility was, that there were not going to be enough children to carry it on as a primary school. Frank Corr’s verdict was that he did not think it would be possible, that the school was not engineered in such a way as to carry, for example, heavy equipment for metal work, crafts, woodwork and that sort of thing.
Shortly after that it began to change again. Carnhill was developed and of course the numbers started to rocket. When I was appointed principal on 1st January 1973 the school had 560 on the roll and within less than a year it had climbed to well over 600, that is boys from primary 4 to primary 7, think of the same number of girls approximately. You are talking about almost 1300 boys and girls in primary 4 to primary 7. In addition to that were nearly 900 children in the Infants’ school. You are talking about something in the region of 2 to 2 and a half thousand children on that site. Well something had to be done then. So very quickly they got to work and Steelstown school was opened first and several teachers left Pennyburn school. Jim Quinn was appointed principal, Sean Mellon was made vice-principal, Jim Campbell, he joined the staff in Steelstown, Leo Sharkey he went up there too. Several teachers from the Girls’ school went up too. So it did have a big impact on Pennyburn school. Shortly after that again, Carnhill school was built and then again a few years after that, Slievemore School was built and then after that, Lenamore school was built. The next thing that affected the enrolment in Pennyburn school was the Ballymagroarty school.
I grew up in Derry, I lived in Westland Avenue. I went to the Christian Brothers’ primary school and the war broke out on the 3rd of September 1939 and on the 5th September 1939 I went to St Columb’s for the first time and within a fortnight of going, the boys were assembled to be addressed by a man whom I had never seen but who I was told was Dr Farren, to bid us farewell. He had been appointed bishop of Derry. At that stage he was the youngest bishop in Ireland. I think he was about 46 or so. Dr Farren had been the president of St Columb’s up until he knew he was being made bishop and he was simply bidding a formal farewell to the boys. He left St Columb’s around the third week in September 1939. I was at St Columb’s until 1945, when the war ended After my time in St Columb’s, I went to St Mary’s in Belfast. It had been traditional for male Catholic trainee teachers to go to St Mary’s Strawberry Hill, London but because of the war there was no intake of male Catholic trainee teachers at all. There was quite a gap to be filled so it was decided that St Mary’s on the Falls Road in Belfast, which was the Catholic women’s teacher training college, should open its doors to male trainees and we were the first intake in October 1945 . There were 6 of us from Derry who went together. There was myself, Michael Gillen, Ted Armstrong, Hugh Kelly and 2 others. So after 2 years there I came out and my first job was in The Abbey in Newry, a big school run by the Christian Brothers and after 3 years there I came back to Derry in 1950.