A new book celebrates the pioneering educators who founded Cork’s Scoil Mhuire, writes Ellie O’Byrne, where past pupils include actress Fiona Shaw, knitwear designer Bébhinn Marten and TV presenter Clodagh McKenna.
At this year’s BT Young Scientist exhibition, 56% of entrants were girls.
In the Chemical, Physical & Mathematical category alone, there had been a 62% increase in female entrants over the previous year.
Mary O’Donovan remembers a world where things were different. When she co-founded Scoil Mhuire in Cork 68 years ago, girls were not expected to aim for academic attainment.
“Girls took for granted that they’d reach Leaving Cert and then leave school,” Ms O’Donovan says.
“At 18, they’d go down to Roches Stores or somewhere, and get a little job and be quite happy with it and wait to get married.”
The 93-year-old smiles. She still drops in to the private school she founded in 1951.
Today is no different: she’s sitting in a sunny office reminiscing.
Possessor of a wry sense of humour, she’s quite obviously still a formidably intelligent woman, although her mobility is as can be expected; she uses a walking frame.
One reason for the poor educational opportunities for girls was that universal free education wasn’t introduced until 1967, Ms O’Donovan explains; faced with a choice, parents would invest in their son’s education, to the neglect of their daughters’, as they were future breadwinners.
“If there was money in the family, it went to the boys,” she says.
Known affectionately by generations of students as “Mary O,” Ms O’Donovan met Scoil Mhuire’s co-founder, the late Kathleen Cahill, who she describes as “a valiant woman,” in Manchester, at teacher training college.
It was the late 1940s, and advances in education were afoot: modern and progressive methods were about fostering and encouraging curiosity in students and Ms Cahill was already teaching these new methods to others.
“It had begun to change in England, starting at primary level, and we were very impressed, both of us,” Miss O’Donovan recalls.
“There were big changes to things like the teaching of writing and arithmetic. A whole new system.”
Ms Cahill persuaded Ms O’Donovan to return to Cork to start a small girls’ secondary school with her using these modern methods.
It would be one of several lay Catholic Schools founded on similar principles as those of Pádraig Pearse’s Scoil Éanna in Ranelagh.
A visit by the aspiring school mistresses to the local priest was recommended in advance of their school’s opening, but Miss Cahill and Miss O’Donovan balked at his suggestion that, as a girls’ school, they needed to offer Home Economics on their syllabus; they didn’t do so.
Did Ms O’Donovan consider herself a feminist?
“No,” she says simply. “We took it for granted that if we had intelligence, and an interest in things, that you’d have a career.”
The rest, as they say, is history: from 70 students, the school now enrols almost 400. A junior school was integrated early, after the closure of Scoil Íte, a primary school of similar ethos.
Now, Scoil Mhuire tops the tables as one of Ireland’s most successful ‘feeder’ schools; an average of 89.6% of Scoil Mhuire students enrolled in university between 2014 and 2016.
Alumni include success stories in the world of business as well as academia and the arts; illustrations for Scoil Mhuire’s book are by former student and illustrator Sheena Dempsey.
The school has retained its independent spirit; there’s no board of management, but an in-house “school manager” who works alongside the principal.
Ms O’Donovan retired as principal in 1989.
The current principal is Regina Butler, who took up her post in 2000.
“There’s an ethos of moral integrity in the school that helps the students through life and helps them to make sense of the world,” Ms Butler says.
“There’s a very caring atmosphere, but when the bell goes there’s the usual level of mayhem.
"There’s always been a student council because it’s always been important to give students a voice.”
A newly-published book, A Special Place, contains the voices of many past pupils, often with extraordinary and interesting careers, reminiscing about their time in the Georgian school house at Sydney Place.
Many recall specific teachers or tell anecdotes about the lengths to which their educators went, and the broadness of the education they received.
The book’s reminiscences are honest too; one former student recalls the elitism of a clique whose uniform appearance will be familiar to most Corkonians: striped sailing bag, chunky-heeled shoes, long blonde hair and shirt collar turned up.
“Life isn’t easy: people can be nasty and excluding and can look down on you,” Ciara O’Brien, from the class of 2001, writes.
“But it also taught me that most people are not like that and that your own insecurities are your biggest enemy.”
Ms O’Donovan has always seen teaching as her vocation and the school she founded has played a pivotal role in women’s lives.
She must be very proud?
“Oh yes,” she says in her understated manner, “it’s been a good enterprise to be involved with”.
A Special Place, with illustrations by Sheena Kelly, is available to purchase at Scoil Mhuire, Sydney Place, Cork.