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Schools in Belcarra

Schools and schooling in Belcarra down the years:


Various Penal Laws were enacted in Ireland between 1691 and 1727, mainly to exclude the Irish Catholic population from public office. These laws were imposed on the Irish people by a tiny Protestant land-owning minority. Catholic education was prohibited and Catholic teachers could be imprisoned or transported to the colonies.

However, despite all the prohibitions, many illegal Catholic ‘hedge schools’ operated secretly - mostly in sod cabins, barns and church sacristies. In Belcarra, in 1824, there were two of these ‘hedge schools’.

One of these schools was secretly conducted in the small thatched Catholic chapel which was situated where Belcarra Community Centre now stands. About 40 boys and 8 girls attended this school. Its teacher, or ‘master’, was Martin Kilcourn and the pupils paid the teacher 2 shillings a term — about 2 cents a week nowadays for their education, if their parents could afford it.


Another village school (18 boys and 3 girls) was operated by James Donnellan in a “cold room allowed to go to decay” and the teacher earned about €4 a year for his labour. The teachers had no formal training but were capable of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic — mostly through Irish, which was the language of the people then.


Before the Great Famine there were about 130 boys and 40 girls attending other so called ‘hedge schools.”

Another small school in the village was operated by the Kildare Place Society – also known as “The Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in Ireland. This school was supported financially by the English government and was suspected of having a proselytising mission. Catholic children were discouraged from attending.


Another state-supported school operated under the auspices of a Protestant organisation called “The Church Education Society”. One of these schools was generously endowed with a building and two acres of land by James Cuff Esq. J.P., of Elmhall House, an extensive Mayo landowner. In 1837 there were about 40 boys and 40 girls attending this school.

There was a small Protestant community in the Belcarra area at that time. Many of its members belonged to the landed classes or worked as members of the Royal Irish Constabulary stationed in local police barracks. To accommodate the Rev. Rector, a three storey Glebe-house or Rectory was built in Belcarra in 1821 at a total cost of £457. The Rectory had 17 acres of land attached for the use of the Rector. The road to the Common was the ‘avenue’ leading to the Glebe.


A Protestant Church was built in 1830 on the Gweesdian Road where

the recently improved Protestant graveyard now stands. The church

cost £903 to build and it also served, the adjoining parishes of Towaghty

(Ballyglass) and Ballintubber. Belcarra was a curacy in the parish of Balla.

The townland in which both buildings stood is still known as Glebe. 

1831: Following a report from a select committee of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, a National System of Education was introduced in Ireland in 1831. The Board invited joint applications from Catholics and Protestants. The ‘National’ schools would operate for four or five days a week and there would be no religious instruction during school hours. The first National School in Belcarra was not established until the l850’s. 

1845 — 1847 were the worst years of the Great Famine. It is reasonable to assume that hundreds of Belcarra people died of starvation during those years. As the worst of the Famine waned, efforts were made to have schools provided for Boys and Girls under the aforementioned National Education System. 

1850: With the support of the local Protestant Rector and the Catholic Curate, and  with George Acton, of Bridgemount House, an Episcopalian Protestant, acting as  secretary, a letter of application, dated 1st May 1850 was addressed to the  Commissioners for National Education seeking the establishment Boys  and a Girls’ School in Belcarra. George Acton conducted voluminous correspondence the Commissioners over a number of years in furtherance of this objective. 

His 1850 letter states that Colonel Cuff of Elmhall and Deel Castle ‘having been refused the use of the school-house built by the Kildare Place Society some years ago — had, in April 1850, already rented two adjoining thatched houses (34ft x 12ft) in Belcarra for this purpose and was proposing to engage the services of 21 year old Catholic, James Archdeacon. Castlebar, as teacher. James Archdeacon was given glowing testimonials by James Hamilton, Rector, Belcarra and Fr. J. McHale, Parish Priest of Castlebar.   


In his initial letter of application George Acton anticipated that the proposed National  Schools would be attended by about 60 boys and 40 girls, and sought grant aid  towards the construction of a ‘proper’ school building, payment of teachers’ salaries  (£18 per annum) and purchase of books and slates. He pointed out that the rent of the temporary accommodation (Roll No. 6060) was already costing £10 per annum. The nearest school was operated by the Franciscan Brothers at Errew Monastery some miles away. Archbishop John McHale was instrumental in bringing the Franciscans to Errew to counteract the influence being exerted by the Protestant organisations.  In correspondence with the Commissioners of National Education, George Acton wrote: “Belcarra is a populous area which has for years been unprovided with any school”. Estimating the local population at about 2,500 he declared that the people were ‘very poor and extremely ignorant’! 

He stated that Colonel Cuff had provided a site for a proposed two-storey school, granting a lease of three lives or 31 years at one shilling a year vested in the Commissioners for National Education. This is nowadays the site of the Basketball and Tennis Court in the village. The site was taken over by the Commissioners on August 15th 1850. George Acton, in his application, now stated that a new slated building would have two rooms, each 30ft x 20 ft., one on the ground floor for a boys’ school and one upstairs for a girls’ school. The school would attract upwards of 250 children with an average daily attendance of about 120 pupils. (Apparently, about 250 pupils had attended a school formerly established by the Church Education Society!) The room on the ground floor of the school would be the boys’ school. The upper floor would be the girls’ school. Total estimated building cost would be £250.  He also asked that provision be made for the employment of one male teacher, one female teacher and one monitor, or apprentice teacher. 

The Boys’ School (Roll Number 6048) opened in 1st January 1852 with James Archdeacon as teacher. Later Mr. Archdeacon spent time at Georges Street Teacher Training Establishment in Dublin. Although he was expelled from the Establishment for intoxication he later resumed his position at Belcarra Boys’ School. In 1858 the average daily attendance in the Boys’ school was just 11. A George R. Acton, probably a relative George the previous Secretary Manager was appointed an Assistant Teacher in 1868. 

The Girls’ School (Roll No. 6049, District 26) opened for business on 21st January 1852. Ms Mary Archdeacon, aged 24 years, was appointed teacher, with the approval of both the Protestant Rector and the Roman Catholic Curate in Castlebar.  She was provided with a residence by the patron Col. Cuff and taught in the schoolroom (20ft X 30 ft) upstairs in the new school. Daily average attendance was about 26 pupils. The scholars paid one penny a week for their education. In 1854 Maria Egan was appointed teacher. In 1858 George Acton, correspondent, applied to  the Commissioners to have a ‘work-mistress’ appointed to assist the Junior Girls with  ‘sewing, knitting and cutting-out’. Subsequently 18 year old Rose Egan was appointed to that position. At this stage there were 108 girls on rolls, with an average daily attendance of 57.


By 1868 the teacher was Mary Anne Anderson. She had the assistance of 18 year old Mary Acton who was a monitor or apprentice teacher. The Commission inspector reported 120 girls on rolls with an average daily attendance of 55.       


Belcarra Male (Roll No. 6048) and Female (Roll No. 6049) Schools:  1902 - 1903. 

In 1889 the new school manager, Charles Daly of Coachfield, Logaphuill, sought grant aid towards the enlargement of the school stating that the one-room schools  were ‘entirely in adequate’. There were already 100 boys and 75 girls on rolls. The proposal was to add one small classroom to each floor — to accommodate up to 120 children on each floor. The estimated cost of the extensions would be £200. However, the work was not proceeded with at that time as the local people could not commit to providing the £50 local contribution required. In these circumstances the Secretary of the Education Office informed the manager that he must ‘restrict the daily attendance of pupils to the numbers the schools are capable of accommodating’. (The proposed improvements were actually effected some years later!) 

On the 1“ July 1895 Charles Daly once again wrote to Education Secretary requesting  that existing dry toilets abutting the rear school walls be relocated to the far end of the  school yards away from the classroom windows, and that provision be made for turf sheds in the yard. He explained that that turf was ‘currently stored in the classroom.’  He also asked that a front boundary wall be built to protect windows from being broken by youngsters playing football on the public road. Total estimated cost would be £51 to which there would be the customary local contribution of one third or £17. This Work was duly completed. 

In 1898, Inspector J. Keith visited the schools. He found that there were 105 boys and 85 girls attending same. 

In 1902 the schools manager, Charles Daly, again asked the Commissioners for assistance to enlarge the windows in the school, stating that the existing windows did not admit enough light during the winter months. He also asked that a porch be provided at the entrance to the girls’ school, explaining that the girls had no place to hang their caps and shawls in the crowded classrooms. (A porch had already been erected at the entrance to the boys’ school downstairs.) Eventually the Commissioners offered a generous grant of £18-13s-4d towards the total estimated cost of £28-Os-Od — the balance to be provided from local sources. This porch was never built either. 

These schools remained in operation until 1944. At that time the teaching staff were: 

Boys’ School: Vincent Irwin, Principal and Sarah ‘Birdie’ Nestor, Assistant Teacher. 

Girls’ School: Kathleen Irwin, Principal and Ellen Gavin, Assistant Teacher. 

One night, in May of I944, the two-storey school building in Belcarra was burned to the ground. It is thought that some stray sparks from an open fire had ignited dry turf stored nearby.

That very same night a dreadful house fire occurred at James Ruane’s store licenced premises in Kiltimagh and, tragically, took the lives of eight occupants. One two year old boy was saved by being thrown from a third-floor window into the arms of a waiting neighbour.    

In Belcarra, that night, local people ferried buckets of water from the river to douse the flames but they were unable to save the school.

For the next four years the pupils were dispersed to whatever accommodation was available. Classes were held in the Arcadia Ballroom, in buildings behind Cunningham’s Costcutters (then Ryan’s shop), in Nestor’s private house and in the gate-lodge at the entrance to Bridgemount House.


Local builder Mike Gibbons was contracted to build a new four-room school on its present site. The two schools, (Boys and Girls) were amalgamated and the school was opened by Mr. Joseph Blowick, Minister for Lands in 1948 with Mr. Vincent Irwin as Principal, and Kathleen Irwin, Birdie Nestor and Ellen Gavin as assistants.


Some of the Teachers in the Girls School:

(One room upstairs until the mid l890’s)

1855: Maria Egan, Teacher.

1858: Rose Egan, workmistress.

1859: Ellen COI1I1€ll, Monitor.

1863: Maria Hurst.

1866: Mary Acton

1869: Aug. Mary Moran appointed monitor.

1871: Mary Chalke
1876: Mary Kelly

I877: School Management reprimanded by Inspector. Instructed to restore girls’ school-yard to its former purpose. In 1877 it was being used as a pig-yard.
1890: Ms. Murphy, Asst. Teacher.

1891: Mrs. Mary Devaney, Principal, with Assistant Teacher, Anne Irwin

Teachers in the Boys’ School:

1852: James Archdeacon

1857: John O Grady

1859 4th July, Henry Curry appointed monitor. 13/10/59. In December of that year

Curry allegedly ‘abstracted the school clock’ and sold same! He was arrested and briefly imprisoned.

1859: Michael Chalke — Acting temporary substitute for Henry Curry above.

1860: Michael Farrell

1860: Henry Curry appointed teacher.

1865: Michael Chalke.

1875: April. Smallpox outbreak. School closed for a month.

1886: 8 Jan. Pat Nestor appointed assistant teacher to Thomas Irwin, Principal.

1887: School Manager asks Commissioners that Henry Curry be appointed Monitor!

Referred to Inspector. (Could this be Henry Curry Junior?)

1897: Thomas Irwin.

Some National Archives References

Belcarra NS, Co. Mayo (Roll no. 6060)

Application date: OS/O4/1850

References: ED1/62 no.31




Henry Curry: Fenian Organiser.

Henry M. Curry was born in ‘New Dublin’, a small cluster of homes in the townland of Deerpark Upper, Belcarra, Castlebar in 1828, the son of local farmer Michael Curry (d. 22 June 1829 aged 46) and his wife Margaret ((known as ‘Peggy? Pierce. (D. 6Apri/ 1870 aged 76) They worked a very small parcel of land and were tenants of Colonel St. George Cuffe of Elm Hall House nearby. The Curry home has been described as ‘a hut by the roadside’. With his siblings and widowed mother he

survived the Famine years and went on to become an important leader of the Fenian movement in Connaught.



An intelligent youngster, he attended the free school at Errew Monastery (three miles away) where he was taught by the Franciscan Brothers — some of whom had strong nationalist leanings. He became an apprentice teacher and, later, when Michael Farrell, a teacher at Belcarra National School emigrated to America, he was replaced by Henry Curry. (Michael Farrell was

later ordained a priest in America. ).




















Sketch by Tara Treacy of Belcarra National School in Henry Curry‘s time. Building destroyed by fire 1944.


The Fenians 

Curry married Anne Dowd on 8th November 1854. His sister Catherine (d. Dec. 1855 aged 26) had married local tailor John Nestor Just six days earlier. Anne Dowd, Henry Curry's wife, was reputed to be a talented quilt maker, earning a small income from her trade. They had a family of boys and girls one of whom, Michael, became a talented carpenter who was recruited to work on the roofing of Breaghwy House. 

At 18 years of age Curry enlisted in the Fenian Brotherhood (I.R.B)  — the oathbound ‘secret society’ dedicated to achieving Irish  independence through force of arms, and he became an important  organiser of the movement west of the Shannon. Known as a strong and courageous leader, he travelled many miles on foot around County Mayo enrolling new members, and organising Fenian activities in preparation for a Rising. It is recorded that, leaving his school one Friday evening, he walked to Ballaghaderreen, Co.  Roscommon, and walked home again in time to resume his teaching duties on Monday morning. 


Henry Curry's aunt, Mrs. Dunne, owned a tavern in Castle Street, Castlebar — a premises which was regularly used as a ’safe' venue for Fenian meetings. But the Royal Irish Constabulary in Castlebar had Curry in their sights and, one day, an Inspector Pepper, with a contingent of R.I.C. constables entered his schoolroom in Belcarra, handcuffed him and had him transported by long car to prison in Spike Island, Co. Cork where he spent many months. He was replaced by another young teacher, Michael Chalke of Carrowjames.  Through the good offices of influential people like Patrick Daly of  Belcarra and Conor Power, M.P. for Mayo, the authorities in Dublin  Castle were finally induced to release Curry and he returned to  Belcarra. 























The Church: 

Because the Fenian movement was a ‘secret society’ its members were automatically excommunicated by the Catholic Church.  Consequently, upon Curry's release, Canon Gibbons, the Parish Priest, refused to allow him to return to his teaching post. He was unemployed!  Henry Curry then opened a private pay-school and taught students in his own cabin in Deerpark Upper. Pupils paid one shilling a quarter for their tuition. Many of his former pupils at Belcarra National.School enrolled at Curry’s ‘hedge school’. Some of these students worked on his father's farm in return for their tuition. 

Failure of the‘Fenian Rising; 

Having laboured for the cause for such a long time the ultimate collapse of the Fenian Rising in 1867 left Curry very disappointed.  He regretted that the units of the organisation which he had so carefully nurtured were unable to take part in the Rising. 

The End. 

He spent his last years with his wife and children in ‘New Dublin’.  On his death-bed the local Catholic priest was invited to administer the last rites. As a precondition the priest insisted that Henry Curry renounce his revolutionary Fenian ideals. Curry resolutely refused to do so and consequently was denied the last rites of his church.  When he died at the age of 48 many Fenians travelled to the funeral. He was laid to rest in Elmhall Cemetery nearby. In 1898 his admirers erected a Celtic cross on his grave with an inscription which reads: 

“Sacred to the memory of Henry M Curry, a faithful Christian and true-souled Irishman who died at Belcarra on 20th April 1876 aged 41 years. This Monument was erected by his friends and admirers, to commemorate his many noble qualities, particularly his ardent love for Ireland, in whose cause he suffered much and for which he was ready to make any sacrifice. God save Ireland” 

Writing in 1938 a local scribe had this to say:  “Henry Curry died but his spirit lives. Many an old man here will proudly and reverently tell you: ‘I went to school to Henry Curry’  And in the recent War of Independence his name and example  helped to cheer and sustain the volunteers of Henry Curry’s native  parish to bring to a conclusion the good work he gave his life for.”  Curry’s tomb at Elmhall Cemetery.       

After Henry's death his wife Anne and her entire family emigrated to the United States of America and settled in Boston, Mass. In Boston, one of the Curry boys, James H. Curry, married Nora

Loftus who had emigrated from Belcarra. We have recently been in touch with a great great grand-daughter of Henry Curry’s in the U.S.

Ar dheis Iamh De go raibh a anam.

Compiled by Sean Nestor using the following sources:

Collection 1938-39 ( Belcarra

N.5., Clogher N.S.,), “Nally as Maigh Eo”

le Padraig O Baoighil, Archives of Mayo Co. Library, Local



Other Noted Past Pupils

Fr. John Blowick -

Founder of the Columbans.


Joseph Blowick T.D.

Minister for Lands.

Founder of Clann na Talmhan.

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belcarra school.jpg
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