Many children in and around Oldcastle attended the Gilson Endowed School over its decades of existence. In the later years of the school, some moved on to complete their scondary education in Oldcastle’s post-primary school. That school celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009 and in a book published to commemorate that occasion, one former pupil, Dolores McHugh, recounted her memories of the Gilson Endowed School in this piece which will bring back many memories to those who were also pupils there:
The Gilson School was provided under a trust set up by Laurence Gilson, a native of Boolies, who after only a few years working in London was able to fund this substantial project. Pending the construction of the impressive building on Church Street, the school was established in temporary accommodation in the Market House, in 1822. The Gilson School building occupies a commanding position at the entrance to the town not far from the equally impressive St. Bridget’s RC Church. Built in the Palladian style in 1826, it was designed by CR Cockerell, who remodelled Kinturk House at Castlepollard in 1821 and who also carried out work on Loughcrew House around the same time.
As a pupil attending the Gilson school (1962 to 1969), I remember being struck by the scale of the rooms and the extent of the building. In one classroom at the Girls’ school, as well as the door we use, another door stood forgotten in a corner, until a teacher from a different school emerged through it. In another classroom there were two timber steps at the side of the room up to another seldom used door, to the teachers’ living quarters. There was no corridor in the Girls’ school and the senior room was the means of access to the other two rooms.
The school grounds led from one school to another, but since we weren’t allowed beyond our patch the connectedness of these places remained a mystery. I knew two parts of the school, the Infants’ School and the Girls’ School, but there was also the Boys’ School, the Secondary School and a central block, two storeys over a semi-basement, which was made up of a number of teachers’ living quarters. Together these made up the Gilson Endowed School. The grounds were enclosed at the back by a high perimeter stone wall beyond which there was rough disused ground, once part of the school farm, glimpsed in a rare occasion when the door in the wall was left open.
There was a slight rise in the ground from the street to the school building, set about 10m back. The playground or school yard began at the gate and at this lower end of the yard was a single storey tin roofed building which was the toilet block with half door cubicles within. Beside the school ground stood a terrace of buildings and a few doors along were Miss Geoghegan’s and the Flanagan’s corner shops, popular with the pupils.
Once a year, we made a pilgrimage from the Girls School to the Gilson Secondary School. Compacted into a smaller room for the final few weeks of the school year, we found the previous lesson still chalked on the blackboard in Latin or Greek, the students were now using our classroom for exams. We didn’t get much of an overview of our new surroundings; before the school day began and after each break we lined up in a corner of the school yard, and were marched to our room.
None of my year made the transition to the Gilson Secondary School, During the summer of 1969 we finished primary school, the post primary schools amalgamated and those of us who continued our education in Oldcastle took our places where the Vocational School had established itself some years earlier, in a fine modern building.
The school seemed a special place to me as a pupil and indeed it was. The trust set up by Laurence Gilson had as its purpose the provision of elementary education for he children of the poor. In the early nineteenth century there was no system of education in Ireland. Hedge schools, and private schools, both for paying students were nearly all that existed and these were operated without regulation or inspection. In 1821 70% of pupils, out of a total of nearly eleven thousand attending schools in Meath, were paying pupils. The Gilson School offered free education to all local children.
As a chancery scheme, under the control of the Chancery Courts in London there was inspection, a general curriculum and even some approved teaching material; and the scheme itself was subject to review and it was updated a number of times in response to changes in educational theory and practice in the UK. Educational practice reflected the values of society so, in the early years of the school, pupils were educated as befitted their station in life, there was little social mobility and schools reflected these attitudes. Later the encouragement of pupils to achieve their potential became part of the thinking. While some resistance continued to the provision of a secondary for the less well-off, many primary schools around the country, including the Gilson School, tried to provide second-level education through add-ons such as additional course and a seventh year. This gave pupils opportunities for a better career or to continue on to university. Practical subjects were always important and the school farm facilitated the dissemination of the new farming ideas throughout the community, particularly after the famine.
In 1930 a co-educational secondary school was established at the Gilson Endowed School. It was an aspiration of the new state to provide second level education to all children. In time there was so much demand from pupils to continue their education that in 1959 another second level school was developed: Blessed Oliver Vocational School. In 1969 with the emergence of the Blessed Oliver Post Primary School, the Gilson Secondary School ceased to exist. In 1976 it was decided that the three primary schools would amalgamate and the new co-educational school was built on the grounds of the old building in 1977.
The building itself remains and is a protected structure. Looking back now I realise that it muchg have had some shortcomings as a school. Sounds travelled through the glass and timber partitions between the rooms. There were only three classrooms each in he Boys’ and Girls’ schools and therefore two classes per room. It must have been nearly impossible to heat those huge rooms. On very bad mornings we were made form a semi-circle round a pot belied stove that stood near one end of the large room. Although the entire stove glowed red it only seemed to heat the area immediately around it. But I don’t remember feeling the cold. My memories are of spaciousness, the lofty rooms, timber panelling, the dais on which stood the teachers table, gigantic windows which stretched up towards even higher ceilings which had ropes to open upper sections, the smell of Jeyes fluid in the toilets, the white inkwells and dip pens, the wooden desks for two pupils. The exotic monkey puzzle tree in the private grounds in front of the teachers’ house. It was a lovely place to attend school, thanks to Laurence Gilson’s great act of charity.