Aughadown Community Playschool near Skibbereen marks its 30th anniversary this year. Its past pupils include the new Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns, Olympic rowers Gary and Paul O’Donovan and Call the Midwife actor Megan Cusack.
BY CONOR POWER
LOCATED 10km west of Skibbereen, the community of Aughadown is a small one that many passers-by would barely notice.
Aside from the pretty church set off the busy N71, there is little evidence of how much is going on there. But to describe it as a community that punches well above its weight, however, is something of an understatement and its local playschool is strongly representative of this world-beating quality.
The local Aughadown Community Playschool has been in operation for over 30 years and has, in that time, forged a central role for itself.
Norma Hayes and Helen O’Driscoll set up the playschool in response to the needs in their own personal circumstances (both were the mothers of young children at the time), as well as those of other young parents in this rural community.
In that time, they have seen generations of children pass through their doors. Many of them have gone on to greater things and past pupils include the new leader of the Social Democrats Holly Cairns, Olympic gold medal winner Paul O’Donovan, Olympic silver medal winner Gary O’Donovan, Olympic bronze medal winner Emily Hegarty, world champion medal winner Aoife Casey and Call the Midwife star Megan Cusack.
‘Since its foundation, the playschool has changed a lot in terms of set-up, and the space we have, but what remains the same is the wonderful children we are lucky to have attending each day,’ says its manager Norma Hayes. ‘As a community playschool, we know that this will be the first place where many of the children will meet with other children in the community and also their first step into education. So it’s so important that they are happy, are allowed to be themselves and enjoy their time with us. Being a member of a community is a wonderful thing and is something which we need to nurture for future generations, which is why Helen and I take great pride in our role as teachers in Aughadown. We are privileged in our roles to teach the children and have also forged long-lasting relationships with both parents and past pupils down through the years.’
The community has undergone an increased rate of change in recent years. A number of people have relocated from further afield to live and work in the area – a phenomenon whose acceleration was a by-product of the Covid pandemic.
‘We moved here permanently during the pandemic,’ says Clemency Huleatt-James, who set up home in the area with her husband and young children and who is now chairperson of the playschool. ‘Both of our parents came here when we were teenagers, so we grew up here a bit. We lived in Dublin and we were very lucky in that my parents moved on, and we were able to buy their house.’
For someone such as Clemency, it was something of a windfall to not only be able to work from West Cork, but to find such a valuable facility as the community playschool as well – and with a level of service that was impossible to find in the capital.
‘It’s so different to Dublin,’ she says, ‘because there’s a lot of stress and you have to do things like put your children on a waiting list before they’re even born.’
When it comes to this kind of community-based playschool, there is the other side of the coin: the fact that many parents need to pitch in with the running of the playschool and with the fundraising events that help to keep the facility so cost-effective for parents.
‘I’ve just stepped into the role of chairperson,’ says Clemency. ‘It’s actually a really nice opportunity to meet the other parents. That’s partly why I decided to volunteer myself – to get closer to the other parents … it’s hard work but it’s benefitting our children, so it’s worth it.’
Dee McElligott is another parent living locally who is highly aware and appreciative of the central role it plays in the social fabric of the community. With both she and her husband working, the availability of the playschool is of great importance to them.
‘Norma and Helen are like mothers to us all – as parents and as kids,’ she says. And most importantly of all, the playschool passes the litmus test for all the attendees: ‘Every kid is smiling coming out of there,’ says Dee. ‘I’ve never seen a child crying going in there … and that’s a very good sign, I think!’
Deputy Holly Cairns has nothing but good memories of the playschool: ‘Aughadown Community Playschool has been an inclusive and very active part of the community for 30 years, thanks to the work of Norma, Helen, and all the staff and parents.
‘I can remember having so much fun when I was there, especially in the lead-up to holidays like Christmas and St Patrick’s Day. It is wonderful to think about the generations of local children who have passed through the school in 30 years,’ she said.
‘Early childhood facilities are very important in rural areas in helping children meet, and they also provide vital support structures for new parents.
‘There is a clear need for the government to provide greater supports for this sector and recognition of the work done.’
Actor Megan Cusack said she also loved her time there.
‘It allowed my innocent imagination run riot with all sorts of great creative activities, not least the nativity play, where I made my stage début! I think I may have grabbed the limelight during the performance to make sure I got noticed. Ambition, eh?
‘But Norma and Helen just smiled as the wonderful patient teachers that they were. Very happy times.’