Old school is at the heart of island life

December 13th, 2015 7:05 AM

By Southern Star Team

The exterior of Bere Island Heritage Centre. The original part of the building is almost 160 years old and was first used as a national school on the island.

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Bere Island Heritage Centre is a building with a long and significant past writes Helen Riddell

When a new school opened in Ballinakilla, Bere Island in 1857, its first teacher was islander Edward ‘Martin’ O’Sullivan. Little did he realise that just over 150 years later, his humble schoolroom would host a visit from the President of Ireland.

Five years ago, in October 2010, President Mary McAleese became the first Irish President to visit Bere Island when she was flown to the island by Aer Corp helicopter piloted by islander Captain Michael Sullivan, where she performed the official opening of the Bere Island Heritage Centre.  At a speech she gave on the day the President praised the islanders for their resilience and determination to preserve their unique heritage.  

The Ballinakilla national school was one of three schools on Bere Island.  Another school at Lawrence Cove served the children in the eastern end of the island, and the military school in the village educated children of the British servicemen stationed on Bere Island during World War I. The military school closed when the British left the island, and due to diminishing numbers Lawrence Cove School closed, leaving Ballinakilla the only school to serve the island children. Sadly, a fire in the late 1970s destroyed the school, leaving just the four walls and parts of the roof structure.  A new school was built for the island children, just a few yards down the road from the old Ballinakilla School.  

For years the fate of the old building was undecided until a group of islanders came together with the aim of restoring the building and opening it as a heritage centre.  They formed the Bere Island Old School Group, and with assistance from the Bere Island Project Group they forged ahead with their plans, securing funding under ISLA, a European co-operation project involving island communities in North East Europe, along with funding from Cork County Council and the Department of the Islands.  The restoration work on the old school was carried out by an island building company, restoring the original schoolhouse, and constructing a new steel and glass extension along one side, transforming it into what is now the Bere Island Heritage Centre. 

The centre is now open all year round, employing four staff – Michael Murphy,  Pamela Fiorito, Tomasz Olczak and Caroline MacCarthy. 

A craft shop in the centre sells local island produce and a café makes it a popular venue with islanders and visitors alike. As well as displaying a number of artifacts relating to the island’s history, the centre also has a database on the local graveyard, as well as genealogical information.

A permanent exhibition – The Bere Island Experience – details the island’s rich history and temporary, themed exhibitions are held throughout the year. To date these have included displays on the island’s maritime, military and sporting history and more recently on rowing and regattas. The centre recently acquired a gig which was built for the island’s rowing team in 1962 and there are plans to restore it.

An exhibition on emigration was officially opened in 2012 by Professor Traolach O’Riordan from the University of Montana, a state many Bere Islanders had emigrated to over the years.

Traditional skills workshops are held at the centre and the old school room is also used as a performance venue hosting concerts with local musicians as well as performances during the West Cork Fit Up Theatre Festival.  In the run up to Christmas, the walls echo once again to the sound of children’s voices when the island’s schoolchildren cross the road from the new school to rehearse for their Christmas concert. 

In 2013 the Heritage Centre received another famous visitor, when the Rose of Tralee, Haley O’Sullivan visited Bere Island, and planted a rose bush in the grounds of the centre, where her grand-father had once attended school. From searching the genealogy records, the centre’s staff were able to present Haley with a copy of her great-great-grandparents marriage certificate.

The World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) hold their annual Easter Retreat with Fr Laurence Freeman at the centre, which sees attendees travelling from the fours corners of the globe to attend. WCCM, along with Bere Island Projects Group have in the past two years hosted a Music and Silence Festival in late August, which brings together music and meditation and uses the centre as it’s main base, with other venues on the island  being used also.

At the close of the year, a retreat is held for members of the healing professions.

In 2014, an e-Centre opened at the centre, with two digital hot desk spaces, which provides islanders with space to start or run their businesses, as well as allowing visitors to the island to work remotely during their stay.

  The Bere Island Heritage Centre is open Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 5pm and Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays 1pm to 4pm. Any seeking to contact the centre, email [email protected] or call 027-75956.

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