THE Sacred Heart Secondary School in Clonakilty celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. The former boarding school is a thriving, progressive, all-girls school in West Cork. Sacred Heart owes its very existence to the pioneering Sisters of Mercy who were determined to offer education to girls in the early part of the 20th century. Currently under the trusteeship of CEIST (Catholic Education an Irish Schools Trust), it continues to offer excellence in education, empowering girls to achieve something beyond themselves.
In 1856, Fr Madden the parish priest of Clonakilty, was instrumental in the opening of a Convent National School with a teaching staff of four Mercy nuns. Clonakilty Convent was founded on the site of Scartagh Cottage which once belonged to the Townshend family. With generous donations from the locals, the new convent building was completed in 1864 and solemnly blessed under the title Convent of Our Lady of Mercy of the Sacred Heart. The Mercy nuns have since moved on, but the stately building remains, perched high on a hill, looking out over the historic town.
Eighty years ago, in 1941, Sacred Heart Secondary School was first registered as a secondary school following a suggestion from the Bishop, the Most Reverend Denis Moynihan. The small secondary school was housed on the ground floor rooms at the back of the convent building. The student enrolment was about 49 students with Sr Columba Myott as principal. Tuition fee was £6 per pupil and the school uniform consisted of a black frock, white collar and cuffs.
However, Clonakilty Convent provided second-level education to girls long before the secondary school was officially established. The Convent of Mercy Annals for July 1908 report that ‘the superiors thought the time opportune for providing secondary education for the senior pupils, in order to enable those who so desired, to complete their education in their Alma Mater.’ The second level component was known as ‘Secondary Top’ and students enrolled to take the secondary board examination. It is thanks to the progressive Mercy sisters that girls were given the option to be educated beyond primary level.
The first principal, Sr Colomba Myott, was succeeded by Sr Brendan Scully in 1948. Sr Benedicta Barry was appointed in 1959 and held the post until her retirement in 1983. Her replacement, Sr Eilis McGrath, continued as principal until 2009 and the current principal is Ms Ann-Marie Brosnan who is also the first lay principal. The deputy principal is Mr Brendan Walsh.
In 1956, the boarding school opened and had international status. Boarders numbered 34 in 1957/1958, with ten more expected for the following year. From then on, the numbers grew steadily, and at its peak, the boarders and day pupils combined numbered in excess of six hundred. In 2005, the boarding school closed, but many past pupils have fond memories of that time.
Sister Eilis McGrath, a former principal of Sacred Heart, is an alumna of the boarding school. She started boarding in 1960 and remembers: ‘It was full-time boarding with breaks only for Halloween, Christmas and Easter. I can still remember the excitement of going home. We took the West Cork Railway, changed in Clonakilty Junction, and then on to Cork, where the station was by the side of the City Hall.’
A typical day for a boarder didn’t vary over the five years. The morning bell rang at 7am with morning mass soon after. Breakfast followed in the refectory, known to this day as ‘the ref.’ Students were assigned housekeeping duties which were completed each morning and after breakfast, it was time for classes. Students had free time after school until supervised study began. Weekends were slightly more relaxed as they got to wear their own clothes on Saturdays. On Sundays, students had to wear their uniform and were often taken for a walk out towards Inchydoney or up to the hospital, accompanied by nuns.
Sister Eilis remembers that those living nearby had visitors on Sundays which meant that goodies were often brought back and shared.
Past pupil, Kay Curtin (née Bennis), who graduated in 1987, arrived at the school as a boarder from Limerick at the age of 13. Kay says: ‘Our first year dorms were one large room and our beds were divided by curtains similar to a hospital ward. A nun slept in the room next door to us, to keep an eye on us during the night. When we moved to second year, we had individual rooms within a large room which was divided by partition walls. Then, when we got to Leaving Cert, our rooms were totally our own, up at the top of the boarding school, with our own window and more importantly, our own light.’
In the past eighty years, Sacred Heart Secondary School has seen many changes as it continues to evolve in an ever-changing and challenging world. As the top-performing school in West Cork in 2020, it has a culture of achievement for all. Its holistic approach motivates each student to achieve their full potential. Single-sex schools are gradually disappearing but Sacred Heart holds strong with an enrolment of close to 550 students. Every girl is given the opportunity to have a voice at Sacred Heart and encouraged to live up to all possibilities.
By Caragh Bell