Background to this project:
In 2022-2023 we received funding from the Laois Education Centre and the Department of Education for the BLAST Arts-in-Education Residency programme. We were very appreciative of this and decided to use this funding to paint an outdoor mural of the history of our school.
Prior to starting on the mural, John Powell a local historian, visited the school to share his expertise on the history of schools in Portarlington. Erwin Cobbe also shared his experiences as a past pupil in both the old school on Main Street and the new school in Sandy Lane in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Archdeacon Leslie Stevenson provided an insight into the history of St. Paul’s Church (also known as The French Church).
The pupils in 5th/6th class studied the history of our school and completed many pencil sketches of key items. This project involved months of work.
Sample sketches completed by pupils
The first draft of the mural using the pupil’s sketches
The first draft of our Mural
Colour palette created by the artist
Our Outdoor Mural
Below is a history and explanation of the mural we created with the artist Mary Slevin:
In 1598, the Edict of Nantes, a law issued by Henry IV of France granted religious freedom and civil rights to the Huguenots, the French Protestants. It was hoped that this would end the Religious Wars that occurred around Europe and had started in France in 1562.
However, less than a hundred years later the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by King Louis XIV, meant that Protestants were forced to flee France to avoid persecution.
The Huguenots fled France to various countries including Ireland and settled in different parts of the country. They came to Portarlington from all over the southern part of France, either by sea from the west coast between La Rochelle and Bordeaux or over land from the east of France near Fénestrelle, through Switzerland and Amsterdam. Some families who are still living in Portarlington today can be traced back to the Fénestrelle region. We marked on the mural the two main routes the Huguenots took from France to Portarlington.
The Huguenots that came to Portarlington were largely from the military. The Occitan language was spoken in the southern part of France at that time. Details of where Occitan was spoken in France in the 1700’s is on the map below.
We painted two flags on the mural – one being the Occitan flag.
The second flag we painted is the Fleur de Lis flag, which was the French National Flag in use when the Huguenots fled France in 1694.
By 1666, Portarlington had been already being planted by English settlers. Sometime after the Huguenots fled France due to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, a Huguenot settlement was established in Portarlington and a French church and school established. There were two Protestant churches in Portarlington in the late 1690’s, one for the English settlers and another for the French Huguenots.
The first register in the French church was to record a baptism in 1694, a son born to Francois Maire and his wife Françoise. This entry can still be seen today in the register.
By 1700, there were two Protestants primary schools in Portalington, one English and one French speaking. We painted ‘Hello’ and ‘Bonjorn’ (Occitan for ‘Hello’) on the mural to show the language spoken in the two Protestant primary schools at the time. It is unclear where these two primary schools were located but it is thought that they would have been within the town square area in the centre of Portarlington. The school buildings were most likely stone cabins, with thatched roofs.
In 1702, the two primary schools were brought under the management of the Church of Ireland. In the 1720’s, the two schools merged into one school. It’s not clear however what language was spoken in the merged primary school at this stage. This school was known ‘‘as a parish school, a free school, a charity school’’ as it depended on donations. (Schooling in Ireland, A Clustered History 1695-1912, by John Stocks Powell, page 157).
In this primary school in the 1720’s, the pupils studied English reading, Mathematics, Religion and Social Etiquette. The pupils all wore long blue stockings. There weren’t any books, workbooks or photocopies available to pupils at that time, so children read from what is known as a ‘battledore’.
There were many private schools operating in Portarlington at this time and in some of these schools, pupils learned a variety of other subjects such as Latin, German, Italian and played games such as tennis and cricket. Latin was not taught in primary schools.
Nicolas Halpin (or Halpen) ran a private boarding school for boys of primary school age on the Main Street of Portarlington from 1785-1803.
It is unclear when the Church of Ireland primary school moved from the original site to the site of the old Halpin’s school on Main Street. It is thought that it was c1860’s. This primary school was then known as the No. 2 National School, Portarlington. The pupils learned English, Religion and Mathematics. During this time, pupils started to learn Irish also. In the 1950’s, they played handball and a type of football similar to Gaelic football on the yard at break time. The teachers used a handbell to call the pupils back to class from break time.
The French Huguenot church built ~1694 was extended in 1851 to become St. Paul’s Church as we know it today.
In the 1950's, it was decided to build a modern primary school. Land in Sandy Lane was kindly donated by the Ridgeway family and the school was officially opened by the Chief Inspector of National Schools on January 31st 1958.
In 1958, the school in Sandy Lane had two classrooms with three electric storage heaters that didn’t produce much heat! The junior room was for junior, senior infants and 1st class pupils. Pupils from 2nd-6th class were taught in the senior room. The school catered for around 40 pupils for many years.
Phyllis Broomfield (later to become Phyllis Ridgeway) taught in the junior room and Emily Williams was the principal and taught the senior classes when the school first opened in Sandy Lane in 1958. In addition to the 2 classrooms, there were boys and girl’s cloakrooms as well as one for staff. Outside there was a water tower and a bicycle shed. There were also extensive grounds, utilised initially for playing and sports days, and would in due course facilitate the extension of the school, while still leaving room for outdoor activities.
The school in Sandy Lane was extended many times over the years. The last extension was officially opened on December 2nd 2015 by the then Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan T.D. The school now has four mainstream classrooms, a SET room and a GP room.
Pupils of many different nationalities attend our school today. The pupils now learn a variety of subjects such as Irish, English, Mathematics, Religion, History, Geography, Science, Music, Art, SPHE, Drama and P.E. We use ICT to assist us with many aspects of our learning. We also get involved in many initiatives such as the Green Schools Programme, Active School’s Week, The Amber Flag and the BLAST Arts-in-Education Residency programme.
Acknowledgements: This has been a hugely enjoyable project.
We would like to sincerely thank John Powell for giving freely of his time and expertise to assist us with the historical context and information for this project.
We would also like to sincerely thank Erwin Cobbe and Archdeacon Leslie Stevenson who we interviewed for this project.
We would like to send a huge thanks to Mary Slevin, the artist who worked with us on this BLAST Arts-in-Education Residency programme, for her patience whilst we finalised the details of the project, for sharing her talents and for her wonderful rapport with the 5th/6th class pupils.
Last, but not least, we would like to thank the 5th and 6th class pupils for their superb sketches and for their fantastic work on painting this mural.