Achill’s cocoa war

County View

County View
John Healy

If the winning by Mayo of its first all-Ireland in 1936 was a cause of celebration across the county, the goodwill did not extend as far as Achill, where strife and conflict reigned in a fractious school dispute.
It was a row that, according to media reports, led to scenes of riot, rowdyism and uncontrolled violence; which saw teachers being attacked and manhandled by angry parents; and where Gardaí were badly beaten in scenes of brutality.
The school war had its origins in the Schools Meals Act, under which children in deprived areas were served with a meal – consisting of a cup of cocoa with buttered bread – on arrival at school. The scheme depended on the voluntary cooperation of the teachers and senior pupils of each school, who would prepare and serve the meals.
The teachers had co-operated with the system until in mid 1936, a change came. A directive came that the hot cocoa was to be replaced by cold milk (because of its greater nutritional value). At that stage, the teachers withdrew their support. Nine school principals in Achill, all members of the INTO, demanded that the Board of Health employ a local person to serve the meals, something the Board refused to do.
And so began the bitter stand off. Six hundred pupils in the nine schools went ‘on strike’ because they could not secure the meals they felt entitled to. The parents formed the Achill School Meals Committee in a vain attempt at forcing the teachers’ hand. Both sides became more entrenched, with the teachers continuing to attend their now empty schools on a daily basis
By early 1937, extra gardaí were drafted into the island to keep the peace. On several occasions, as gardaí attempted to escort the teachers to their schools they were set upon by angry gangs of parents. Cars were damaged, windscreens smashed, teachers were physically assaulted and manhandled, gardaí were badly injured; roads were blocked and teachers forced to return home and, in a number of cases, to leave the island.
There were accusations and counter accusations. The INTO declared that a local communist Soviet was running the island and that gang law prevailed. The State was remiss, the teachers claimed; first for not protecting its employees, and then for failing to implement the School Attendance Act which would force the children back to school.
However, quite a different explanation was offered by the newly elected County Councillor for Achill, Mr McNulty, who told a Board of Health meeting that the dispute was a political one. He explained that the original cocoa supplier was a local Fine Gael shopkeeper, but that the new milk contract had gone to a Fianna Fáil supporter, something he said ‘the Blueshirt teachers were opposed to, in order to thwart the new government’.
“The parents will not give up the strike until they have hunted the teachers out of the island,” he warned. “They will have to go, bag and baggage.”
Following an Easter peace conference, the majority of pupils returned to their schools, with the exception of Dookinella, where the principal, James Murphy, demanded an apology for threats made against him. For their part, the parents wrote to the Board of Health to say they would not send their children (‘who were now perfectly happy in Bunnacurry and Keel’) back unless Mr Murphy was removed completely.
It took the intervention of Dr Gilmartin, Archbishop of Tuam, who appealed to all sides in a spirit of peace and charity, reminding them of the huge grief inflicted on the community only weeks earlier by the Kirkintilloch tragedy, to finally bring closure.