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INTERVIEW The life of an island teacher

Going Out

Mary McCabe at Roonagh, with her beloved Clare Island cloaked in mist in the background.?Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Mary McCabe at Roonagh, with her beloved Clare Island cloaked in mist in the background.?Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Teaching on a rock

Island múinteoir Mary muses on magical career

Áine Ryan

DON’T blame Peig Sayers or playwright John Millington Synge. Neither is it the fault of Fiche Bliana ag FÁS or Tomás Ó Criomtháin’s, An tOileánach. The fact that our offshore islands have always teetered on the edge of our imaginations is not because their cultural and linguistic significance forced them on to our educational curricula over the years.
These rocky jewels fascinate us because they are miniature worlds apart. Filled with the lore of the past, they stand beckoning mysteriously on our horizons.
Just ask recently retired teacher Mary McCabe.
Her epic story started with a whim in the spring of 1975. The Mayo native, 21-year-old Mary (nee) Prendergast, from Emlagh near Louisburgh, was sitting in a Dublin café with two college friends, the late Kathleen Flaherty, from Inis Oirr, and Lucy Taylor, who hailed from Portumna. The soon-to-be Carysfort graduates were dreaming and musing about their first jobs.
Wouldn’t it be so romantic to teach on an offshore island! They could all keep diaries of their experiences and compare notes. Just for a year, mind you. The city lights would beckon again then. And it would be a return to lazy coffees in Bewleys on a Saturday morning, followed by a browse around the Dandelion Market and an early drink in the dizzy din of a city centre pub.
Little did Mary know that fate would compel her to etch out a very different life. 
So how serendipitous, then, when the three friends, shortly afterwards came across an Irish Independent advertisement for teaching jobs on three Irish islands. There were jobs available on Inishturbot, County Galway, and Inishbiggle and Clare Island in County Mayo.
Well, Kathleen lasted three weeks on Inishbiggle. Lucy stayed for three years on Inishturbot. (Coincidentally, Lucy became its last teacher but maintained a lifelong connection with the – now depopulated – island by marrying an islander.)
You could say Mary Prendergast outdid her two friends – dramatically, even prodigiously. 
At a gala and glitzy event, held in Clare Island’s Community Centre recently, she was honoured by her many past pupils, their parents, school staff and the close-knit island community, for 35 years of service at St Patrick’s National School.
Unsurprisingly, on that celebratory night, her first day teaching – July 7, 1975 – in the little school, situated in the village of Kille and in the shadow of the historic Cistercian Abbey, seemed just like a heartbeat away.
Three-and-a-half decades earlier, Mary had found 27 pupils in eight separate classes in a one-room school. There was no electricity and the archaic gas heater proved to be temperamental and tetchy. Along with that, teaching equipment was very basic, particularly if it is compared to the facilities at the state-of-the-art contemporary island school.
“But, you know, from the beginning, from that first day, I always felt I had moved to a special place. Having spent three years living in Dublin, I really felt the uniqueness and magic of the island,” Mary recalls for The Mayo News.
“When I started teaching in 1975 there was a new curriculum which was defined by a ‘Sage on the Stage’ approach to teaching. By the time I took my early retirement, a new ethos of ‘Guide on the Side’ had been in use for about a decade. While both approaches were child-centred, the teacher’s role had not only changed but the level of facilities and support for small rural schools had utterly transformed,” she continues.
She cites the fact that in the 1990s the Clare Island school was among the first in the country to be piloted, by then Minister for Education, Mary O’Rourke, for broadband.
Of course, that wasn’t the only aspect of Mary’s life that changed.
Less than two years after taking up her teaching position, she had succumbed to the attentions and charms of Clare Island publican and farmer, Bernard McCabe. Married on April 11, 1977, the couple – whose quayside home, business premises and post office was the hub of island life – would ensure that the school roll book stayed full by contributing seven children to the educational system.
Six of the seven children attended Mary’s recent celebrations and were central to the craic, ceol agus damhsa on the night. Unavoidably, Ian, who is studying in the US and the proud father of two-month old Tadhg, was absent, but, naturally, there in full island spirit. It was eldest son, Rory, who, representing his siblings, talked with inimitable humour about the fact that there is ‘no escape’ when your mother is your teacher.
But for Mary, it was when she suddenly realised she was teaching a third generation, that the thought of escaping the classroom took root.
“I left teaching though with a great sense of fulfillment and that was largely because I never, ever taught in isolation – even though it was a one-teacher school for much of my career. The parents, the various boards of management, the community, always placed their trust in me and gave me steadfast support. That was a defining aspect of my teaching. For that, I will always be grateful.”