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Teaching through the ages

The Interview
Image of Neil Lynchehaun

Teaching through the ages

Neil Lynchehaun has stepped down as principal of Achill’s McHale College after a remarkable 38 years in the job

Anton McNultyAnton McNulty

THE next couple of weeks would normally be the busiest weeks of the year for Neil Lynchehaun, who for close to 40 years has been the principal of Achill Vocational School, now better known as McHale College.
But this September as the pupils start their new year, Neil won’t be there to greet them. Instead he will be putting his feet up in his home in picturesque Valley, as he enters his retirement.
Sitting in his office chair for one of the last times last week, he is in a relaxed and jovial mood but he openly admits that he will miss the job.
“I had some great years here and I would love to have stayed for another few. The first day back in September was always exciting, all new fresh faces. I feel very lucky to have had a job like this. The pupils were always so full of enthusiasm and never seemed to grow older. Only the teachers got older,” he laughs.
While he often says ‘it is the best job in the world’, teaching would not have been first choice if the CAO system was around who Neil was leaving St Mary’s College in Galway all those years ago.
He initially set his sights on Agricultural Science in UCG but on his way to Galway he was advised to do Commerce. On arrival he was told to bring a reference from St Mary’s which was not an easy task given that he was almost expelled for going ‘mitching’ with other Mayo lads.
“My reference was this simple, ‘Neil Ó Lionsigh was a pupil in the school, I hope you let him in to your university’. Two lines, and when I handed it in, the registrar looked at it and threw it in the bin.”
Despite the not so glowing reference, he was accepted and graduated in Arts and Commerce in 1964 but after failing to get a job he was all set to go to England when he received a letter from Tipperary VEC saying he had been appointed to Killenaule Vocational School.
“I scurried for an atlas wondering where the hell was Killenaule,” he recalls. “I discovered it was near Clonmel and I knew one lad from there and he drove me to Killenaule. I was there a month, a lovely school, there are 700 in it now. I was only 20 at the time and they had a shortage of teachers in Clonmel and they asked me to go there. On the fifth of October 1964 - my 21st birthday - I started in Clonmel and they asked me to teach six subjects. If you asked a teacher now to teach six subjects they would say, ‘Bye, bye’.”
He stayed on in Clonmel for a year and was content until a double tragedy struck his family in 1965. On September 30, his father died suddenly from a heart attack and less than a month later his brother who had come home from England for the funeral drowned when his car went off the road at the Valley bridge.
On his way back to Clonmel, following the two traumatic funerals, he met a teacher from Castlebar who told him there was a job available in the school. Neil filled in the forms and while he didn’t get the job in Castlebar he was appointed to a new school in Charlestown. However, the school was not completed and he spent two weeks in the Vocational School in Cashel on Achill in December. He was not impressed with the conditions.
“My God,  the conditions were appalling. Where I was teaching, there was a heater on the wall and water running down behind the electric heater, that is how bad it was. All the emphasis was on woodwork and drawing, Irish and English didn’t really matter. They were getting them ready for England and in all fairness they produced some fine carpenters.”
He had no intention of staying in Achill but after finally arriving in Charlestown in March he was not happy with the school and began his 43 years as a teacher in Achill in September 1966.
Around that time the Intermediate and Leaving Cert were introduced to Vocational Schools and he agreed with the then principal, Charlie Forker, to draw up timetables to divide time for each subject, to give an opportunity for pupils to go to College.
“Most of the teachers at that time like Josie Healy, Martin McGlynn (who is also retiring this year) and JJ McNamara were locals and we decided that it wasn’t good enough that everyone just headed off to England when they had exams finished. It was a mental thing at the time - to go to England - so we decided we should try and get students to think about college as an option. We busted our asses at it, there is no doubt about it. The first Junior Cert exam was in 1969 and went on from there and kids slowly realised that when they did well in exams, they could go to college. We are at a stage now where nearly all students contemplate going to college.”
Neil was appointed principal in 1971 and throughout his years as a principal sport played an important part in school. The school went through almost all of the 60s unbeaten and reached the ‘A’ All-Ireland Final in 1977.
McHale College also got to a ‘B’ All-Ireland Final as recently as 2005 and the All Ireland semi-finals of vocational school’s soccer in the mid 1990s.
“Sport was always a big deal for me, and not just football, we took part in athletics and had some natural athletes. At that time, kids were needed at home to do a lot of work but you could always be sure that the day of a football match they would always be at school. The GAA was very important to us and to Achill. If we stopped football here Achill GAA would be finished. There is no doubt that if Achill GAA goes or indeed if Achill Rovers goes, Achill itself will be a poorer place.”
During his first years as principal, Achill had been designated to have Ireland’s first Community School in 1972 by merging the two schools on the island. However, it never materialised and it was 1982 before the school moved from Cashel to their new site in Polranny, which was then renamed McHale College.
Looking back at 43 years teaching in Achill, Neil feels that the three most important qualities a teacher should have are; you most like children; you must know your subject and you must be able to deliver that knowledge to the children. He admits times have obviously changed but he does not agree that it has become tougher to teach children in these modern times
“I don’t agree, not at all. I remember down in Cashel, there were nuns teaching and pupils would have to carry their bag from one pre-fab to another. This lad was carrying a sister’s bag outside and it was lashing rain. He left the bag down, took his cap out of his pocket and put it on his head but another fellow had come along and emptied the nun’s bag upside down. Books, copies everything. She came out and of course she leathered him and not the other fellow.
“There will always be that bit of devilment but in general, the pupils are no problem, they are marvellous. If the child has a problem, it is not their problem, it is coming from home. Things have changed but basically the kids are still great.”
As he looks out over the sea in Polranny from his soon to be vacated office, Neil admits there have been disappointments - but no regrets. So how will he spend his time from here on in?
“I will probably travel a bit, we got a season ticket for Liverpool this year so I’ll probably visit Anfield - and there are a lot of books I haven’t finished. I also have a little farm to keep me quiet so I will go back to my ranch down in The Valley.”
There can be little doubt it will be a retirement well deserved.