Callinafercy National School (established 1888, photo 2005)

The Girl in The Red Coat

By Bridie Keane & Ann Robinson


Callinafercy National School (established 1888, photo 2005)
Callinafercy National School (established 1888, photo 2005)

This is really my mother’s story, but she has left me to do the telling. 

Many years ago on one of our annual holidays to Kerry, this time with my mother (Bridie Keane of Dungeel, in Killorglin parish) and my young daughters, we were driving from Killorglin to Inch for a day on the beach. On the way we saw a sign for Callinafercy and Mum mentioned that this was where she went to school. The girls in the back of the car asked if they could see where Nana went to school. 

My mother hesitated to answer, but by this time I had turned the car around and soon we were heading down a dark narrow road, under a canopy of overhanging trees. It took a little searching, but eventually we came across the school building. Callinafercy National School was sadly looking much more forlorn and derelict than in my mother’s day. It would have been well over seventy years since she had spent some of her most formative years there.

As we stood outside, looking around, my mother described the two classrooms in the school. The front door was long since gone. Peering tentatively inside, we could see the floor had also fallen into huge disrepair, and there were many holes in the roof. There was little, if any, of the furnishings left.

One thing my mother pointed out, still to be seen in the porch, was the row of hooks where the children hung their coats — the boys on one side and girls on the other. This is where the memories hang. On one of those hooks my mother hung her red coat on her first day at school.

This is her story …

“I was born in 1927 and started school after the Easter holidays in 1932. I have vivid memories of my first day at school. I had just come to live with my aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Dan Keane, on their farm at the Abbeylands, near Milltown. They had four children of their own, three boys and a girl called Bridie Mai. I was also called Bridie. To differentiate between us I was known as Bridie Tom, after my father, and she was Bridie Dan, after her father. Her mother, my aunt, was one of the three teachers at Callinafercy school. Jamsie Lamb was the head teacher and taught the older children in one room. The other classroom was shared by my aunt who taught the reception class, and Mrs Lamb who taught children in the middle age group.

“I was never sure as to how it came to be that I had left my own home in Dungeel, and was sent to live with my aunt. I think it may have had something to do with the decline in numbers of children attending school. Callinafercy school was dropping to an unacceptable number of pupils to warrant three teachers. All the time I attended that school there were three teachers but, soon after I left, Mrs Lamb went to teach at the juniors’ school in Killorglin. My aunt remained at Callinafercy school until she retired.

“On my first day at school I wore a red coat and black patent shoes.The coat was made of red flannel and was made by my grandmother, Mrs Dan Moriarty, who lived at Dromin (also in the parish of Killorglin). At that time all the children from the Abbeylands travelled to school on a donkey and cart. The donkey was very docile and was called Tom Hurley. We used to let him graze in the field at Maggie Shea’s shop, which was near the school. 

“The more fortunate children came to school with a bottle of milk and a small package of bread and butter to have for lunch. In the winter the milk was put in front of the turf fire to warm. After I had been at school a while, it was my job to get water. My aunt would then boil the kettle and make a gallon of cocoa and to which the milk we brought was added.

MacGillycuddy Reeks from the homestead in Dungeel (Ann Robinson)
MacGillycuddy Reeks from the homestead in Dungeel (Ann Robinson)

“One of the days that stands out in my mind was when the school inspector came. In Mr Lamb’s classroom there was a large map of Ireland on the wall. The inspector asked the class to show him on the map the highest mountains in Ireland. John Sullivan’s hand shot up and he said “Sir, if you step outside with me, I’ll show you exactly where they are”, pointing to the MacGillycuddy Reeks.

“Another visitor to be feared was a certain parish priest whose demeanour frightened the life out of the children. He would come before the Confirmations were to take place, in order to examine the children on religious knowledge. This particular time the question that was put to the class was ”was faith alone necessary for salvation?” No child knew the answer and, as I looked down, I saw a puddle appear on the floor trickling slowly towards the priest’s club foot: for some poor child the fear had been too much. The answer he gave us was “faith alone without good works is dead as the body is without the soul”. Some of the older boys who, on getting the Confirmation “slap on the cheek”, would be raring to go, to leave their short school days behind them and go out into the world of work.

“We were taught to speak Irish in school. One girl ,who I believe had come from England to live with her grandmother, found this was an arduous task. Her grandmother, meeting her from school one day, asked how she had got on at school. She replied “alright, except that she could not be doing with the ‘cad é sin?’ (what is that?)”. 

“I struggled at school with reading, and only in later years I came to realise that I was dyslexic, a term that would not have been recognised or used in those days. There were no books in my own home at Dungeel, but at my aunt’s house there was a daily paper and books to read. In the evening, after the chores were done, I would sit and persevere with the task of trying to understand the words in front of me. On leaving school I passed my matriculation exams, which were in Irish, so those evenings of sitting by the fire and struggling with the reading paid off!” 

These are just a few of the memories my Mum shared with us the day we passed by Callinafercy school. I can see in my mind’s eye the small determined black haired girl, with the red coat and shiny black shoes, and wonder on which hook did she hang her coat? As I sit with her now, frail and white-haired, with still a glint in her eye, I’m sure she has a few more memories yet to share but “sin scéal eile” (that’s another story)!

About the Author

Ann Robinson is a retired district nurse, based in Lancaster, UK, who visits Ireland on a regular basis. Ann’s love for the country began during her summer holidays spent on her grandparents’ farm in Dungeel. Ann has a special interest in Irish literature and poetry, and since her retirement has been fortunate to have more time in Ireland, enjoying walking in the hills of Kerry.


  1. After so many years the memories. The red coat and black patent shoes. Travelling to school on a donkey and cart. The distress caused by Paddy Burke. The more fortunate children had a bottle of milk and a package of bread and butter for lunch. The fear that caused a puddle to appear under one child’s desk because she/he did not know ‘“faith alone without good works is dead as the body is without the soul”.
    The power of memory and the sensitivity of the young child.

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