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Shaws Road bunscoil celebrates 50 years-plus a-growing

Now in its 51st year, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste has gone from strength to strength becoming the largest bunscoil in the North. Beginning with nine children, the school now has a total of 427 pupils more than half a century later. There are more than 7,000 pupils in Irish-medium education in the North today.
Shaws Road bunscoil celebrates 50 years-plus a-growing
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ESTABLISHED in 1971 Bunscoil Phobal Feirste was the North’s first ever Gaelscoil founded by a group of visionary parents. The founders established the urban Gaeltacht on the Shaws Road believing that their children had the right to an education and life through the medium of the Irish language.

Now in its 51st year, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste has gone from strength to strength becoming the largest bunscoil in the North. Beginning with nine children, the school now has a total of 427 pupils more than half a century later. There are more than 7,000 pupils in Irish-medium education in the North today.

Speaking with the Andersonstown News, Principal of Bunscoil Phobal Feirste Séamus Ó Tuama shares the history of the bunscoil over the past 50 years.

“It’s a brilliant story and it’s an absolute honour to be in this office, it’s a privilege. This is the largest bunscoil in the north with 427 pupils. It’s special even now walking through the gates every morning with my own wee man, he’s P6 and my Da used to do the same with me. It’s a great feeling. A lot of the staff are past pupils and they’ve got their kids in the school and that speaks volumes," says Séamus.

“I was raised on songs and stories and a lot of them were about the school. Obviously it was difficult times, in 1969 the Troubles kicked off. The founders of the school are brilliant people. My father would have brought me up on stories on how the school was actually founded and how it started.

“The handful of parents who moved in there on the road and wanted to set up their own Gaeltacht, what has grown out of that is phenomenal. It’s miraculous. What they started with was just a dream for an Irish medium school for their handful of children, and from that a lot more people started buying into the vision and to this day not only do we have 427 on this site, but you’ve also around 95 different Irish medium settings throughout the North. So how it started is a real motivating story for me particularly.

“I was born down in the Clonard. During the Bombay Street bombings, when the houses were being rebuilt the people were rehoused in temporary accommodation on the Glen Road huts and the founders of our school where involved in the building of Bombay Street. Seán and Séamus Mac Seáin who were intricate to the Andytown News as well, they rebuilt Bombay Street. When the people were moving back in, one of those wee huts came available and Seán and Séamus basically broke it down and brought it down to the site. On Friday there wasn’t anything and on Monday there was a school. That’s how it started, and the story just grew from there.”

Séamus’ father Diarmuid also taught at the school and is a former principal of Bunscoil Phobail Feirste as well.

“My father then moved to the Shaws Road and brought us up with him in the early '80s. The school started in 1971, my father started teaching in 1975 and I started in 1978/1979 in the naíscoil. I’ve great memories, fantastic memories. We didn’t know any different as kids, this was where we went to school and that was it. You didn’t know what else was going on out there. A lot of my best friends to this day were in nursery and primary school with me and their children have all came through the school," says Séamus.

“When you think back to those early days when there was no money for the school, thinking back to my memories to the early years, to all those people who fundraised and ran ceilís. Christy Moore did a concert in the Gaiety Theatre and raised money for the school. Friday nights were a big thing where parents would have got together and gone round to local pubs and clubs and fundraised for the Bunscoil.

"My biggest memory of fundraising was Casement Park where the fireworks displayed every year that the school ran and that was a massive earner from the school and kept the school going. The GAA were very good to the school as well. I remember when it became too cold to learn in the huts that we would have either gone to the committee room in St Paul’s or down to Casement and were taught down there. You had so many people doing so much stuff above and beyond.

“In 1984 the school got official recognition and then finally Government support. From that it was lift off. Local families and parents in the area who didn’t have Gaeilge at home believed in the vision of the founders and in the progress of the school and wanted their children to be a part of it and to have that bilingual upbringings to learn more about themselves, where they come from, their culture, language, sport, drama and music.

“The growth of the sector is just unstoppable. To be alive and to be apart of it at this particular stage is brilliant. The school is at a different place now than it was then but there are a lot of schools going through the journey that the bunscoil would have gone through all those years ago and they’re fighting for proper resources, facilities.

“I think it’s powerful that no matter where you are in the world or where you are here in society that you always feel part of something bigger than yourself. It’s a special feeling and I’m so blessed that my own children have been able to experience it as well and that they get a feel of what I felt growing up.”

Speaking on the next 50 years, Séamus said: “It’s going nowhere, it’s 51 years now. School numbers are growing, more and more people are buying into it everyday all around the north and our numbers are oversubscribed every year. You’ve got many bunscoils throughout Belfast and beyond who are delivering good outcomes at a fantastic level, that’s brilliant, that’s what you want.

“To have been the flagship school of the sector, to have been the first school is brilliant but the kind of sector now has outgrown the school, it’s beyond the bunscoil now. You’ve got Coláiste Feirste down the street, it’s the biggest Gaelscoil in Ireland. The school is now only a small part of the story even though it was the founding school. The Irish medium sector is like a solar system and the school being the sun in that it was the first of the sector but now you’ve got the likes of Coláiste Feirste being like Jupiter because it’s the biggest planet in the solar system.”

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