Spearline, the multi-award winning technology company, currently based at Credit Union House, Main Street, Skibbereen, has completed the purchase of the former St Fachtna’s De La Salle High School buildings and site. The property was owned by the diocese of Cork and Ross.
It’s wonderful news for Skibbereen that the company has, by this investment, committed to consolidate and develop its business in the town. St Fachtna’s is an iconic building – for 170 years it has played a central role in the educational and cultural life of the greater Skibbereen area. Surely now, in its new incarnation as headquarters for Spearline, St Fachtna’s will continue to play a leading role in the development and progress of Skibbereen and West Cork.
Spearline was founded in 2003 by two university friends Kevin Buckley and Matthew Lawlor. It was initially set up to localise and distribute Mandriva Linux software in the European market. Following years of steady growth, Spearline announced a doubling of its workforce in 2016 and a major investment programme with the assistance of Enterprise Ireland. Spearline now employs 50 people and provides a full range of end to end testing solutions for large multinational customers through the Spearline Platform, and has a local presence in 60 countries globally.
CEO and co-founder of Spearline, Kevin Buckley, is of course a past-pupil of St Fachtna’s High School. His company has now bought his old school and he’s going to set up business there. How cool is that?
If the walls of that historic school building could talk, what a story they would tell!
For some 170 years the building has stood in a prominent location at the northern entrance to Skibbereen. It has been an educational facility all that time – until June 2016 when it closed its doors following the building of a new Community School in the town.
There is some confusion over when a school first opened on that site. The commemorative stone over the doorway of the school, and which was later located inside the front door of the building, recorded that it was opened on April 1 1846, but it is much more likely to have opened in early 1847. Whether or which, we know it was opened during the Great Irish Famine (1845-52) and that it featured in some of the literature of that time from Skibbereen which was the epicenter of that appalling human catastrophe.
The building featured in one of the images from the Skibbereen area by Cork artist James Mahony which were published in ‘The Illustrated London News’ in February 1847.
However, this wasn’t the first school for the education of Catholic boys and girls in the town. Skibbereen Free School opened over a quarter of a century earlier, in 1819 – that was some ten years before Catholic Emancipation was finally granted in 1829. That school was on a site across the road from St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was a slated house of stone, lime, mortar and timber, 55 ft x 22 ft, built by public subscription, and a portion of it was used by the teacher and his family.
The veil of the oppressive penal laws was then just lifting from the land. Catholics had been forbidden to have schools of their own or to send their children abroad to be educated. This was at a time when people in the south and west of Ireland were living in extreme poverty.
The government (of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) established a Board of Commissioners for National Education in Ireland in 1831. This was to provide state support for local initiatives in education and it was open to persons of standing such as landlords and clergy to apply for recognition of their schools.
In 1834, Rev John Fitzpatrick applied to the Commissioners to take his Skibbereen Free School under its auspices. The following year Fr Fitzpatrick applied to have the ‘Skibbereen Female School (temporary)’ taken into consideration. In March 1842 Fr Fitzpatrick applied to the Commissioners for aid to build a new school on the site of what later became St Fachtna’s. The site was provided by Sir William Becher, who also gave the ground for the building of St Patrick’s Cathedral and the Convent of Mercy.
The new building comprised four large rooms, two on the ground floor and two upstairs, and “though under one roof … has ample accommodation for four schools; two for male, and two for female children.”
Rev. John Fitzpatrick spent about 16 years as curate in Skibbereen parish. He did extraordinary work here, including the undertaking of a school-building programme. Fr Fitzpatrick’s name appears prominently in reports on the Famine for his heroic work in securing aid and for helping people in this area.
A report in ‘The Cork Examiner’ of March 24 1848 gives some indication of the work undertaken by Fr Fitzpatrick. “In the town of Skibbereen, a really splendid National School has been lately built, at an expense of £1,400. Of this large sum, but £300 was contributed by the Board of Education; whereas £600 were made up in the parish of Skibbereen; and £500 are still due – for which our excellent and exemplary friend, The Rev. Mr. Fitzpatrick, is personally responsible. There is not in any part of Ireland a school-house superior to this; in which there are at present taught about 600 boys and 650 girls. These children now receive a ration each day, consisting of three-quarters of a pound of bread, supplied by the British Relief Association.”
At one time, the British Relief Association, a private charity set up in London in late 1846, was feeding 12,000 children daily in schools in the Skibbereen Union area.
The school saw many transformations in its long history. Following the arrival in Skibbereen of the Sisters of Mercy in 1860, girls were given the opportunity for education in the Convent.
In the 1870s, Dr. Fitzgerald, Bishop of Ross, founded the University and Intermediate School in the building. The first principal was Edward Hogan MA, and the school quickly established itself as an academy of excellence. At one time it was seen almost as a seminary for the diocese of Ross as it produced so many students for the priesthood. Daniel Duggan, another outstanding educator, later served as principal for many years.
At that time the two-storey building accommodated two schools, the national school upstairs, and the University and Intermediate School downstairs.
In 1932 a new national school for boys was opened in Market Street. By the mid-1930s Dan Duggan, who was operating the U&I school on his own, was getting elderly and Dr Casey, Bishop of Ross, was concerned that secondary education should be more widely available and so invited the De La Salle Brothers to Skibbereen.
The De La Salle Brothers began teaching in Skibbereen in September 1937. The school became St Fachtna’s De La Salle Secondary School (St Fachtna being the patron saint of the diocese of Ross).
In the late 1970s the interior of the school was extensively altered in a major renovation, which included transforming the two-storey building into a three-storey one. The Brothers ran the school until 2001 when they ended their 64 years of outstanding service to the Skibbereen area.
St. Fachtna’s High School continued to serve the community until 2016 when it finally closed its doors as an educational institute, bringing to an end some 170 years of an extraordinary story.
There are past-pupils of St Fachtna’s High School scattered all over the world. We’re sure they will all be delighted that their beloved alma mater will not be allowed to go into decline or fall into a state of dilapidation. No. That famous and proud building will revel in its new role. It’s moving with the times. It’s going to be home to an exciting and innovative business. It will continue to serve this and future generations of Skibbereen people. And, is it fate, some wonderful serendipity, that a local man, a past-pupil, is a co-founder and CEO of the company that will occupy the building?
Its story is to continue. It was built during the awful Famine when it witnessed death and destruction on an almost biblical scale. It’s now going to be home to a 21st century, high-tech industry. It’s come a long way!