Dr Paddy Ferry: Remembering Eunan O’Donnell

Eunan O’Donnell founded a secondary school in Dungloe back in 1956, which gave many young boys and girls the chance of a continued education which they otherwise would never have had

I was reminded recently that had he lived, Eunan O’Donnell would have been 100 on August 4th last year. Sadly, Eunan passed away on 20th May 1999.

Now, this is a name that is probably not well known – or not known at all – to many of our young people today. However, for many children in the 1950s and 1960s, in the Rosses and West Donegal in general, he was someone who would have a crucial impact on their lives. And this was because he founded a secondary school in Dungloe which gave many young boys and girls the chance of a secondary school education which they otherwise would never have had. I certainly would never have seen inside the door of a secondary school if it had not been for Eunan.

He can rightly be regarded as one of the great pioneers of education in Co Donegal. Indeed, Eunan was the pioneer of secondary school education in the Rosses. When he opened his Ard-Scoil Cholmcille in Dungloe on 3rd September 1956, he was launching a project which generations in the northwest of the county would later have reason to regard with deep gratitude. For without that school in Dungloe, countless young people in the Rosses and beyond would never have had the opportunity of a secondary education to Leaving Certificate level.

Eunan Paul O’Donnell was born on 4th August 1923, in the Cottage at Roshine near Burtonport – the house that would later become the home of Francie and Mary Breslin and their family. He was the second son of the late Annie and the late Jimmy Donnchadh Rua O’Donnell (1888-1973). Annie, née Carr, (1893-2001) a native of Kilcar, was in her 106th year when Eunan died.

Both Annie and Jimmy were national schoolteachers and they taught in Meenbanad NS. Meenbanad school, now long since closed, was a three-teacher school in those days and Eunan received his primary education there.

From Meenbanad he went to secondary school at St Eunan’s in Letterkenny, where a contemporary was the late Neil Blaney. Until the opening of the secondary school in Dungloe in 1956, St Eunan’s continued to be one of the few options open to young people in the Rosses, Gweedore and Cloughaneely who might have aspired to a Leaving Cert education. Sadly, of course, it was, in reality, an option open to a relatively few whose parents could afford the fees and the cost of boarding.

From Letterkenny, Eunan went to seminary in Maynooth where he studied for a time for the priesthood. He left after three years with a BA Honours degree, obtained his Higher Diploma in Education at UCD and then studied at London University where he graduated with an MA in classics. After graduation in London, he taught at Finchley Grammar School before returning to Donegal to found the secondary school in Dungloe.

Shortly after the opening of the school he met Mary Tarpey, a native of Bekan near Ballyhaunis in Co Mayo, who was then teaching in Loughanure Technical School. Mary and Eunan were married in August 1957.

The new school began with temporary accommodation in the parochial hall and the old tech building nearby. In September 1958 it moved across town to the building that had been Campbell’s Hotel on the Main Street in Dungloe. Only in 1961 did it move to a custom-built school on the Chapel Road. When the school opened in 1956 there were four teachers: Jimmy and Annie O’Donnell, Eunan’s parents, Miss Carr from Gortahork and Eunan himself. There were 36 pupils. By the time the school moved to the new building in 1961 there were over 100 on the roll.

Crucially, when the late, great Donagh O’Malley changed Ireland forever with that famous and magical stroke of his ministerial pen and made free secondary school education available to all the children of the nation, a secondary school was already established in the Rosses, Eunan’s Dungloe High School. The last year’s intake before free secondary education was introduced, 1966, saw 11 enter as the new first years. In September 1967, the first full year of free secondary education there were over 40 in first year and two class rooms had to be used to accommodate them.

The school continued until 1972, when it merged with Loughanure Technical School to form the new Rosses Community School.

By then, scores of young people had passed through the school with Intermediate or Leaving Certificate qualifications. Many had acquired the qualifications necessary for entry to university. Past pupils of the secondary school are to be found in a wide range of professions from teaching, accountancy, banking, politics, nursing, engineering and dentistry to local government administration and the civil service, some rising to the highest levels.

Eunan left Donegal the previous year, 1971, before the merging of the two schools, with his family to live in Dublin, where he continued to teach at Gonzaga.

But he will always be remembered as the founding headmaster of the Dungloe Secondary School. He was a visionary in the true sense of the word in that he recognised the need to educate young people, many of whom, he felt, were having to leave home without an adequate education.

However, he was first and foremost a distinguished scholar. He had a brilliant mind and possessed a tremendous academic versatility which was reflected in the great breadth of subjects which he taught – Latin, Greek, French, Irish, English, German and Maths to Leaving Cert level and Science to Inter Cert level.

As a person he had a great presence about him; he was a big man who always carried himself well and he was, undoubtedly , a great figure of authority in the school. There was a certain aloofness – often found in academics – but also a great dignity and, I found, unfailing fairness and courtesy in his dealings with his pupils which easily won him the admiration and respect of his school.

I often wonder if his outstanding contribution, to the lives and futures of so many of us, has ever really been properly recognised. Indeed, when I would speak with him in later years at his home in Dublin, I would get the impression that, perhaps, Eunan himself did not fully understand the significance of what he had done for us.

However, many of us do recognise what he did for us and for that we will always remember him with everlasting gratitude.

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  1. Seamus Ahearne says:

    Thank you Paddy. Your delicate and gentle profile of Eunan O’Donnell is special. It is warm, affectionate and grateful. It evokes what is best in all of us: an awareness of what we have received and from whom. Well done.
    Another artist/painter appeared on The Tablet 22nd June 2024. Cathy Galvin does the portrait of a priest/of priesthood. It is like your portrait of Eunan. It is gentle and delicate; affectionate and warm. Again it stirs the best in all of us. Yes. Eucharist happens when our innards are fed with the positive food of gratitude. The Word becomes flesh. Seamus Ahearne osa

    1. Paddy Ferry says:

      Seamus, thank you for your kind and generous words.

      I wrote this for the Donegal Democrat a few months ago as I had a sense that people had forgotten about Eunan.
      I could never be content with that as he truly was a great man and changed the lives of so many of us.

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