This article originally appeared in the Vineyard Magazine no. 56, March 2017.
Each school morning, through generations of school mornings, in every parish in the Republic, classrooms erupted in a sequential chorus of ‘Anseo!’, as the teacher dutifully filled in each oversized attendance book. These roll books, recording the presence or otherwise of the pupils named within, are one of the most identifiable relics of our primary school days. Their use dates back to the establishment of each National School, from the early 19th century onwards. Now these books, along with their partner records of Day Report Books and School Registers, are almost obsolete. The Department of Education has developed an electronic individualised database of primary school pupils, called the Primary Online Database (POD). This new system of collecting primary school records of individual information on each pupil brings significant benefits for schools. It allows for the reduction and streamlining of data records and in particular replaces the need for schools to maintain the old hard copy versions. Thus attendance rolls and registers are now digitally recorded.
While I was undertaking my Masters Degree research in History at NUI Galway, I became aware that many of these invaluable school records are under serious threat of loss or damage. As schools close, amalgamate or undergo renovations, these schoolbooks end up in attics, forgotten drawers, or even leave the buildings altogether. When personnel change and memories fade, these forgotten books moulder, provide comfy nests for mice, or vanish. Thus priceless archives of our heritage are lost forever. That we have no Government policy towards their long-term preservation or archiving is especially shocking. Thankfully my concerns fell on receptive ears at the University.
Now, through the EXPLORE programme of NUI Galway, and in partnership with its History Department led by Dr John Cunningham, I manage the National School Records Audit project. Our team of volunteers are making contact with each primary school within the North-West to establish what records exist, what condition they are in, and how they are stored. We will visit local clergy also, as many school records found their way into parochial houses, especially if the schools involved closed but did not amalgamate with an existing school.
The ultimate aim of the project to compile an inventory of what survives, ensure that these records are stored safely and securely, and to develop a digitisation programme where all roll books, registers, day report books and ancillary records are photographed, page-by-page, thus preserving them electronically. Digitisation will also allow for access by approved researchers to the data they contain. This is especially important as more people are contacting schools in genealogical searches for information on their ancestors. To ensure minimum of school disturbance and adherence to the data protection acts, these original records may thus be stored safely and researchers directed instead to the copy of the records, under supervision.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1922 saw the destruction of the Public Records Office, and the subsequence loss of thousands of irreplaceable documents of Irish history and heritage. It is therefore especially incumbent on us to preserve what records remain, and we could do worse than to begin this work in the schools of our youth – to preserve all those written lines of ‘Anseo!’, in those large oversized roll books that marked the start of all our school days.
If you would like to volunteer towards our project, want any further information, or are aware of where some of these school records may now be- we would love to hear from you! Please contact me on email@example.com
The EXPLORE programme of Innovation through staff and student collaboration is a joint initiative of NUI Galway and NUI Galway Students Union.