Links to Hand Washing to 2001 and School Closures to Harvest Pressures in 1954

Among the late Michael O’Donohoe’s many historical souvenirs was this directive from the Department of Education to close schools in November 1954 to allow children work on the late harvest of that year. ©Photograph: John Reidy 18-8-2001
Castleisland cattle dealer Aidrian Fleming, pictured with his grandson Aidrian Fleming, points to the Robin’s nest in the engine of one of his lorries at Tonbwee on a Sunday morning in May 2001.The nest was built during the foot and mouth crisis when the lorry was idle. ©Photograph: John Reidy 27-5-2001

Looking for historical comparisons to disease led lock-down conditions the likes of which Covid-19 restrictions have placed upon us all, we need look no further back than 2001.

All the structures of normality around living in Ireland came crashing down in an all-out government bid to keep the Foot and Mouth Disease out of Ireland as it had ravaged the UK.

A Very Determined Bid

It was a very determined bid which went on from early March and all the way to September,

St. Patrick’s Day parades throughout the country were cancelled, international rugby matches were called off and Irish trainers were asked not to send their horses to Cheltenham and they complied.

It was the year of parked up cattle lorries and tractors and squelshy disinfectant mats and soaked straw carpets at every danger point across the country.

Nests in Idle Engines

In fact, birds built nests in idle lorry and tractor engines and there was at least one example of that in Castleisland.

Two local farms were in lockdown for a couple of days because of a suspected case in an animal which was taken from the area up to a mart in the midlands. Thankfully the test gave the farms the all clear.

Collective Breath Holding Times

There is a vital link from those collective breath holding times. School children were being taught about infectious diseases and the habits and skills of hand washing and cough and sneeze etiquette as essential tools in breaking the chain of infections.

Further back again: Following the ‘summer’ holidays in 1954 school children throughout Ireland were given time off to help with the harvest of that year as the weather had been so bad at the time the crops should have been collected

Circular to National Schools

Then the Department of Education issued a circular to managers and teachers of National Schools around the country.

The circular put in place special arrangements for the children in their schools to help in saving crops after a difficult harvest.

I got a copy of the historic document after a chat during the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 from Michael O’Donohoe, NT, and it came to hand from my schools files again recently.

Minister Richard Mulcahy

The contents of the circular, which must have been music to the ears of the children at the time, was ordered by the Minister for Education of the era, Richard Mulcahy, who held the post on two separate occasions in inter-party governments.

Richard Mulcahy fought in the rising in 1916 and served as Chief of Staff of the IRA during the War Of Independence.

He was a supporter of the Treaty and became leader of the provisional government’s army in the Civil War which followed.

Leader of Fine Gael

He served as Irish Defence Minister from 1923-1924. He became Fine Gael leader in 1944, however, he was forced to decline the position of Taoiseach on two occasions because he was seen to be an unacceptable candidate.

Instead he served as Minister for Education from 1948-1951 and 1954-1957. Richard Mulcahy retired as leader of Fine Gael in 1959 and he died in 1971.

The Circular Under Minister Mulcahy’s Instructions Reads as Follows:

In view of the difficulty in saving the crops which is being experienced in parts of the country owing to the exceptionally bad weather conditions, the Minister for Education has been approached to make available the help of school pupils for harvesting operations and he desires that, where needed, the help of the older children should be forthcoming for that purpose without prejudice to the general work of the schools.

The closing of National Schools for a period additional to the ordinary vacation would not be justified since it would interfere with the education of those children who are too young to assist, and there could be no assurance that, in the period of extra closing – which would necessarily have to be fixed in advance – weather conditions would allow of the utilization of the services of those children whom the closing was intended to make available.

The Minister is satisfied, therefore, that, in the uncertain weather conditions prevailing, the help of the senior pupils of National Schools can best be secured by the withdrawal from school, on those days on which conditions allow of harvesting operations, of children who can be of use in the work.

Accordingly, pupils of national Schools who are ten years of age or over may be permitted to absent themselves from school for not more that ten school days in the up to 17th December 1954, inclusive, for the purpose of assisting in the saving of the harvest on the land of their parents (or guardians), in cases in which such assistance is found to be necessary.

Where a pupil is absent from school for this purpose the parent (or guardian) should furnish a statement to the principal teacher of the school certifying the cause of the pupil’s absence. The principal teacher should retain such statements among the school records,”

Labhrás Ó Muirthile, Runaí. Samhain 1954.