St Mary’s Rochestown School Reunion

by Séamas Feehan, Senior Psychologist

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St. Mary’s School in Rochestown (Cork) hosted a fantastic reunion on Saturday, 8 October last. This was a celebration of 30 years of special education at St Mary’s School. 150 former students from Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford and over 50 former staff members arrived for the celebration.

A reception was held in the school during the after.noon. Michael Fitzgerald, the former chef to the school (and currently the manager of Caritas Training Centre in Cork), provided refreshments for the guests. A couple of chaps from Kerry could not wait for Saturday and they arrived at the school on the Friday! Mary Conroy (the pres.ent Principal) had the school in great shape. Photographs of students and staff from former years were displayed. It was wonderful to see how some people had changed so much over the years. It was also amazing how some others had hardly changed at all. Jim Ryng, a teacher since the school was first opened, acted as MC. Brother John O’Shea of the Brothers of Charity and Patron of the School, travelled from Galway to mark the occasion with some kind words. Una Nagle (Director of Services) also spoke and said that she was impressed by how well the graduates of St Mary’s had turned out. Teresa Fitzgerald, a student in the 1980s and 1990s, thanked the staff at the school for helping her and others so much. The afternoon ended with Mass, celebrated by Fr Séamus McKenna.

About 400 former students were invited to the Reunion. It was difficult to contact everybody as many people have changed their addresses during the 30 years. Sadly, some former students and staff have died in the meantime and they were remembered at the Mass. Susan Ryan, a social work student to Deirdre Quirke (BOC/UCC), made a special commemorative booklet for the reunion and the current final year students provided the artwork. Shane O’Mahony at The Brook Day Service made beautiful bookmarks using a photograph of St Mary’s and these were also given to guests as a gift. The local community also contributed with Douglas Credit Union kindly sponsoring bus transport from City Hall to St Mary’s. Many more memories were shared later that evening, at a Supper and Dance held in the GAA hall in Douglas. The Reunion organising committee was chaired by Marie Kavanagh-Myers, Sector Manager; among the committee members were former students Beverly Smith, Michael Brown and Colm Hennessy.

The St Mary’s Reunion was an idea that came from the Psychology Department. We have been concerned about the social isolation that many adults experience. We know that the social needs of adults with mild intellectual disability are very important. Recreation or having something interesting to do in your spare time is important, but not the only social need. Our research has found that adults with mild intellectual disability have many other social needs. It is really important for some adults to have someone to talk to and to simply have company. Some of these adults are parents. Others have sexual partners and others would like to have a partner. For some people, it is a challenge to communicate with people in the community. In the world outside of services, some adults are being bullied and victimised. In addition to family members, the people who are most important to such adults are the staff who know them and who used to work with them. We want to make services aware of this problem of social isolation and to finds ways of helping people make con.tact with one another.

The reunion at St Mary’s was one idea for tackling social isolation. Reunions frequently occur in mainstream life and they are great for people to come together, to remember their shared history, and to celebrate that past. This Reunion gave many former staff and students something to look forward to, even though we were remembering the past. We hope that other areas in the Brothers of Charity services (such as hostels or group homes) will take up the idea of ‘reunion’ and reach out to former service users and staff, to celebrate our past times together.

St Mary’s is a special school in Rochestown near Cork City, which opened with 15 pupils in the 1974/5 school year. The school is set on 26 acres of farm land. A boarding school to accommodate students was run at the school until 1987. Since that time, students who require accommodation stay in hostels run by the Brothers of Charity in Cork City. In 1979 there were 132 pupils attending the school. Pupil numbers have now been reduced to 58, as special schools have opened in other counties. Nowadays also, mainstream schools accommodate many students with mild intellectual disability. In addition to the academic programme, there is a strong history of physical and social education at St Mary’s.

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