We all admire teachers who, through their skills, knowledge and enthusiasm, instill in their pupils a love for the subject they teach. The really great teachers, though, do even more. By example, they teach their pupils how important it is to care for others. Grace Mulligan, Vice Principal at Scoil Cholmcille, Newtowncunningham, is one of those teachers. She retired yesterday (Wednesday, February 29), after 34 years in the profession.
Geraldine McFadden, school secretary, says of her: “Grace will be so much missed. My son was fortunate enough to have her in 4th and 6th class and he absolutely loved her. All the children do. She taught my husband as well!
“Grace has such a wonderful way with children. She inspires them and brings out the best in them, what more could you ask for?
“She has such an interest in so many charitable causes and the children have been involved in most of them. They’ve raised so much money for The City of Hope Project in the Philippines. They made bracelets and sold them to raise funds for Children in Crossfire. And they plant yellow crocuses every year, in the shape of a Star of David, to bloom in time for Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27.”
Grace, who is originally from Dunfanaghy and now lives in Letterkenny, says she always knew she wanted to be a teacher.
“I had a very inspiring teacher, Eamonn Cannon, at Holy Cross NS in Dunfanaghy. He was very much into history and languages and Irish. I still remember ways he taught and things that he taught.
“I loved school. I was very happy in that environment so I always felt teaching was what I wanted to do.”
After earning her BA in English and History in Galway, Grace did the HDip in Galway and qualified as a secondary school teacher. As it happened though, her training placement was at a primary school, teaching sixth class. Finding jobs scarce and seeing how much she enjoyed teaching at primary level, Grace completed the Graduate Diploma in Primary Education at St Patrick’s Drumcondra. She qualified in June and was offered the job in Newtowncunningham just two months later. And it’s where she stayed, for 34 years.
“When I started, in 1977, the school was across the road and I was in one of the pre-fabs. There were four classrooms and two prefabs in the old school with six teachers including a teaching principal. In those days, most of the children lived in the village itself. The classes were quite bit as well, with an enrollment of about 220 students.
“Now there are about 240 pupils, with eleven teachers and a full time principal. Having resource and learning support teachers is a huge benefit to the school, especially to the children and their families. We also have a full-time secretary which is a massive help and Special Needs Assistants.
“I’m sure that sounds like a huge increase in staff numbers but it’s vital. The curriculum now is unrecognisable from what it was when I qualified. There are so many more subjects and so many ancillary activities and programmes that we have to provide and there are still the same number of hours in the school day. I think that’s possibly something that older people, such as grandparents, who went to traditional, small, rural schools, don’t fully realise.
“This school, in terms of the building, grounds and resources, has developed tremendously over the years. The new building opened in 1984 and the extension in 2009. This provided two new classrooms for the senior classes. The car park and grounds were also developed significantly, including the astro-turf pitch which is a wonderful facility.
“All of this was due, in no small part, to the vision of our principal, James Doherty, and the support he received from our Board of Management.”
So, how did the charitable work come about?
“The school has always had a strong tradition of giving. In the 1990s, I read an article written by a nun who was working in The Community of Hope in the Philippines. I spoke to Fr Oliver Crossan, a Columban missionary, and he suggested I write to her.
“We started a Pen Pal Club between our school and theirs, which is a school for children and young people with special needs. We send them cards for Christmas and St Patrick’s Day. Then send us Christmas cards and Valentine’s Day cards. One Christmas, we raised €120 by raffling a hamper. Each child brought something in for it. Sr Clement told me the money paid their electricity bill at a time when they didn’t know where they would get the money.
“That had a profound impact on me – to think that something that cost us so little made such a difference.
“So we carried on fundraising.”
Grace plans to keep busy in her retirement. “I’ve just gotten involved with Relay for Life, so I reckon I’m going to be going a mile a minute until May. And I have a lot more mountains to climb after that!”