Tuesday 2 June 2020

Modern Limerick; first female Vocational School in Ireland

Exploring my 5km radius from my home during Covid-19 lockdown I got to see in 'real life' two vocational schools Andy Devane designed on the Crumlin Road in Dublin. This made me think of a vocational school in his home city which was not just the first female vocational school in the county, but also the country. 

The 1930 Vocational Education Act gave local councils the job of developing technical education and a large scale school building programme was undertaken in the vocational sector in 1936. The bishops, led by the Bishop of Limerick Dr Keane, sought and received an assurance from the Minister for Education that the vocational schools would not provide general education for those aged 14-16 years. Consequently these schools were prevented from teaching academic subjects and from entering their pupils for state examinations. As a result parents did not regard them highly and they would remain the poor relations of the education system for most of this period known as the 'cinderella of our educational system'. Such was the threat of the vocational schools that throughout the forties and fifties the church secondary managerial bodies were strongly of the opinion that the vocational system should be abolished and be “started again on new and thoroughly Catholic lines.” The story of the vocational education system demonstrates the Irish Catholic Church’s struggle to maintain authoritarian control in schools and successive governments’ policy of appeasement and diplomacy. 
The building as seen from the opposite quay. Its roof competes with that of 
the late medieval ruin Fanning's Castle for dominance of the skyline.
The City of Limerick Vocational Education committee (CLVEC) was set up as a public service education organisation providing a wide range of learning opportunities and education support services. Technical education in Limerick city can traces its origins back to the 1890s when Ms Mary Caroline Doyle (daughter of a Young Irelander) and Ms Graves (the daughter of the Protestant Bishop of Limerick) assembled a group of poor boys to teach them fretwork and wood crafts, later adding a domestic economy class for girls. Such was the success of the work that the local authorities soon engaged salaried teachers and conducted classes in the Athenaeum Building which the Limerick Technical Instruction Committee acquired in 1898. In 1911 the Municipal Technical Institute for the instruction of boys was built in O’Connell Avenue and it would be almost two decades before the girls got their own building dedicated to their vocational training. 

Site before construction of the school
The decision to place a Vocational Technical School within Limerick city reflects the economic climate of the time. The 1930s saw a succession of economic depressions which resulted in high unemployment in the city especially in the meat, dairy and clothes manufacture sectors. This provided post-primary education to people without the financial means to attain a secondary level of academic learning. The contribution and opportunity the Vocational Education Act made to Irish society cannot be overestimated. The Primary School Certificate was voluntary until 1943 and as late as 1957 only 10,000 students sat the Leaving Certificate. Even though Ireland became a Free State in 1922 we modelled our civic policies on that of Britain who had established a program of technical schools in their tripartite education system before the Second World War. In accordance to the Vocational Education Act, Limerick elected a Vocational Education Committee in 1930 controlled by elected representatives while the Department of Education ruled on funding and appointments and awarded grants. They soon set about erecting a new building as part of its new vocational and technical education program. In 1935 the search for a suitable site led them to George’s Quay.

"A New Architectural Asset"
St Anne’s Vocational School, as it came to be called, was the first vocational school in the country to be built for the intention of educating girls and women. A loan of £17,000 was raised by the Vocational Education Committee for the erection of the building and it was opened in September 1939. At the time of its of official opening the Irish Builder announced the building as ‘a new architectural asset has been provided for Limerick’ and the Limerick Chronicle described it as ‘the most modern and best-equipped Vocational School in the country’. This accolade was no doubt down to the Architect, Patrick Sheahan’s, tour of English technical schools three years prior to the drawing of the plans. The building was extended in 1954 by the original architect and renovated again in 1979 due to the school’s expansion it was decided to move out the engineering courses to a new site in Moylish while leaving the Art subjects behind in George’s Quay. 
The Architect
A 1960s postcard
The Architect hired by the Limerick VEC was Limerick architect Patrick J Sheahan (1893 – 1965) of  Sheahan & Clery. Sheahan represents the pre-Second World War tradition of architects learning their craft through apprenticeships as opposed to the college taught approach with a year out in a practice. Sheahan started out as a Mathematics and Art teacher in St Munchin’s College in Limerick before embarking on his architectural career as an engineer in the office of the County Engineer for Limerick Mr J. Moran, followed by working for Robert de Courcey before setting up an independent practice in 1920. In 1924 Sheahan and Timothy Clery MRIAI formed the partnership of Sheahan & Clery. In 1925
Patrick Sheahan was appointed architect and engineer to Limerick County Board of Health and was a consultant to both the County Council and to Limerick Corporation until his resignation in 1947. In 1939 he worked with the Irish Tourist Board and planned the development of many tourist centres including Youghal, Salthill, Tramore and Killarney. Sheahan was associated with the design of churches, schools and convents on three continents, in places as far apart as Florida USA, British Cameroons, Africa and Melbourne Australia. In Limerick he did buildings such as St Munchin’s Diocesan College, boys’ secondary school and adjoining school chapel, Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Ballinacurra, Athlunkard Rowing Clubhouse, Mid-West Regional Hospital and St Munchin's Maternity Hospital. 
Sheehan’s high profile commissions are a testimony to his strong ecclesiastical and political links gaining recognition for his church and school designs by being the first Irish architect to be made Chevalier of the Order of St Sylvester in 1957 by Pope Pius XII and he could count Eamonn de Valera and Sean T. O’Kelly amongst his friends. 
Republican Brick
The building as it appeared in the Irish Builder in 1939. 
It was held as an an example of the contribution Limerick 
was making to modern Irish architecture.
The building is constructed of concrete and brick on a reinforced concrete raft foundation. The ground floor is of reinforced concrete slab construction, while hollow tile reinforced concrete was adopted for the first floor and roof which was asphalted. By sloping the roof towards the back of the building Sheahan avoided the installation of water pipes on the main fa├žades. As with most public architectural endeavours, the political influences of the day are evident and this new vocational building was no exception especially in its building materials. Brick is an abundant material in the Georgian area of the city expressing Limerick’s history as part of a colonised country. However, in 1935 the City of Cork Education Committee wrote an open letter calling on the government to insist on the use of bricks in all public building schemes. It explicitly specifies the use of Irish manufactured bricks ‘in view of the fact that none of the material has to be imported and that the expenditure on production remains within the Country’. It ended imploring the Government to insist on the use of bricks in all public building schemes and expressing hope that architects in control of private buildings would co-operate likewise. The Limerick VEC adopted this resolution for the design of its building. This policy reflects the impact the Anglo-Irish Trade War (1932-1938) was having on the Irish building industry. 
The symmetry of this Modernist building complements the eighteenth century townhouses on the opposite side of the river with its orderly rows of windows. On the first floor the windows are arranged in sets of three: from left to right, four rows of three on the first bay; a row of three flanked either side by a single light and three sets of three larger windows. This is mirrored in the ground floor with the front door underneath the central three windows. These were originally steel hoppers but replaced with uPVC in recent years. However the uPVC transoms were made to follow the originals as can be seen from photographs and elevations from the time. The flat roof and string course emphasises its geometric design and the stepped brick pilasters flanking the double front, coffered, timber doors and its dignified reinforced concrete canopy give the building a restrained formality. There is also further embellishment with chevron patterned brickwork above the door. 
The zigzag motif is simultaneously indicative of the jazz age but also of Irish Romanesque doorways. This simplicity befits the purpose of the school gaining added effect with the discerning use of brick in the plinth piers, the deep colour of which forms a contrast with the white spar pebbles of the dashing walls. Along the front of the building is a bricked dwarf wall with reconstructed cubic stone coping and a wrought iron railing which was replaced in 2009 to be identical to the originals. Over the entrance door St Anne’s opened with the name of the school, in Irish, cut out in stainless steel which has now been replaced with the words ‘LIT Georges Quay’. 
Access to the building is obtained via a wheelchair ramp which was installed during the summer of 2010. Once opening the entrance door the visitor is met with a vestibule and then a spacious main entrance hall. The principal features which strike the viewer are the staircase and the 20ft high stained glass bow window. The staircase is in terrazzo on reinforced concrete with non-slip treads, wrought iron balustrade and mahogany handrail. The terrazzo newel post carries a bespoke light fitting in satin finished metal. The bow window is filled with Finnish amber glass containing three ornamental panels depicting St Anne, the City Arms and the Arms of the Vocational Education Committee. It is interesting that the school was affiliated with a saint as these schools were under secular control and were non-denominational. However Thom’s Directory 1958 shows that twenty-two out of twenty-seven vocational education committee chairmen were in holy orders. Some of the glass had to be replaced in the last year. These small panes were not matched well being replaced with clear glass instead of the distinctive amber colour as illustrated in the photograph below. 
Modern Manner
The original metal newel still remains at the foot 
of the terrazzo staircase
In 1936 the Patrick Sheahan provided the Building Sub-Committee two proposals for the Auxiliary School design. Design A was for girls and design B for male students. Copies of these proposals have not survived however the Meeting Minutes for the 16 March of that year record 
‘In both designs the main attention has been concentrated on functional considerations. The elevations are treated restraining in the modern manner and the plans have been based mainly on considerations of simplicity efficiency and flexibility. As regards the latter it must be remembered that in all probability it will be necessary at a future date to extend the school to provide...additional accommodation’. 
Both designs had an estimated building cost of £7,500 attached to them whereas the eventual winner (Design A) was £2,000 cheaper with regards to figures for future extensions. Design A provided cloak-rooms, stores, kitchen, laundry, sewing room, machinists’ room, general classrooms and gymnasium. Future extensions would be provided by the addition of two wings at the back and making minor internal alterations to provide additional cloakrooms, etc. 
Lecture rooms still retain original ceiling height
The school was vacated in 1978 by the VEC but however reconvened and extended in 1981 upon becoming the Limerick College of Art Commerce & Technology (Limerick CoACT)with the provision of a mansard roof which increased the floor space in the main building by 30 per cent. However, the move to George’s Quay proved to be a short-term solution as the school quickly outgrew this site also. CoACT rented rooms in Bruce House on Rutland Street, Sarsfield House and in the Granary on Michael Street to accommodate the extra courses and student but these soon could not meet requirements with the school renting a further five properties during this period. The advent of Ireland’s membership of the European Community led to funding for technical education throughout the Republic. This, in turn led to the establishment of Regional Technical Colleges around the country. The CoACT achieved RTC (Regional Technical College) status in 1992 under the first of the Institutes of Technology Acts and with this a more suitable site for the school was sought. In 1994 the Good Shepherd Convent in Clare Street was purchased and now houses all the departments of the Limerick School of Art & Design except for the Fashion and Sculpture departments which remained at George’s Quay. 
Despite it's architectural and social importance this building is not on Limerick City & County Council's Record of Protected Structures. Since my visit a little over a decade ago a lift has been inserted in the entrance lobby.