Assumpta Donaghy with her husband Patsy and their daughters, Claire and Eimear
Stars of the big screen, stage and the sporting world all took time out to send messages of congratulations to Letterkenny teacher Assumpta Donaghy who retired this week.
The much-loved Letterkenny woman stepped down as vice-principal at Scoil Cholmcille National School in Letterkenny after spending 37 years on the teaching staff at the school.
On Friday, a special function was held in the school where her colleagues gave her a fantastic send-off.
And on a day of much emotion, one of the highlights was a special video presentation in which a number of celebrities took part in a video message to wish Assumpta well.
A lifelong Liverpool supporter, Assumpta was left in shock when the likes of John Barnes, Ray Houghton, Mark Lawrenson and Andy Robertson appeared on the video.
There were messages too from singers Mary Black, Brian Kennedy and Paul Brady while from stage and screen, John Lithgow and Fiona Shaw.
This week, Democrat reporter Michelle NicPhaidin spoke with Assumpta and looked back on her career in teaching at the Letterkenny school:
Teaching can be a calling, a vocation for certain people, and as you listen to Assumpta Donaghy discuss her thirty-seven years of teaching at Scoil Cholmcille National School with sentiment and passion - you appreciate that this journey is one she was destined to take.
This Friday, Assumpta will retire from teaching from Scoil Cholmcille on the Back Road in Letterkenny. It will be an emotional day for all concerned because Assumpta’s presence at the school for almost four decades will certainly be missed.
As a 17-year-old from Convent Road in Letterkenny, Assumpta sat beside three friends on the bus to Dublin. The year was 1980 and Assumpta, Regina Harvey, Carmel Shields and Noreen Doherty were excited to be heading to Dublin to study at Carysfort Teaching Training College in Blackrock.
Assumpta’s excitement was tinged by a touch of sadness. She recalled saying goodbye to her parents, Barney and May.
She recalled how her late father had been particularly proud of her as she left home that morning. She was certainly going to miss her big sister Patricia and her three brothers John, Bernard and Diarmaid. However, she knew she was doing the right thing - she wanted to become a teacher, to bring values and an appreciation of learning to children for generations to come.
She remembers that teacher training, at that time, was incredibly different to how it is now. Students had to undertake an interview in English, Irish and music.
Assumpta leads the school choir at a Christmas carol service
In those days teaching was described as a vocation and when you went to study teaching people described it as ‘getting the call to training.’
“It was like the vocation of teaching. That is what it was considered and I would have to say looking back, is it a vocation? I think it is because if you don’t love teaching, if you don’t love the children, it is not the job for you because it’s a very special job, I think,” she said.
In 1983, Assumpta was delighted to return to the Back Road and to begin her teaching career in the neighborhood that she was raised in. Her first position was teaching at Scoil Cholmcille.
The year Assumpta took up her teaching position at Scoil Cholmcille changes were afoot. Scoil Cholmcille was previously known as the Presentation Brothers School. Brother Raphael O’Halloran was principal at the time of the all boys school. As a result of the decline in numbers of vocations for the Presentation Brothers they left Letterkenny in 1983.
Tom Redden became principal that September and five teaching jobs became available.
Pauric Daly, Christy Gillespie, Regina Harvey, Noreen Doherty and Assumpta took up their positions at the school on September 1, 1983.
In October, Carmel (Shields) McMacken began teaching in the school alongside her good friends. Carmel continues to teach at Scoil Cholmcille.
Assumpta recalls that her first day teaching second class was nerve wracking: “To think you are out of college and placed in front of a class and these children are your responsibility. We had big classes.”
One of the most invaluable supports that Assumpta recognises and appreciates from that time was the support of other teachers in the school.
“One of them stands out to me, Maureen Keogh who was so good to me. She was a stalwart teacher of Scoil Cholmcille for many, many years, someone who showed what it was to care for and she was more than a teacher - she was just amazing. She was the person who looked after me, took me under her wing and remains a very good friend of mine, ever since,” she said.
In later years, Mary Larkin proved to also be a great support and also became a good friend.
Assumpta’s advice to other teachers is to always offer guidance to younger teachers and she also urged younger teachers to never underestimate the value of experience.
She points out that teachers and pupils have never forgotten the school and remain very loyal. She commended the parents that she has dealt with over the years paying special tribute to the parents’ association.
Teachers, she said, enjoy hearing that past pupils are doing well and they also are deeply saddened by tragedies that may have befallen former students. A strong connection to the school exists after you have left as either a student or a staff member.
Changes in Letterkenny
The school in which Assumpta has taught for over 37 years has reflected the town in terms of the changes that have taken place during that time.
“I grew up on the Back Road, I came to teach on the Back Road. Most of the children who were in my class in the first year, I knew their parents.
“My brother Diarmaid was still in this school. My three brothers all came to this school. I mean everybody knew everybody. Having the local knowledge was a gift and has been very useful down through the years, knowing the children,” she said.
Assumpta pictured with teaching colleague Triona Daly and Paul Hannigan, Letterkenny IT, at a Day of Celebration at the school last January, held to remember the past and embrace the future
PICTURE: BRIAN MC DAID
Over the years, Assumpta has seen changes taking place at the school. Children from a myriad of different backgrounds have become part of the school and despite language challenges for them and similarly for the teaching staff, they have helped the school enormously, according to Assumpta.
“I think it has made the children at the school better pupils, especially when it comes to moving into secondary school. They have met children from different parts of the world and they have become friends.
“They understand different cultures and they understand different languages and they have become much more tolerant and open-minded.”
One of the other major changes that has taken place over the past two years is that girls now attend the school.
Situated in the heart of the communal hall at Scoil Cholmcille a wooden cross leans against the wall. The school has always and continues to have a very strong Catholic ethos.
The school is located across from St Eunan’s Cathedral in the heart of Letterkenny and a symbiotic relationship exists between both institutions.
“For me, that is still a huge part of Scoil Cholmcille - the Catholic ethos of the school.
“It is something that I would feel passionately about. I am very lucky, I have worked in a school so close to the Cathedral, we have had huge involvement with the church, down through the years.
“We can visit the Cathedral for daily Mass if we so wish. We’ve been hugely involved in the sacraments and the preparation of the sacraments.”
Being an exceptional singer, it was a natural progression that Assumpta would become involved with the much-loved and respected school choir which has contributed to Mass on many occasions.
“It is also very important that we have welcomed children of other faiths into the school and celebrate their different faiths and understand their different faiths.
“It has been a learning for all of us and for the children and for the staff but we still celebrate the fact that we are a Catholic school and the Catholic ethos is in our everyday teachings with the children,” she said.
CODE OF BEHAVIOUR
A code of behaviour was brought into existence around 14 years ago when Paraig Cannon became principal.
“This has had a huge impact on life within the school. Every school has to have a code of behaviour but it is really about positivity and rewarding children for their efforts in their work but mostly in their efforts to be respectful towards each other,” she said.
The code instills good values in children.
Sitting in the hall of fame, there are photographs of children in frames. In many schools, this may be a photograph of a child who may have won an award for singing, acting or sport. However, in Scoil Cholmcille, these frames are held for a child who may have helped another child settle into a new school or a child who proves to be a good friend.
“Scoil Cholmcille is a very, very special place to work in,” Assumpta said adding that the staff over the last 37 years have been exceptional, “It is a school where the pupils always come first, always in everything that goes on in the school.”
The curriculum is rich, broad and varied. The children are involved in the Tidy Towns committee with former teacher Anne McGowan which instills an environmental appreciation in the children from an early age.
“Sport has also been a huge part of Scoil Cholmcille. We share great links with the community, St Eunan’s, Letterkenny Rovers and over the years we have had fantastic support from local clubs. Coaches coming in, supporting the staff here and it has been amazing and long may it continue.”
Assumpta also speaks fondly of Paddy Delap who came to school every single day to teach the students table tennis.
This can no longer be done due to the current restrictions.
Music and the choir
Frank Breslin was directing the choir when Assumpta came to the school originally. The choir appeared on the ‘Late, Late Show’ in 1993 under his worthy stewardship.Triona Daly took the choir on and Assumpta assisted with the choir.
Assumpta notes that the choir brings an amalgamation of voices together and regardless of whether the voice is good or moderate, they combine and contribute to the choir which has over the years, forged great friendships.
They have fundraised for St Vincent de Paul, they have taken part in carol singing, they have participated in competitions and sang at religious events in the Cathedral.
In 2013, they participated in the Cross Border Peace Prom. In 2012, when Donegal won the All-Ireland, the choir recorded their own version of ‘Jimmy’s winning matches’ and as a result appeared on the BBC.
“The choir has left me with probably the happiest memories - to see the children so happy when they are singing,” she said.
Assumpta is also a member of the choir at the Church of the Irish Martyrs and among the recent highlights for her and her friends in the choir was singing at Pope Francis’ visit to Phoenix Park in Dublin in 2018.
Changes are taking place at the school at present. Diggers are on-site and work is underway on a new building marking a new era for the school, staff and students.
Assumpta said that the new building brings new promise to the school, alluding to the fact that All-Irelands have been won in athletics, soccer, drama and music without a school hall. She cannot wait to see what the students achieve with better facilities.
“Imagine what will be done when we have new facilities here at the school. It is a new era and it is absolutely so exciting for the school,” the deputy principal said.
Since she became deputy principal eight years ago, Assumpta has been teaching in learning support which allows her more time for other duties.
Support and staff
Assumpta said that great support exists for staff at schools with the introduction of SNA’s.
She paid a special tribute to the school secretary, Mary McElwaine, who may be the longest serving member of staff at the school.
“She keeps everybody right. She keeps everyone up to date. No one should ever underestimate the value of a school secretary. We are very, very lucky here. They are everything,” she said.
Assumpta believes that school secretaries are vital to the success of a well-run school and believes they ought to be paid accordingly.
Assumpta, a lifelong supporter of her beloved Liverpool, is married to Claudy native Patsy Donaghy and they live in Letterkenny. They have two daughters, Claire and Eimear, and both are teachers and like their mother, they also enjoy teaching immensely.
Claire is teaching in Loreto Milford and Eimear is a primary school teacher in Darndale, Dublin.
“Both of them love it. I get a call from the two of them daily and they go through their day with me. So, I don’t think I will ever forget about teaching because it’s the talk in the house all the time,” Assumpta said.
They have undertaken their mother’s journey, they walk in her footsteps.
And they won’t have to look too far if they ever need support and guidance in their respective careers.
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