By Paul O’Malley
St Mary’s Secondary School will have the official opening of its new school campus this Friday, May 19.
Minister for Education Norma Foley will be present to officially launch the new St Mary’s, which is seeing its first year on the new campus drawing to a close.
Students and staff spoke to the Western People about their impressions of the new school with its maiden year almost behind them. For Leaving Cert student and chairperson of the Student Council Maeve Hackett, it has been a change for the warmer.
“The old building was very different. It was much colder and we used different buildings so you’d be running between classes trying to stay dry.
“The school is bright, there are windows everywhere and everything is up to date. The old computers in the old school, it was like they were there for centuries!”
With a Near Zero Energy Build standard of construction, the school is run sustainably, something that students have a great appreciation for.
“I think all of the initiatives, like the solar panels and harvesting rainwater from the roof are brilliant,” said Maeve. “It is good to know that we have an eco-friendly campus.”
First-year student Aoife Bourke experienced a big change, moving from Kilglass NS where she finished sixth class, to St Mary’s.
She admits that she found it a little overwhelming in the beginning but has come to really enjoy the school and all its facilities.
“It was just me and my cousin who came from my primary school and we didn’t know that many people. So we found it hard to come in by ourselves.
“It was a little overwhelming at first but once we got used to it, it was amazing. It has been really good and I really enjoy it here. It has been so cool to use the hall and the astroturf.”
Principal Robert O’Reilly said that there have been challenges all around but the school community has risen to meet those challenges with great enthusiasm.
“It is a big challenge for everyone but it is exciting at the same time. Sometimes change might be hard but this change was great for us. It meant we were coming to a new school, a new beginning while not forgetting our past.”
Getting settled in may well be the easier part, considering the difficulties it took to get here. After all, the school was first sanctioned by the Department in 2006. A decade and a half on from this, work was underway but then Covid-19 threw a few more curveballs, bringing Robert and company right to the wire.
“We had hoped to have substantial completion in May last year which would give us the whole summer to get all staff in and everything equipped. That didn’t happen and it was down to Covid and supply chain issues, that really pushed us to the deadline.”
The new school was still a building site over the summer just before they moved in which meant that access was limited to those with safe passes.
This meant that it was down to Robert and a handful of colleagues to put the finishing touches on the school, which was in this case, truckloads of desks and assorted furniture.
“If things had worked out and Covid hadn’t happened, I know our staff would have been delighted to be there and the parents association too to help out.”
Then, with much of the groundwork done on setting up rooms, there was still the matter of signing off on the final required safety certs and other documentation.
“The week before we were due to open, we were to the wire waiting for our fire certs and other certificates to sign off and say we’re fully safe. That finally came on the Friday at 4 o’clock when we were so close to telling everyone the school wouldn’t be open the following week.”
Everything was in order at last. With one school year nearly behind them, Robert said it feels like they have been on the new campus forever.
In September, Aoife will be a second-year student, something she is greatly looking forward to and all going well, Maeve will be studying to become a secondary school teacher. Meanwhile, at St Mary’s, the plan is to open the facilities to the community in Ballina for use, should the need arise.
The school building was used in April to accommodate the world’s media during the visit of President Joe Biden, much to their great credit, so the possibilities look endless.
“The facilities here are great for the town and it will be great for us to be able to share them with the community,” said Robert.