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School For Action

Clare Champion, Friday, 5th January 2001

A few years ago, Miltown Malbay's Vocational School was a disused and deserted building, the main talking point being its twenty seven broken windows. But, as the third millennium dawns, the old Tech is enjoying a new lease of life as the Mid and West Clare Resource Centre.

The transformation from dereliction to thriving community facility is the result of a unique partnership between the voluntary sector and statutory agencies. In the early nineties, Councillor Christy Curtin, then a vocational school teacher, and Ballyvaskin farmer, Michael McMahon, were the main movers on the local front.

According to Christy, both men were convinced that the old school could be remodelled to fulfil a new role in the life of the district. "I felt I owed it to my community to make this a viable building again. I'd been talking ad nauseam in Clare County Council on motions relating to the centre but nothing was happening so, a few years ago, we took matters into our own hands and decided to replace the talk with action."

In 1992, the two men joined forces with the county's adult education organiser, Sean Conlan, and Jim Lyons, chief executive of Clare's Vocational Education Committee, to produce a plan for the development of a resource centre. A year later, they got the go-ahead for a social employment scheme to allow for the refurbishment of the school buildings.

Christy Curtin explains, "We had no budget, all we had was our commitment to the idea. And if I was asked in the morning who the real heroes of this project were, I would have to say they were the men on the social employment scheme who worked on restoring the buildings up to 1997. When they went in there, the school was in very bad repair but, today, there isn't a stone out of place".

The main block was originally built by Paddy Con McMahon from Ennis and opened in 1939. Seventeen years later, Miltown Malbay Vocational School launched the country's first farm building course while, in the sixties, a woodwork room and metalwork room were constructed. By 1985, however, falling numbers had sparked the termination of classes under the umbrella of the VEC.

And were it not for the resource centre, the building might still be standing idle. The social services' agency, Clarecare, was the first organisation to set up base in the old school in 1992 to be followed a year later by Clare VEC's Vocational Training Opportunities' Scheme. Since 1996, that scheme has been replaced by the Youthreach programme.

In 1995, the Mid-Western Health Board opened a dental clinic at the centre. It is an excellent service, according to Michael McMahon, covering fourteen schools from the parish of Kilmihil to Cree, to Rineen. He explains, "It serves a broad catchment area in West Clare and drives home the message that the resource centre has a regional dimension as well as a local purpose."

Clare County Council's modern multi-purpose community library functions in much the same way, catering for readers throughout North-West Clare. It too was launched five years ago and today has over a thousand members. The library has a capacity of twelve thousand books and there's a completely new children's section of over four thousand books for every reading age.

The library also houses Clare County Library's traditional music collection on tape and CD, an initiative pioneered some years ago by another Miltown Malbay Councillor, Michael Hillery.

Then, there's the child health department, the welfare office run by the Department of Community, Family and Social Affairs, a playschool group and a mother and toddler group. Art classes are also staged at the centre, both for children and adults.

Four years ago, the go-ahead for the centre's inclusion in the Village Renewal Scheme enabled the founders to plan an amenity and leisure park at the old school and, today, the restoration of the gardens and the rebuilding of the boundary wall with Rockmount stone is almost complete. Christy Curtin, for one, sees that element of the project as recognition for the heritage that goes with the school and for the rural science teachers who took classes there over the years.

The resource centre is a significant legacy to future generations, say its founders and it just shows what can be done with a good idea and a share of enthusiasm and commitment. It is planned to formally transfer it back to the Vocational Education Committee in 2002 and a partnership board is now in place prior to the handover. It includes representatives of the local community, Clare County Council, the regional health authority, FÁS, the Department of Community, Family and Social Affairs and Clarecare.
In the meantime, Christy Curtin and Michael McMahon are anxious that the complex be put to a much use as possible for the benefit of the local community.

"The building is now fully refurbished and restored and we would like to see a full utilisation of all the available space by all the agencies concerned. In particular, we'd like to see an expansion of the health service element into areas like orthodontics, chiropody and physiotherapy. And it would be great if the dental clinic likewise expanded into the treatment of adult patients".

But that is not the end of their vision,for the men also envisage the centre as a meeting place for the elderly, as an adult education centre and, perhaps, as the venue for a study programme geared towards younger students.

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