Gael Scoil Story
Mercer County AOH Division 10 (Joe Cahill) was formed in 2006 and has not slowed down since. In 2007 Mick McCabe, a County Leitrim native and treasurer of the new division, aware that young Irish-Americans were not as knowledgeable about their culture, nor as inquisitive, as previous generations, proposed an education program to reverse this trend. Not only did Division 10 approve this idea, but their president, John Walsh said, “we (AOH Divisions) run 50-50s, golf outings, and raffles, all of which provide us with funds, but none of which promote our culture, which should be our prime goal. This effort will be our signature event”.

So in late summer of 2007 the Division setup a Committee to work out the details, and boy, were there details. When? Where? Who? Topics? Teachers? Government Requirements? What at first blush seemed an innocuous task turned into a great learning experience. The Committee make-up was key. All members committed themselves to the task and brought their individual expertise to the party. Although “party” may seem a funny word to describe our meetings, it was this atmosphere that enabled such a diverse group to accomplish the formidable task. John Walsh and Mick were the leaders, letting us know what was possible, what wasn’t, often chasing down the answers. Other Division 10 members included Don Carroll (the scribe who questioned every thing and sent out emails on all points addressed, including suggested solutions); Gerry McGuire (who did all the liaison work with Notre Dame High School, which enabled us to lock into their great facility); Gerry O’Rahilly (who brought youth, an exceptional knowledge of computers, and future leadership). From outside Division 10 there was Jim MacFarland (member of Mercer Division 1, who having served in every New Jersey AOH capacity, knew who to contact and how, and who always had ideas); and Tom Slattery (member of Montgomery County (PA) Division 2. who as a lifetime educator was given the job of curriculum developer. One additional “part-time” committee member John McKenna, an athletic trainer at Notre Dame who also had operated many sports camps, led us successfully through a maze we had not thought about, government requirements including forms, background checks, insurance and health requirements, including on-site staffing. His knowledge and reputation saved us chasing round and round the barn to decipher what they really needed and what was not important

The meetings all followed the same agenda. Scribe Don would go over each task assigned at the previous meeting – by the way, these meetings started bi-weekly about six months before the school date, and changed to weekly about 10 weeks before the school, including at least 2 meetings at the school site to familiarize team members with the equipment and the logistics.. After going over the previous meeting’s questions, we would begin to look at new situations, decide whether they were important and assign someone to follow-up. After about an hour or so, it was time to “party”; however, “party” time is really a misnomer as new ideas flowed during this supposed relaxation period and good Scribe Don was kept busy adding to his notes.

We had received the OK to use Notre Dame High School and the last weekend in June 2008 was available. We had already decided the Gael Scoil would be a Saturday and a Sunday, with the Committee (to be called the “team” from now on) furnishing coffee and juice in the morning along with lunch each day. So what topics would we teach and who would teach them? The list of topics was the easier of the two. We knew we wanted language, history, sports, music, and storytelling at the minimum. Who could we get to instruct? And here we ran up against the “friend” syndrome (I know a guy who ). Because the person or group are “friends” they readily agree to teach in this new school, which is some four months away. As the school nears these “friends”, and they truly are friends, but having their own commitments and priorities are not as COMMITTED to our project as the team is. The excuses begin to arrive, most of them legitimate, especially if you had said “yes” merely because a friend asked you to volunteer. Faced with this problem we began to seek out people/groups, not necessarily friends, but whom we knew were committed to the culture. This proved to be one of our first learning experiences and one of our best.

A near meltdown was avoided when less than a week before the school we found enrollments were hovering around the 15 number, and here we proud organizers had determined the facility could hold fifty students and we could teach fifty students and therefore we expected that many to enroll. In the midst of this dilemma, when a few members were in favor of ditching the whole project, Mick said. “if we cancel out now, we will never get this project off the ground again.” And so hiding our initial disappointment we continued last minute preparations. In retrospect, let me mention, that if we had had 50 students that would have been the disaster. No way could our small team have handled such numbers. We had made some nice preparations – borrowing the 32 county flags which we hung from the lighting fixtures in the cafeteria; having a display of Irish maps; Irish music playing in the background; scone prepared by one team member’s wife, and boxes of Gael Scoil t-shirts for the kids. All was perfect and then the kids began to arrive and the scrambling was on. Although we had done a lot of prep, this was our first real live day, and it did not take us long to realize that we were extremely understaffed, not to mention totally outnumbered – especially when the kids began the bathroom requests, the computers malfunctioned, light bulbs blew, and some kids being kids “tuned” us old guys out, and on and on. In the end we thanked God that there were only 17 of them there for our first Gael Scoil.

What really helped us (in addition to our own commitment), was the selection of teachers we were forced to make when we encountered “friend” fallout. For language we enlisted Daltai, a group dedicated to support of the Irish language. They arrived with 3 teachers, armfuls of a/v equipment, Irish language name tags and a plan. They even moved the ½ dozen youngest into a separate room so that both groups could learn more. Daltai has been with us for all first four years. Then we scheduled a ninety minute session on Irish musical instruments with Mark and Tim Carroll. Mark, who had been teaching, studying and performing for over 25 years, is totally committed to promoting the culture. His son Tim, a high school music teacher, is a master on both the fiddle and the bodhran. Mark, by the way, demonstrates and tells the history of the Irish bagpipes, the harp and the hammered dulcimer. Again they have been with us for all four years. Our final session on Sunday was conducted by Damien Butler of the Delaware County Gaelic Football Club, who arrived with 3 coaches and 15 young players and put on a full ninety minute program in 90+ degree weather. We almost lost 2 team members trying to relive their youth. The local GAA has provided us with Irish football and hurling instruction ever since. John McKenna was acting Director for the two days. His presence fulfilled the requirement for a medical person in attendance.

The remainder of the program included watching Irish dance as the local DeNogla teacher and niece of one of our team members switched her recital so it could be part of the Gael Scoil; having a bagpipe lecture and demonstration, which included tunes written by the performers, a Division 10 piper and his son; history, geography and storytelling sessions led by team members; and the final surprise, an Irish song session with local performer Tom Glover, who turned out to be one of those special persons who relates very well to kids, which is another trait you look for in potential teachers. You may really know your material, but if you can not respect your young audience, they will turn you off. And then, suddenly, the first school was over. Beaming like proud parents, the team members basked in the sunlight of their success and could not wait to party (actually most of us were asleep by 8PM). It was the successful culmination of six months of work, but we realized our mistakes and the enormous task ahead to grow the school, both in numbers and content.

And so it came to pass that a month later, not knowing what to do with our Tuesday nights, the team got together to discuss what went right and what went wrong – and this is the second thing we did right. First on the agenda, of course, was how do we increase attendance. Overwhelming answer – you can not hold it in the summer when families are vacationing; when all sorts of other sports camps are competing for attendees; and when the weather is great and what young kid wants to spend a weekend in school when the ball field, pool and shore are beckoning him/her. Oh, yes more than 50 percent of our students are of the female persuasion. In fact their presence, especially the teenagers, is a strong drawing card in attracting male attendance. So what is the proper time? Turns out to be the end of February/beginning of March when everyone is tired of being winter housebound and when murmurs of St. Patrick are starting to surface. First hurdle with this is the availability of Notre Dame one of the most used facilities in the Mercer county area. Having a Notre Dame insider on the team helped us lock in the last weekend of February for our 2009 school. We were now forced to adhere strictly to timetables as other groups would be using the facility later on both days. A winter time frame also necessitated a few changes. First we had to schedule sports the first thing on Saturday morning since we only had the gym until 10:30 AM (local indoor baseball practice then took over) and we might have to use the gym if the weather was too wintry. Secondly, t-shirts would be a wasted hand-out, Not too many are going to walk around in them in 30 degree weather. Then someone mentioned a “hoodie”. All kids love hoodies. Yes, but they are much more expensive than a t-shirt. Between Joe Bradley, who was our supplier, McCabe Concrete and Niall Brady, an affordable price arrangement was worked out and then the great color debate was set in motion. Next point was addressing the need for additional help as room and hallway monitors for the expected student increase and it did indeed increase to 27. Since the sponsor of the Gael Scoil was a club, club members could be asked, begged, and as a final resort, just plain drafted. What about purchasing a set of 32 county flags, since the set borrowed from the York, PA group had served us so well? The decision to purchase passed. What additional subjects would be interesting? Well, we noticed that the kids responded positively to “hands on” in sports and singing. What about baking? Notre Dame has a great kitchen and Division 10’s Ladies Division were all for it. This turned out to be an excellent decision. With help from the ladies each child worked on his/her own loaf of soda bread, which was baked and cooled while they were at their next classes. The finished loaves were wrapped, labeled and had the recipe attached to either help the parents or warn them.

Saturday’s closing act of the 2009 school was to hand out the “hoodies”. What a great sight to see them all show up Sunday morning wearing them. It was a true “bonding” moment for the students. They now realized they were all part of something special. Since the Gael Scoil was the week before the Trenton St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the kids were encouraged to march in it under a Gael Scoil banner. Enough did to capture the attention of the local Irish and Irish-American spectators. What better advertising than to have the kids be seen in their Gael Scoil hoodies? This was one of the reasons that attendance in the 2010 Gael Scoil jumped to 51. Another reason for the increase was the exhibition of one of the certified reproductions of the Book of Kells. Not only were the kids impressed and respectful of this fantastic artifact, but also many parents and local librarians came early to see it. As an aside, creating our own banner, which hangs in the cafeteria throughout the school, was another key output of our team meetings

Yes, with 51 students, for the first time, in 2010 we were able to use a two-tiered program, one for 7 to 11 year olds, and the other for the older kids. This had been our plan all along, but we had not had the numbers in the first two years. And now the seemingly wasted effort spent on this part of the curriculum proved useful in putting together the 2010 program. We also realized the humungous hoagies we had been feeding the kids for lunch, even cut in half were too much for them. Plus some kids did not like tomatoes, some didn’t like onions, didn’t like mayo; and the hot peppers went to waste. Time for an executive decision and it took only one vote to change the menu to that All-American Irish lunch, pizza.

The team also realized the importance of new subjects so those who would be attending their third school would not be bored with sameO-sameO. This alerted us to a problem that we will have to address every year – how to satisfy both the new student and the returning one? We do not have a definite answer to this yet, but we are aware of it and that is proving to be a great guide as we plan for each succeeding year.

By going to a two-tiered curriculum, we allowed the teachers of some subjects such as history, geography, music instruments, language and sports to tailor their presentations to their audiences. Such sessions as the dance and bagpipe demos were given to all in a single setting. We also added some new topics such as Heroes of Ireland, Women of Ireland, and Irish movies. In addition we added a short intro to the Book of Kells so the kids had an idea of its importance to Irish culture, and we showed the video of creating the reproductions. Keeping in mind the hands-on aspect of our education, we added Making Brigid’s Crosses as a topic, which was readily accepted by the students; however, you need one expert for every group of eight. We are beginning to look like a real school.

But you aint seen nuttin’ yet. Flush with the success of 2010, we attacked 2011 head on. By now we had created a data base of sorts of the attendees. So we sent them all Christmas greetings, and then to stop living with 10 enrollments the week before the school (if we were lucky), we sent out a note saying that we would hold seats for returning students until three weeks before the March 2011 school. Within a week enrollments went from seven (7) to over thirty (30). We had originally thought our school limit was fifty because the classrooms including those used for A/V classes all had 25 seats, and a two-tiered program seemed our limit. With more use of the cafeteria we began to think outside the box and figured we could do sixty. In actual fact one of the new 2011 teachers re-arranged her classroom setting arrangement, found additional desks, and voila, we realized that we could probably do 70 students. Actually in 2011 we did have 64 kids. In order to handle the increased student load it became important to control the monitoring situation, so we asked one of the LAOH members whose son had attended all of the schools, if she would join the team with the responsibility for the monitors. June Balaz accepted and so a new Board member was added. Another phenomena we had noticed was that the younger kids needed a scheduled break in any classes exceeding an hour, and the break should include snacks. And so filling a cart with these snacks and wheeling it to the classrooms became another monitor duty. In another team change Gerry O’Rahilly had become the AOH president and so ideas we had wrestled with before, could now be introduced at meetings and sometimes even resolved immediately because Gerry always had his laptop with him.

Not only were we going to have a full school, but we had planned several exciting new topics with teachers with outstanding backgrounds. Dr. Christine Kinealy, a professor at Drew University and author of many books including seven on the Great Hunger accepted Jim MacFarland’s (team member) request to give a guest lecture to the older kids on The Great Hunger. And since she was coming down for both days she would love to also give a talk on Irish Women. She would be staying with a friend, Carol Russell, an art critic, author, and Northern Ireland activist, and Carol would be happy to give a session on Irish Literature. Good Lord, could accreditation be far away? .

Since the kids really respond to hands-on, we got thinking about musical instruments. Well we could afford tin whistles especially when we got a heavily discounted price from another Division 10 member, who, at show time, actually donated 72 of them. We located a teacher living in Wilmington, explained the venue (her original reply was “Oh, what great cacophony”), but Mary Kay Mann, to her everlasting credit, agreed to take on this harrowing task and do two sessions to boot. In the meantime one of Mick’s brothers, a GAA coach and referee, living in Dublin said he would like to come over again and help the GAA guys run the sports sessions. Oh, yes, since his real job is a restaurant chef, he would like to cook something up for the kids. Well, this off-the-cuff remark led to a Sunday Irish breakfast. The sausages, Irish bacon, eggs, and soda bread were an overwhelming success. The complete bill for this was covered by 2 Division 10 members.

To our normal handouts to the students, binder, pencil and paper, we added teacher notes and Gael Scoil pens. We also decided it was time to print up School Completion certificates, which it turned out the kids loved. One of the team had the Irish Declaration of Independence reproduced and presented to each student, rolled up like a scroll and held together with a green ribbon. Daltai donated Focla Cupal pins, which represent “support of the Irish language”. If you add in the hoodie and the tin whistle, the kids left loaded down

As far as the actual school, as it neared we realized we had an overabundance of really young kids, including some 6-year olds who had slipped through. To handle this we actually started a third tier, brought in a second storyteller, Dave Emerson, who has already been hired for 2012. We also added a movie for them, “The Ballad of the Irish Horse” along with a monitor who had taken 2 horseback vacations in Ireland. Realizing the problem that 6 and 7 year olds have listening to lectures, we have decided that starting in 2012, the main school will be for 8 to 17 year olds, with a separate track for the young’uns, the 6 and 7 year olds. Like a junior Division they will have more storytelling, arts and crafts, videos, yet be included with the whole school for lunch, bagpipe and dance sessions so that they know they are part of everything and also it will help them be more prepared to enter the full-time program.

Now that we were making more use of the cafeteria, we attacked the problem of some kids eating faster than others and having nothing to do for awhile, by bringing a DVD player with large screen into the cafeteria. Of course we showed an appropriate movie, “The Secret of Kells” which caught the kids attention and so answered another nagging problem.

Now the planning for our fifth year is starting and we have set a high bar. It will be interesting to see how we can keep the status quo, let alone improve on 2011. Oh, there are still rough spots, but like in any good production only the producers notice them and make the corrections seamlessly so the audience (students) are completely unaware of the glitches. Through much hard work the Gael Scoil has reached this plateau. So bring on 80 students in 2012 and we will be ready. We know it is time to add ceili dancing to the program; give hoodies a rest for a year, maybe replacing them with Irish football shirts; and possibly have a group of young, accomplished musicians put on a “session” session. We know we cannot sit on our laurels, but must constantly look to change and improve. Complacency is our number 1 enemy.