28 Sept 2022

Retiring Laois school principal going back to milking cows

Retiring Laois school principal going back to milking cows

Colaise Iosagain students form a guard of Honour for retired Principal , Seamus Bennett as he leaves St. Michael's church, Portarlington after a Mass for the school. Photo: Michael Scully.

A Laois Offaly secondary school succeeded in surprising their principal last week with a lovely farewell gesture, with even his family in on the secret.

Seamus Bennett is retiring as principal from Coláiste Iosagáin in Portarlington, after 22 years.

Last Tuesday marked his final time to attend Mass celebrating the start of the school year, in St Michael’s church up the road from the school.

The lovely surprise was that his family were sitting in the front row of the church waiting for him, and afterwards, all the pupils lined the road back to the school, clapping and cheering with big homemade banners wishing him a happy retirement.

Below: Fr Joe O'Neill with Seamus Bennett and family after the Mass at St Michael's church, Portarlington. Photos: Michael Scully.

“It was lovely, a total surprise. It was wonderful that my family was there as well, especially my 83 year old mother Agnes,” Mr Bennett told the Leinster Express/Laois Live.

Also there were wife Paula, son James and daughter Emer, with another daughter Niamh out of the country and son Peter in college.

Below: Seamus Bennett and family surrounded by Colaiste Iosagain Staff, at his retirement function at the school.

Mr Bennett who is from Mountrath, has spent almost all of his teaching career working in Laois, after an initial two years teaching in Blackrock College. He taught in the convent school in Mountrath, then spent ten years teaching in St Mary’s CBS in Portlaoise, before taking on the role of principal at Coláiste Iosagáin when it opened in May 2000.

“I am very much a proud Laois man. Laois is the address of the school, even though it is technically on the Offaly side of Portarlington. Our post arrives a day later if Offaly is on the address. Most of our pupils are from Laois as most of the town is in Laois. But we cover a wide area with students from Walsh Island and Geashill to Ballybrittas and Emo. Most of that is the Bog of Allen so it’s sparsely populated,” he said.

The school was an amalgamation of St Joseph’s CBS and Scoil Mhuire Presentation girls school, with the vocational school closing at the same time and all of the town’s secondary students coming together in the Scoil Mhuire building to form the new school.

“When we started we had 560 students, the latest is around 1,100. We have 105 staff including 80 teaching. 

“We are eagerly awaiting the start of construction of the new school. It is ready to go for planning permission, we were told that six months ago. Then it will go to tender for builders. Hopefully it will move ahead. If the current economic situation does not affect it, I hope it moves ahead shortly,” Mr Bennett said.

Below: students at the mass celebrating the start of the 2022/23 school year in St Michael's Church. Photos: Michael Scully

The new building has been a long wait, with overcrowding in corridors and prefabs highlighted in the past as the school campaigned for facilities.

“It has been talked about for seven or eight years. In fairness we got all the prefabs we asked for. We have the spaces now, it’s just that it is all separate units and it is a distance to travel around them. Half of the school is in prefabs. We got the home economics, woodworking and DCG prefabs we asked for,” he said.

His Deputy Principal Justin Brown has been announced as replacement principal.

“I am delighted for him. I actually taught him maths in CBS Portlaoise. He was very bright, he went on to qualify in business and he looks after the school accounts. It is in great hands, it is actually very reassuring. Now we have to fill another deputy principal position in three or four weeks.”

Mr Bennett leaves the job finally on October 2.

“Definitely I’ll miss it. Many of the staff are more than colleagues, they are friends as well. I’ll stay in touch but I’ll give the new management the freedom to do things themselves," he said.

Along with a new deputy principal to replace Justin Brown, another is replacing Siobhán Higgins who retired as DP last June. Seamus praised her input.

“She had a very hands on energy, she knew all the students and was excellent in her role as pastoral care too. Everybody respected and trusted her,” he said.

Pictured at Colaiste Iosagain for the retirement function for retiring principal, Seamus Bennett, were Joan O'Sullivan Dep Principal, Geraldine Murphy School Secretary, Seamus Bennett, Geraldine Whelan School Secretary, Justin Brown (new Principal) and Brendan Mc Glynn Dep Principal. Photo: Michael Scully.

He is looking forward to going back to his childhood job, working on the family farm in Mountrath.

“My dad was a farmer and I am delighted that my son James has brought the farm back to full dairy production so I will be farming with him.I helped out my dad when I was young so it has come full circle, but with a lot more technology now,” he said.

The principal reflects on the biggest changes at Coláiste Ioságain since the turn of the millennium.

“Getting three deputy principals to share the workload and management took some of the pressure off. Another big change was the promotion structure going from the most senior to a merit system. The new junior cycle was also a big change, and there is a new focus on child protection, and rightly so.”

He was never a fan of corporal punishment.

“Children rightly expect to be treated with respect and I think we do that now. The old style of shouting and physical punishment doesn’t work, it creates resentment. If you resort to that you are losing.

“In the last 10 or 15 years SNAs came in, and we now have two ASD units. They act as a refuge, the pupils are mostly in mainstream classrooms. It is a good thing, they are integrated in society. 

“Resourcing has improved too, we have a lot more money for computers and specialist equipment. For parents, we are conscious of the costs of fuel so we have an easy payment system. I believe we should be a DEIS school as the only provider in the area and with a good percentage of families on medical cards,  but I think our results and our retention are too good,” he said.

Seamus Bennett addressing Colaiste Iosagain students and staff at the school mass. Photo: Michael Scully.

Portarlington could well need two secondary schools in the future.

“The new building will cater for the town for a long time. Numbers will likely level off. 1300 is probably the max a secondary school should be. Beyond that I see the merit in two, but perhaps a junior and senior secondary school,” Seamus Bennett said.

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