Save St Martin’s

Renton will fight and Renton will be right when school closure comes before council

Balloch CampusThe new Balloch campus opening with deputy provost and education convener Karen Conaghan, council officials and politicians.  Rentonians want a similar project in their village.

Some things are more important than money. Community is one of them – and it is under imminent threat in the village of Renton on the banks of the River Leven.

Renton is a one off to the extent that it is widely known as the Renton. It is a village with a proud history going back centuries.

However, it is the progress Renton has made in the last century that will come under the spotlight on Wednesday when the future of primary education provision in the village is discussed by West Dunbartonshire Council.

Councillors will be asked to decide whether St Martin’s PS is to close and be merged with St Mary’s PS in Bank Street, Alexandria.

Or whether a new joint campus accommodating both Catholic St Martin’s and non-denominational Renton PS is built on the village Main Street.

Several joint campuses have been built in West Dunbartonshire in recent times in order to accommodate the legal right of Catholics under the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918 to have their own schools in perpetuity.

Or until such times as the Catholic Church, which has representatives on education committees across Scotland, decides that it no longer wishes Catholic children to be segregated from children from the same community, but not of the same faith as themselves.

It was the legendary Monsignor Hugh Canon Kelly, parish priest of St Patrick’s Church in Dumbarton, who negotiated that agreement, which is said to have set Catholics of Irish descent on a path to no longer being just “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

It was his stated and oft repeated aim that Catholics would join the ranks of university students and progress to become teachers and practitioners of medicine, the legal system and politics. He succeeded.

Irish immigrants were assimilated, integrated with indigenous Scots and no longer held back by prejudices which included a motion before the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to “send them home”.

Most Catholics would now accept that this integration has largely taken place except in ignorant pockets of simmering sectarianism and bigotry, which are minuscule now compared to the second half of the 19th and the first three quarters of the 20th century.

Recent changes in attitude here and in Ireland, which was the mother church for Scotland’s Catholics, in relation to contentious issues such as abortion and LGBT rights are a clear indication of this.

Renton is a microcosm of Irish immigrant Scotland.

Many of its people fled from the Highland Clearances and Irish Potato Famine to work in the Clyde shipyards and the dye works, textile factories and linen fields along the banks of the Leven.

Work was hard, hours were long and exhausting and children were pressed into it from a very early age. Their reward was a pittance.

Women suffered just as much as did men and not only worked long hours in the factories but struggled valiantly to keep families together.

At the beginning of last century, the men of Renton joined the Cameronians and Argylls and took part in the First World War.

Many of them, like the late James Aitken, a 15-year-old post boy, volunteered to fight and did so bravely at the Somme and in Ypres.

Lord Kitchener – he of that famous recruitment poster – said that if all his men were like those who had joined the Army from the Back Street in Renton, he would win without question.

Just before the war that was supposed to end all wars, the young men of Renton became famous on the sports field.

The village had embraced football in its infancy at the end of the 19th century when the people’s game took over from shinty.

And Renton went on to win the World championship, beating West Bromwich Albion in the final.

It’s an improbable tale of David and Goliath proportions, but it will be told again and again in front of the television when the 2018 World Cup takes place in Russia later this month.

Renton footballers played for embryonic Celtic and Rangers teams and for many other clubs.

The Arsenal winger, Alex Jackson, was a star of the famous Wembley Wizards, who took apart an English national team on their home turf.

Boxing was big in Renton, as it was in most deprived communities in Scotland at the beginning of the century, and Skeets Gallagher became the unofficial boxing champion of the world.

All the while Renton, which suffered heavy losses of its menfolk in the war, was taking poverty on the chin and scraping itself off the canvas of poor health and bad housing.

Its councillors were Communists, Willie ‘Bunger’ Lamont and Duncan McGowan, who were committed to bringing education and relief from deprivation to the village.

After the Spanish Civil War and then the Second World War, in which the community of Renton was again well represented and again lost lives, the whole fabric of the village deteriorated.

Councillors fought hard to bring new housing to Tontine and Cordale and Back Street and in addition better public health and proper education provision for children of all denominations and none.

Asked what they were, as so often they were those days, the ordinary folk of Renton’s most common response was that they were Rentonians and proud of it.

Men like Jim Ward and Michael McCann and Jimmy McKenzie nurtured their football teams, the Renton Guild and Renton Juveniles, and more young men went on to star in the senior grades of the game.

Others were expert anglers (and poachers) and soon there was well-paid work available in the village east of the river at Strathleven Industrial Estate where Westclox, Wisemans and Polaroid opened busy factories.

The pubs did well of course. The Kind Man, the Central Bar and the Bowling Green Tavern, all run by “characters” such as Marion Robertson, Mick McCann and Winnie Haddow.  Renton was always a close knit community.

The churches were full and there were at least four of them when I used to cycle around the Vale of Leven searching out news items for the churches columns of the two local newspapers.

Ministers names such as Wingate, Currie, Haddow, Taylor and Eunson come to mind. The legendary Father Michael O’Sullivan was parish priest of St Martin’s, which was run out of a wooden hut which served until the ‘Sixties as both a place of worship and a church hall.

It was during this period that Renton became more prosperous (never rich) and the villagers built a new St Martin’s with their own hard-earned money.

The Church of Scotland charges were merged into Trinity Parish Church and attracted important and influential ministers such as John Chalmers who was later to become Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

Then something rotten happened. Labour councillors who appeared to be jealous of the achievements of Communist-turned-Community Party Councillor Jim Bollan’s achievements for the village appeared to target Renton when it came to budget day.

He and others had attracted a housing association which helped to transform the housing stock in the village and Renton got two new primary schools. Teenagers went to the then new Vale Academy.

But then, for whatever reason and to my mind none other than a desire to “save” money, the council closed the village library and then the community centre.

They knocked the heart out of Renton, but not for long ….

The Labour local authority went on a frenetic savings kick, just as the SNP are doing now, despite the fact that the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has told them there is no need for the cuts they are making that have so damaged this community.

There has always been a real community spirit in Renton and it has always been bolstered when austerity and adversity have come knocking on its door.

That will happen again on Wednesday when West Dunbartonshire Council brings forward its plan to close St Martin’s Primary School.

There will be protests aplenty. Large vociferous, banner-waving protests.

There are unconfirmed reports that the Catholic Church is supporting the council’s plan and that they are also considering closing St Martin’s Church in the village.

This is a disgrace to the memory of people like Father Michael O’Sullivan and his successor, Canon James Simcox.

These two priests worked so hard to build the church, keep it on the road and nurture the primary school over the past 118 years.

If the Church is so short of priests that it cannot staff its parishes then it should not be closing churches in places such as Renton.

The village is deprived and people there do not have the money or the transport to travel around looking for Mass on a Sunday.

The churches which should be earmarked for closure by Archbishop Philip Tartaglia are those in prosperous areas where people have both cash and cars.

Poor people in deprived areas should be their priority.

It is the same with schools.

I have an eleventh hour suggestion for Councillor Karen Conaghan, the SNP education committee convener, council leader Jonathan McColl and Archbishop Tartaglia.

Cllr Conaghan was one of the SNP councillors laughing when the austerity cuts were pushed through at the council on Thursday.

Go against the recommendations of your officials.  Make the new primary school project in Renton a mirror image of the shared campus at Balloch, which has just been opened and outside which you posed for pictures as though your party had brought that about, which they didn’t of course.

This is no laughing matter.

Close St Mary’s, which was said not to be fit for purpose just three years ago, and make provision for the Catholic children from the parts of Alexandria it serves in St Kessog’s and in a new-build in Renton.

The Catholic Church is not a democracy and doesn’t have to listen to its followers.

But West Dunbartonshire Council is supposed to be a democracy where the elected members are obliged to carry out the wishes of the electorate.

It’s time for a change. In the 21st century people want proposition not imposition.

They would like to be asked what they want since councils are elected with their votes and administered with their money.

The last time this council dug its heels in over the proposal to re-site Our Lady and St Patrick’s High School at Posties Park it cost them a political bloody nose and £1.5 million of council taxpayers’ money.

This should not be allowed to happen in Renton.










Leave a Reply