ST PATRICK’S Playgroup has been at the heart of the Poleglass community for almost forty years with generations of young people – this journalist included – passing through its doors as toddlers.
This week marks the end of an era as Principal Annmarie Toner retires and the playgroup closes its doors for the final time.
Ahead of her retirement, the Andersonstown News paid a visit to the playgroup to take a walk down memory lane.
Recounting how she came to work in the playgroup, Annmarie said: “In 1989 I decided to go back to school and do a foundation course in childcare and I met one of my friends there, Annmarie O’Reilly.
“I came to St Patrick’s on the Ace Scheme for a year when Sister Thérèse who was the co-ordinator decided to make the jobs permanent for the playgroup leaders and assistants. I applied for the job in September 1990 and joined Loretta Joyce who was the group leader in the afternoon sessions.”
The playgroup was set up in 1985 with Sr. Thérèse coming on board in 1987. Prior to that it was run by the Ace scheme and those who ran it did not have childcare qualifications.
“Myself, Loretta and Annmarie O’Reilly were the first staff to have any childcare qualifications. At the time, this area had seven playgroups. There were three in Cloona, two in Nativity and St Patrick’s had two groups,” she said.
“Those groups were needed because of the social deprivation in the area. There were a lot of young families in the area and our services were definitely needed. Cloona Playgroup closed their doors around 2002 and St Patricks have been continuing on.”
The playgroup moved to their current location in 2001 having previously been housed above the then Church of the Nativity.
Annmarie added: “In 2004 we were the first playgroup in West Belfast to get an accreditation award and the plaque still hangs in the doorway. Now that is referred to as a Centre of Excellence.
“Over the years we have had a lot of our students come back as parents and I struggle to believe that they are actually adults.”
Annmarie’s links to the playgroup now stretch to her family as her son David is married to one of the first children that she taught back in 1990.
Discussing this, Annmarie told us: “The first year I was here I remember a wee curly haired girl came along called Amanda Prendergast. All of her siblings came through the playgroup and so many years later she was reintroduced to me as my son’s girlfriend – now she is my daughter-in-law of ten years.
“It is funny when you look back at old photographs or if someone stops you and asks if you are Mrs Toner. I recognise the fellas but sometimes I struggle with the women as they have their hair and makeup to perfection.”
“None of us would have been able to have a job, be that myself, Annmarie O’Reilly, Carol, Grainne, Loretta or Bridget who has sadly passed away. None of us would have been here if it wasn’t for Sister Thérèse. She kept everything going and semi-retired about eight years ago and fully retired two years ago at the age of 88. “
Paying tribute to the playgroup Committee, Mrs Toner said: “Over the years our committee have been brilliant. Martine Nesbitt has been on our committee since her son John was here and he is 27 now and she has been our chairperson for the past 17 years. All of their children have come through the playgroup. They have stuck by us and have been very dedicated to the community.
“It has also been very important for us to build a relationship with our parents as they are the first teachers of their child and we will take the lead from them.”
While St Patrick’s has been the last remaining playgroup in the Colin area, it has been a struggle to keep their doors open.
Detailing this, Annmarie said: “We have only been able to continue to stay open this past number of years due to the pathway funding that we receive. We are the last playgroup in the area and there is definitely a need for a service like ours. I have raised it with the Early Years team and I hope that the likes of SureStart will be able to get the funding needed to provide a similar service for the young people coming through.
“Our funding was also halved this year which was another sign that we just couldn’t continue. Our building has also seen its day. It was second hand when we got it 20 years ago and it is no longer fit for purpose in winter.”
Even though she is retiring, Annmarie shows no signs of slowing down, with five grandchildren and another on the way, but tells us she intends to use the time for herself.
“When the priest told us last year that he intended to sell the land, I was retiring anyway. I am 66 this year and I hoped that Shelly would take over. He did offer us another building when they take the carpark away but it could be 18 months and Shelly couldn’t wait. Luckily enough, she got a job and is off to work in St Kieran’s Primary School as a classroom assistant.
“I am ready to hang up my shoes and it is very emotional each year when the children move on. This year is that wee bit extra special but I am ready to move on and intend on taking up pilates and joining a wee knit and natter group.
“I will miss the children and Shelly. You see them when they come in each September, they might be quiet or not know any of the rules and routines. By June they’re singing songs and have made friends.
“A couple of our wee ones had poor speech and now they are speaking brilliantly so we definitely have seen them progress.
“But most of all I will miss the singing and the story telling. Although I can’t sing, But I don’t think I will miss the paperwork,” she laughed.