Killarney, Co. Kerry

In Brief

St. Oliver’s Primary School is one of Ireland’s largest and most diverse primary schools. A hub of the community, local therapists work from prefabs on site and teachers from nearby secondary schools come in to prepare children for the next stage of their education. Open until late every day of the week, the school is used by community groups of all kinds to demonstrate their philosophy of lifelong learning and to re-enforce the central role of a national school in society.


St Oliver’s is a Catholic school in Killarney, Co Kerry. The school has 768 pupils, with almost 50 more children in the community-based pre-school that operates on the same grounds. With 43 nationalities and over 60 pupils from the Traveller community, it is one of Ireland’s most diverse primary schools, as well as one of the largest.

The Biggest Idea

True to its size and shape, St. Oliver’s is a hub of the larger Killarney community. At different times throughout the year, the school is also home to local health professionals, teachers from nearby secondary schools and community groups of all kinds, as the school stays open until late every day of the week. As a result, the children’s education is uniquely centred around the living reality of the local town.

Life at St. Oliver’s

In the very centre of St. Oliver’s is a large fish tank, with 43 differently coloured fish, each representing one of the many nationalities that make up the school’s population. Creatively decorated by the students, the centrepiece serves to re-enforce the school’s culture of celebrating diversity and drawing inspiration from nature. Within sight of the tank is the ‘Golden Letterbox’, a similarly pristine piece of the school’s furniture with a distinct purpose. Each day, the letterbox accepts praise and support from anyone in the school, with the recipients’ parents notified with a simple but powerful phone call at the end of each week. 

Co-operation and collaboration is woven into the fabric of the school. In recent years, the classrooms were reshuffled to place 6th class children beside Junior Infants, giving rise to natural mentorship and care. Older pupils are also given more formal leadership roles to support and inspire the younger children in the school. In a Catholic school that is closely connected to the church, this community spirit defines the school far more than any one doctrine. While time is made each day for spiritual reflection, it is no surprise to see children turning towards Mecca to say their prayers. St. Oliver’s is a school where religion is about the values that unite people, rather than the politics that can cause separation. 

St. Oliver’s is pragmatic. Its role in connecting all members of the broader Killarney community can be seen particularly clearly in the school’s small farm, which is managed mostly by children from the Traveller community. Recognising that many of these pupils would start preparing for their future at weekday markets rather than school, the skills learned at the market came inside the school grounds. In countless different ways, St. Oliver’s looks beyond the school and into the community to connect the children with their passions, and with issues bigger than books.

The Leadership

A charismatic principal, Rory D’ Arcy is as actively involved in the local community as in the running of the school. Between roles with “Campus Killarney” and Muckross House, his engagement with the broader education sector, the major local tourism industry and Killarney’s heritage all influence the culture of St. Oliver’s. Having learned at length from best practice across Ireland and around the world, including models from Sweden, Italy and Australia, the school is unique in its entrepreneurial approach. As well as the school’s many successes, they take almost equal pride in the many things that have failed to catch on - the same real-world mentality that places them at the heart of their community.