When the last of her six children started school, Lisburn farm-wife Mrs Una Drayne was “lost”.
The hectic programme on the farm at Ballymacash – one of the leading dairy units in the country and run by her husband and his two brothers – meant little time for inactivity but, as she puts it, “the deafening silence of the children’s absence left a nagging void in my life”.
A disappointed Mrs Drayne started to collect the many toys accumulated over the years when a friend suggested that she should consider forming a children’s nursery.
The penny dropped! A small advertisement in the local “Ulster Star” brought an “amazing response” and the new play group was under way.
That was three years ago and today the Drayne “system” continues to add a new dimension to child care in the important pre-school period.
The service runs along the most comprehensive lines – an all-in package deal which has won the complete confidence of the parents involved as well as the obvious endorsement of the children.
Setting out at 8.30am each morning, Mrs Drayne collects her “pupils” by minibus in an hour-long run – the private car used early on soon proved too small – while the facilities at “Iona” are geared to cope with any weather conditions.
There is the well-appointed play room with its exciting collection of toys and gadgetry while the huge built-in blackboard introduces a real school atmosphere.
On dry days there is the endless variety – the ever-changing adventures for children – which a large farm throws up.
The scores of Friesian cattle prove a worthy introduction to the world of agriculture while pony-riding has been added to the “curriculum”.
Outings – especially those to the airport and the zoo – are additional popular perks, although on occasions Mrs Drayne has had to do “some explaining” about her 18-strong “family”.
But perhaps the highlight of the year, which excludes the normal school holidays, is the annual re-union of pupils who have “graduated” from “Iona”.
For this popular function there is always a virtual 100 per cent turn out and the group’s “Past Pupil’s Association” must have the youngest members in the world.
But let 45-year old Mrs Drayne – the former Miss Una Colgan of Ballynahinch – take up the story: “After leaving school I went into the civil service and then on my marriage I became a real convert to farming for which I had no previous experience.
“I have always had a passionate interest in children and the play group idea has enabled me to keep in touch – in a practical way – with the very young generation.”