As you approach Athy from the Dublin direction a 19th century Tudor gothic building can be seen near to the junction of the Kildare Road and Dublin Road. Known to generations of Athy people as the Model School it is nevertheless a building with a history unknown to many.
The construction of the school commenced in 1850 on the recommendations of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland. It consisted of schools for males and females and an adjoining agricultural school, with a headmasters residence and limited dormitory accommodation for pupil teachers and agricultural students. The purpose of the Model School system was to combine the provision of educational facilities for local children with the preliminary training of potential teachers who were known as pupil teachers.
Each of the four pupil teachers who boarded in the Model School were required to take charge of a class under the supervision of a trained teacher. Pupil teachers spent the first twelve months of their teacher training in the Model School and then served two years in other local schools before completing their training in the National Model School in Dublin.
Officially opened on 12 August 1852 the School's first headmaster was John Walsh with Elizabeth Reilly as headmistress. Of the four pupil teachers enrolled in the first year, three came from Athy and were in training for local schools. Fifteen children enrolled in the Model School on the opening day. Despite objections from the clergy of the Established Church to the Model School system, the School numbers increased rapidly. In 1858 , 582 children were listed as pupils, even though the average daily attendance was only 204 children. This no doubt reflected the fact that school attendance was not then compulsory.
The Established Church's early disapproval of the Model School was in time overcome but by 1860 the Catholic clergy were vehemently opposed to it. In the School Inspector's Report for 1862 it was noted that
"the attendance has fallen off considerably owing to the opposition of the Roman Catholic clergy who introduced the Christian Brothers into the town in 1861 and adopted coercive measures with the Roman Catholic parents to withdraw their children from the Model School.
The disappointment of the Headmaster and Headmistress both of whom were Catholics can be imagined as the student numbers fell year after year. The Model School which had started out by providing non-denominational education for the Athy area now found itself catering almost exclusively for members of the Established Church, Presbyterians and other Dissenters.
In the meantime the Agricultural School which formed part of the school complex ran into difficulty after a promising start. Pupils of that school received training in the latest and most up to date farming methods on the farm attached to the School. The farm which had been extended to 64 acres in 1855 was sold by auction when the Agricultural School closed in September 1880. Apparently the cost of maintaining the Agricultural School was excessive and despite the best efforts of local farming groups to ensure its future, the School closed down.
Two years later the first Headmistress of the Model School Mrs. Elizabeth Reilly retired after 30 years service. On 3rd April, 1886 the local Catholic clergy and upwards of 700 townspeople signed a petition addressed to the Chief Secretary, John Morley, requesting that in any contemplated changes in Athy Model School the needs of the local Convent and Christian Brothers Schools be catered for. It was claimed in the petition that £300,000 had been expended on the Model School with no similar subvention for other local schools. At this time there were 50 pupils attending the Model School. Changes were eventually made in the method of funding local schools and those changes served to copperfasten the denominational system of education in Ireland.