Friday, September 23, 1994

Christian Brothers in Athy

On the weekend of the 23rd of September the people of Athy will come together to pay tribute to the Christian Brothers who will soon be leaving the town after 133 years of service as educators to successive generations of boys from the area.

The first Christian Brothers arrived in Athy on the 8th of August, 1861. Brothers Stanislaus O'Flanagan and Brother Luke Holland with lay Brother Patrick Sheehy occupied Greenhills House which was to remain the Christian Brothers Monastery until 1992. A local Committee with shopkeeper Mark Bealin as Secretary had earlier collected funds to fund the construction of a single storey three roomed schoolhouse alongside the Monastery. It was first opened as a school on the 19th of August, 1861 when 120 boys enrolled.

The success of the Christian Brothers in providing educational opportunities for young boys in those days of non-compulsory school attendance saw enrolment numbers increasing over the following years. A third teaching brother was soon employed with the generous financial help of Patrick Maher of Kilrush. He guaranteed a sum sufficient to provide for the new Brothers’ maintenance for two years. Patrick Maher was also a generous benefactor to the Sisters of Mercy whom he had helped on the establishment of the local Convent in 1852. His contribution to the Brothers was particularly important having regard to the impoverished state of the people of Athy who through their Parish Priest Monsignor Quinn had undertaken to maintain the recently arrived Christian Brothers. Two collections were taken up each year in the Parish Church to meet this commitment but in 1867 the Parish Priest stopped the practice pleading inability to further maintain the Christian Brothers. A public meeting was subsequently held in the town as a result of which the Christian Brothers undertook with the co-operation of the local people to take up the collections themselves.

The single-storey school house was modified somewhat in 1873 to cater for the increasing pupil numbers but no additions were made to the original structure until almost 30 years later. In September 1894 the first lay teacher was employed in the school and in the terminology of the day he was referred to as "Professor" John McNamee who for his labours received a salary of £1 per week. Around the same time the Brothers Monastery was refurbished and part of the work included the removal of the clay floor in the community room and its replacement with timber floorboards. It is difficult for us to imagine nowadays that less than 100 years ago in the Christian Brothers Monastery, one of the principal buildings of the town, such primitive conditions were to be found.

It was not until 1898 that attendance at school was made compulsory for Irish children. However the Act provided an exemption from school attendance for children of not less than 11 years of age who obtained a Certificate from the local School Principal showing "such proficiency in reading, writing and elementary arithmetic as is now presented for fourth class." Three years later with the introduction of technical instruction into the school curriculum the Christian Brothers felt obliged to extend the school building by adding an extra floor to the original structure. It was then that the famous metal stairway was installed.

With the introduction of woodwork in 1931 an extra building had to be provided. Officially called the Sacred Heart Hall but known by pupils and townspeople as the Manual School it gave much needed additional space for pupils and teachers alike. As part of the fundraising activity at the time an annual bazaar was held on behalf of the Christian Brother’s school. The highlight of the October 1931 venture was an aeroplane hired for the day from Iona National Airways to give joyrides over the town of Athy. This must surely have been the first aeroplane seen by many of the locals of the town.

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