Thursday, November 13, 1997

Athy's Model School and 1866 Commissioners of National Education Report

The 33rd report of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland for the year 1866 presented to both Houses of the English Parliament contained many interesting references to Athy’s Model School. Built on a site provided by the Duke of Leinster the Model School was opened in August 1852. A total of 32 Model Schools were intended to be provided throughout Ireland for the dual purpose of providing schooling for children and also training for teachers for Irish National Schools. A number of candidate teachers were to be boarded in each Model School for a period of six months having first been selected by the Commissioner’s Superintendent from National Schools within the district. Each candidate teacher who received the Superintendent’s certificate after the initial six months training in the Model School would then spend another two years teaching in a National School before completing teacher training at the National Model School in Dublin. With the early development of the National school system in Ireland there was a shortage of suitably trained teachers and so the Model School system of training teachers was devised. In addition to the candidate teachers Model Schools also employed Monitors. These were deserving pupils from the area who were admitted as free scholars into the Model School and who in return for small weekly payments helped the teachers in the class. Monitors could in time be selected as candidate teachers by the school superintendent.

In its report for 1866 the Commissioners of National Education stated that there had been no change in the staff of principal or assistant teachers in Athy Model School during the year. However, one pupil teacher was removed for irregularity and one pupil teacher and two monitoresses left at the end of their contracts. The school catered for boys, girls and infants and in charge of the boys’ school was John Walsh a Roman Catholic who held that position since 1852. His assistant was John Henderson of the Church of Ireland and their pupil teachers were William Patterson, Church of Ireland and Charles Dodd, Roman Catholic. The recitation of the religious background of the teachers 130 years ago was significant given the non denominational nature of the Model School which when established was intended to “promote united education”. The boys’ school had 124 on the roll during 1866 although the average daily attendance was considerably less than that. Apparently at a time when school attendance was not compulsory every boy who enrolled even for a day was included in the yearly enrolment figure which tended to give an inflated account of the school numbers. The average attendance was in fact 69 boys and of the 85 school boys on the roll by the end of the year 45 were Church of Ireland, 16 Roman Catholic, 17 Presbyterian and 7 others. They showed an increase of 25 pupils over the previous year with a doubling of the Roman Catholic boys in the school.

In the girls’ school the principal was Ann O’Reilly a Roman Catholic who had joined in 1852 and her assistant was Bessie Glover, Church of Ireland. Their total enrolment for the year was 94 girls with an average attendance of 40. At the end of 1866 the school had 56 girls on its books 30 of whom were Church of Ireland, 11 Roman Catholic, 9 Presbyterian and 6 others. This reflected little change from the previous year.

Harriet Souter, Church of Ireland was Principal of the infant school and her assistant was Teresa Mackey a Roman Catholic. They had enrolled 70 infants during 1866 of which on average 31 infants attended daily. At the end of that year there were 29 infants on the roll.

When the Model School first opened a very substantial majority of its pupils were members of the Catholic Church a fact which did not find agreement with the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin. The opening of the Convent of Mercy in 1852 which had been planned long before the Model School reduced the latter school’s numbers. Further substantial reductions were noted when the Christian Brothers opened their school in 1861. The Brothers were invited to come to Athy by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin so that the Catholic pupils would be withdrawn from the Model School. The enrolment figures for 1866 confirm that the Archbishop’s campaign was largely successful although the parents of 22 Roman Catholic children who still attended the Model School felt sufficiently strong to withstand “a belt of the Bishop’s crozier”.

Regarding the Model School the Education Board’s inspector reported that in 1866 pupils generally speaking attended irregularly throughout the year especially in Spring and Harvest owing to demands of field labour. “The prevalence since September last of fever in several portions of the district interfered very much with the pupils attendance. In February, March, August, September and October the attendance was thinest”.

An important element of the Model School complex was the Agricultural Training School which was founded to train young farm workers in the most up to date agricultural methods. I will deal with its story and that of its pupils in a future Eye on the Past.

The Model School will be celebrating the sequecentenary of its foundation in five years time. The fine Tudor building constructed in the Gothic style to a design by Frederick Darley is one of the most impressive buildings in Athy. Equally impressive is the history of the school which has provided educational facilities in town for 145 years and has managed to survive and prosper despite early sustained opposition to Model Schools by the Catholic hierarchy.

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