During the reign of Charles II, Parliament enacted that “all schoolteachers should take the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy and be licensed by the Ordinary”. Intended to place education under the control of the Established Church, the Act served to deprive Irish Catholics of educational opportunities within their own country. One legislative loophole, which allowed the children of wealthy Catholic families to be educated abroad, was closed during the reign of William III. At the same time the Church of Ireland authorities pressed for stricter compliance with the Act of 1537 which required their clergy to establish and maintain parish schools.
Until the 1790’s the working class children of Athy received no formal education. The Established Church did not have a parish school in the town while no Catholic teacher was licensed to teach his co-religionists. The children of well-to-do families were able to attend fee paying private schools. Athy is recorded as having such a school as early as 1670. About that time Isaac Dalton operated a Latin school in the town which in 1717 had John Garnet as headmaster.
The following contemporary account is taken from the Autobiography of Pole Cosby of Stradbally, Queens County :
“In 1716 when we came over from England my father got one, the Rev. Mr. West, to live in the house to be my Tutor, and so I was in the house learning Latin from Mr. West till Witsontide 1717, and then my father finding me not improve, he sent me to one Mr. John Garnet who kept the Latin School in Athy, and was just then come to Athy, and succeeded Mr. Issac Dalton who had kept school there for about 40 years. I lodged at said Mr. Daltons who used to examine and instruct me after school time. I lodged with him till 1718 when Mr. Garnet married and went to housekeeping, and then I went and lodged with him and continued with him while I stayed in Athy, the chief of my schoolfellows whilst I was here at school were Thomas Keightin (Keating) son of Col. Thos. K. of Narraghmore, Robert Pinsent now a Minister, Jr. Doyle now a Minister, and Schoolmaster of Athy, Emerson Peirce son of Col. H.P. of Seskin in ye county of Wicklow, Warner Westenra, Billy, Dick, and Ben Fish of Toberogan, Joe Ash now of Ashfield in the County of Meath and Dillon his brother, Saywell Stubber’s brother Meredith, Hector and Billy Vaughan of Golden Grove, Charly Willington of ye Kings County, Cox. Billy Welldon, and Geo. Welldon brother of Arthur Welldon of Rahin, Dick Nuttall and Joe his brother, Billy and Tom Bunbury of y County Carlow and Harry Bunbury who married Miss Pinsent, Harry Ecklin, bro. to Sir Arthur, Joseph Paul of Rathmore in the County Carlow, Elias and Weaver Best, Hutty Barnet, Ned Armstrong, who married Miss Holmes, John Short of Grange in the Q.C, six sons, all Gerald Fitzgerald sons of Coolenoule in the Q.C., Noll Grace of Skehanagh and two or three of his brothers, Ned and Murray Lyndon, James Lewis, Nehemiah Laban, John King now a Minister, Frank Cosby of Vicarstown, Tom and Ralph Pilsworth, Graham Bradford, Ben Bradford, Tom Thompson now a Minister, John Bradford, Arthur Newburg son of Col. N. of Ballyheys in the county of Cavan, Thomas Brook grandson to Ben. Burton the Banker.
While I was at the school of Athy I did constantly learn to write the first year, of one Mr. Milam and after of one Mr. Ternan Rourke. I also learnt to dance one quarter of one Mr. Michael Commons, afterwards he married at Ballymannus, and another quarter of one Mr. Gold. Whilst I was at this school I frequently used to go (to Coz. Meredith at Shrowland, and the widow Lewis of Tullgory) of a Saturday and stay till Monday, and used often come home to my prejudice as to learning.”
In the 1781/82 Parliamentary session an Act was passed permitting Catholic teachers to teach in local schools. However, the inevitable sting in the tail provided that Catholics could not teach their co-religionists unless they were licensed by clergy of the Established Church. Understandably Catholics were reluctant to seek the necessary permission while the Established Church clergy were equally reluctant to accede to such requests when made. This restriction was finally removed about 10 years later thereby paving the way for the introduction of Catholic Schools for the first time since the Reformation.
Depositions taken in May 1798 during the rebellion of that year included references to James Delahunty, Schoolmaster, Athy and James Robinson, Schoolmaster, Foxhill. Their Irish names and their involvement with the United Irishmen suggest Catholic backgrounds. If this is correct then it probably indicates that Athy had a Catholic School at that time, whether a free or a fee paying school we cannot now say.
In 1791 the town had a boarding school for boys provided by a Mr. Ashe. One of the pupils that year was Thomas Lefroy, a future local Chief Justice of Ireland. Another pupil was his brother, Ben Lefroy born in 1782 who married a Miss La Nouse from County Cavan and settled at Cardenton House, Athy, which remained in the family until 1946. In 1793 Anthologica Hibernica referred to the existence in Athy of a public school for the classics with a teaching salary of £40 a year paid by the Duke of Leinster, Athy Borough Council and representatives of the Weldon family. The Select Committee in the House of Commons on Foundation Schools set up in 1857 investigated the alleged endowment of this school. It reported :-
“No such school exists or as far as the Assistant Commissioner could learn, ever did exist.”
In the Minute Book of the Athy Borough Corporation for June 24th 1779, there appears the following entry:
“That it was agreed to give £15 a year to a schoolmaster, for the said Borough, which is to be ratified by an act of assembly of the said Borough.”
The Corporation’s Minute Book does not indicate that the necessary confirmation was ever made and perhaps more conclusive is the fact that no payment was ever made on foot of the decision. In Rawson’s Statistical Survey of County Kildare, published in 1807, Athy is credited with having a Classical School and two female Boarding Schools. No evidence has been found to support Rawson’s claim for the two Boarding Schools, but since he was an Athy resident it may be assumed that this information was accurate.