Michael Robinson will set out from Brisbane Australia this Wednesday morning to travel to Athy. Seamus Ryan will commence his journey in Beijing, China. His destination, like Michael’s, will be Athy. Jimmy Malone will travel from California, while Joe Gordon makes the comparatively short trip from Manchester. All are travelling back to the town where some or all of their schooldays were spent during the 1950’s and earlier. The occasion is a class re-union for men, many of whom started school as four year olds in St. Joseph’s Boy’s School where they were taught by Sisters of Mercy, Bernadette, Brendan and Alberta in the years immediately following the Second World War. Transferring to the Christian Brothers Primary School in St. John’s Lane in or about 1949 they were taught over the following five years by a succession of Christian Brothers and one lay teacher. From that period Christian Brothers O’Loughran, Flaherty and Smith are recalled as well as Bob Martin, a lay teacher who later took up the principalship of Ballyroe National School.
Classes and colleagues changed over the years. Some youngsters skipped classes, others stayed back for an extra year, but eventually most of them passed the hurdle which was the Primary Certificate Examination taken in the Sixth Class. Class numbers were by today’s standards quite large. The Second Class rollbook for 1950 shows 57 youngsters, while the Third Year Class had 62 young, if not so eager, students. In the early 1950’s sickness exacted its toll amongst the frail youngsters and the untimely deaths of Paddy Dowling, George Ryan and Myles Cash were a sad blow to their classmates.
Many of those who sat the Primary Certificate Examination passed on into secondary school. Others however went out into the world of work on reaching 14 years of age. Family circumstances often dictated that a young fellow’s academic career had to be curtailed to ensure a family’s survival during the harsh economic climate of the 1950’s. Not that many of those who left school at 14 and sometimes even younger objected to being taken from school. Given the opportunity, most of us would have followed the same route. After all, the prospect of earning a few shillings as a messenger boy or working with a local farmer sounded far more exciting than spending the daylight hours stuck in the classroom. The 1950’s were difficult times for most local families. Jobs were scarce in the town and such employment as was available required a young man to work in unhealthy conditions which over time would damage health and shorten life expectancy. For many, even such grim employment prospects were limited and the mail boat journey to Holyhead was as familiar to many Athy men and women as the train journey to Dublin is to present day locals.
As those with whom we started school in 1946/1947 left the educational system others remained on in secondary school. We had no choice in the matter, for if we had, the school yard would soon have been but a memory. In any event we stayed on in secondary school, each morning making the trip up St. John’s Lane and climbing the metal stairs to the school rooms on the first floor. The upper story of the school building consisted of three rooms, one of which in time was divided by a curtain to make an extra room. The teachers were Brother Brett, who was the headmaster, and Brother Keogh, with lay teachers Bill Ryan and Paddy Riordan. All but Riordan were there for the entire period my classmates spent in secondary school up to 1960.
In the third year of secondary school you sat your Intermediate Certificate Examination and it was the common practice in the 1950’s to repeat your Inter Cert. I know I did, as did some of my classmates. During the first three years of secondary school there was a steady stream of students leaving to take up employment. This exodus became an avalanche after the Inter Certificate and following years classes had but a sixth of the number which had started school 12 years previously in St. Joseph’s at Rathstewart. In the meantime of course many young lads joined the class from outlying country areas but while they swelled the class numbers in first and second year, they seldom stayed for the full six years of secondary school.
The final hurdle was the Leaving Certificate Examination of 1960 and the class size that year was the largest ever known in the Christian Brothers School. It was all of eleven students and compares with this years Leaving Certificate class of 64 students. Coming after previous Leaving Certificate classes where there had been three or four students and a single student on at least one previous occasion, a class of eleven was a significant improvement.
I was talking yesterday to a pupil from this years Leaving Certificate class, and marveled to hear that most of the students will attend university or some form of third level education. From the class of 1960 only one student had the opportunity to go to university on a full time basis and that was at a time when the only restriction on entry to university was your parents ability to pay the university fees. Times certainly have changed and nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the opportunities for further education now available for present day students.
All of the above is by way of background explanation to the travails of those one time youngsters now in their 60th year or thereabouts who will come together this weekend for the first time since they left school. For some it will be the first time to meet for over 40 years or more. On Friday evening the Leinster Arms Hotel will host the gathering of past pupils where the years will be wound back, memories dusted down and friendships renewed. On Saturday afternoon a civic reception in the Town Council offices will be followed by a further reception in Scoil Eoin. Later that evening the former pupils and their partners will sit down to dinner with a number of invited guests at Kilkea Golf Club Restaurant. On the last day of the weekend reunion a service of remembrance and commemoration will take place in the yard of the old school in St. John’s Lane and will be followed by a tree planting ceremony in Edmund Rice Square and a going away reception.
In conjunction with the class reunion a photographic exhibition will be held in the Heritage Centre which will be of particular interest to anyone who remembers the people or the events of Athy of the 1950’s.