Thursday, May 10, 2007

A brief history of schooling in Athy

This week I return to the amalgamation of the Christian Brothers Secondary School and Scoil Mhuire, both 19th century institutions which since their foundation have been an integral part of the educational life of Athy.

Indeed, by dint of their influence, both schools have been in their time an integral part of the social life of this area. I was privileged to receive my early education, both primary and secondary, in the local Christian Brothers School and so am more than an interested onlooker as the date of the amalgamation of my old school with Scoil Mhuire draws near.

Until the 1790s, the children of Athy town received no formal education.

The Church of England did not have a parish school at that time and no Catholic was licensed to teach his co-religionists. Only the children of well-to-do families could afford to attend the fee-paying private schools, of which there were a number in Athy at the end of the 18th century. In 1870, the local Church of England rector set up a parish school, which for a time at least was located in the town hall, but later moved to the three-storey house currently standing at the corner of Meeting Lane and Emily Square.

In 1811, the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor of Ireland, commonly called the ‘Kildare Place Society’, was founded.

Its stated purpose was to afford the same facilities for education to all classes of professing Christians without any attempt to interfere with their religious beliefs. It is from the records of that society that we first learned of the existence of a Catholic free school in Athy. Known also as the ‘Athy Poor School’, it had as a teacher John Goold, who in January 1823 received a payment of £11.4.4- from the Kildare Place Society.

Rev Charles Bristow, the Church of England curate, received a grant of £3.1.9 that same year for running a school in Athy Gaol, which was located on the Carlow Road.

The building of the Athy Poor School premises was attributed to Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House and it was described in the 1824 Parochial Returns as “a substantial building of stone and lime”.

Located at the North East corner of the present St Michael’s Church, it was funded by local subscriptions under the management of the parish priest and a committee of 12 local men.

Patrick O’Rourke and Ann Doogan were teachers in the school in 1824 and on the school rolls were 232 boys and 96 girls, with an average attendance each day of 140 boys and 35 girls.

By 1835, the Athy Poor School was known as the National Day School and the teachers there were George and Elizabeth Carmichael, who had 168 boys and 76 girls on the school rolls. The average attendance in those days, when compulsory school attendance was still a long way off, was 86 boys and 42 girls.

Sometime after 1827, but before 1835, a new schoolhouse was built at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place. It would seem, although I cannot be certain, that the original school building continued to operate as a girls’ school, while the new building housed the boys’ school.

Despite the progress made in providing education for the children of Athy, the local Catholic clergy were anxious to desecularise education and bring it more under the control and influence of the Catholic Church. A meeting of the local parishioners was held in the National Day School in the spring of 1843 to further the idea of establishing a convent in Athy for a teaching order of nuns.

The prime movers in this were Anna Goold, who subsequently gifted her house in Stanhope Place to the local parish priest, Rev W Gaffney, a curate of St Michael’s, the Fitzgerald family of Geraldine House and Patrick Maher of Kilrush. That meeting resulted in the building of a convent and a new school in the grounds of St Michael’s Parish Church which the Sisters of Mercy took possession of on 10 October 1852.

The first of the two Catholic educational institutions that are now about to amalgamate had arrived in Athy. The Sisters of Mercy in their early years in the town concentrated on teaching primary school children, but after some time they opened a private secondary school, which later became a public school, known today as Scoil Mhuire.

In the meantime, the Christian Brothers were invited by Archbishop Cullen to open a school for boys in Athy and they were facilitated in doing so by the gifting of Greenhills House by the Sisters of Mercy, which was to become the Christian Brothers Monastery.

Again, like the Sisters of Mercy, the educational facilities provided by the Christian Brothers when their school opened on 19 August 1862 was for primary school pupils and it was some time before more senior boys were catered for.

To complete the educational framework in Athy, mention must be made of the Model School opened in 1852 and the Vocational School, as it was then called, which commenced in November 1900. The District Model School was built by the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland on a five-acre site which was donated by the Duke of Leinster in 1848.

The building of the school commenced two years later and it was opened on 12 August 1852. It catered for infants, as well as boys and girls, and combined the teaching of children with the preliminary training of teachers, known as candidate teachers.

The school was non-denominational and the first two school principals, John Walsh, who had previously taught in Dublin, and Elizabeth Reilly, who had been a teacher in Ballinvally National School, were Catholics.

The success of the Model School is shown by the numbers enrolling in the school. On its first day 13 boys, one girl and one infant were enrolled and by the following February the school had 207 on it’s books and 281 by September 1853.

In each succeeding year up to 1856, when 567 children were enrolled, the Model School attracted more and more of the local children to its non-denominational classes. It achieved its highest enrolment in 1858, when 582 children were listed on the school register.

It was the success of the District Model School which prompted Archbishop Cullen to invite the Christian Brothers to Athy. The Irish Hierarchy’s disapproval of the Model schools was set out in a letter to the Commissioners of the National School, which described the schools as “intrinsically anti-Catholic”.

The fragmentation on religious grounds of the educational system in Athy dates from that period.

The vocational schooling system first came into being following the passing of the Technical Instructions Act in 1899, which, when adopted by Athy Urban District Council, was followed by the setting up of a technical instruction committee.

A technical school was opened in part of the old national school at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place and there it remained until a new technical school was opened on the Carlow Road on 5 December 1940.

The amalgamation of Scoil Eoin and Scoil Mhuire brings together two institutions with a shared history extending over 301 years and marks the final chapter in the history of the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers in the town of Athy.

The celebrations marking this important occasion commence with the opening of an exhibition in the Heritage Centre this Wednesday and the launching of a book of memoirs compiled by transition students of Scoil Eoin.

Other events take place during the week, and on Saturday 12 May a celebratory dinner will be held in the Clanard Court Hotel at which past pupils of Scoil Eoin and the old secondary school in St John’s Lane will attend.

The closing of Scoil Mhuire and Scoil Eoin and their coming together as Ardscoil Na Trionoide, catering for boys and girls, is a huge advance in our local education story which started over 200 years ago with the Athy Poor School.

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