This morning I started to write the Eye, intending to relate my experiences of the ‘Open Night’ arranged by the local Toastmasters to which I had been kindly invited. However, just after 7.30 a.m. I got a phone call from a friend advising of the destruction of the Model School and commenting ‘that’s your Eye for next week’. Indeed he was right. The destruction of a local building of architectural importance, being one of several such buildings which formed Athy’s historical character, is a great loss. The relatively slow pace of development in Athy over the years had ensured a good survival rate for the most important elements of the town’s building heritage. The Town Hall, the Courthouse and White’s Castle are just some of the more important urban buildings which have survived and by doing so added an important dimension to the urban fabric of the town.
The destruction of the fine Model School is a terrible loss as the 19th century tudor gothic style building was a fine example of the work of that great architect Frederick Darley. There are other fine examples of his work in Athy, all due no doubt to the patronage of the Duke of Leinster. St. Michael’s Church at the top of Offaly Street, the Presbyterian Church and Manse and the Courthouse were all buildings designed by Frederick Darley. Indeed if one looks at some of the other noteworthy buildings in the town designed by Deane and Woodward and George Wilkinson among others, it can be seen that Athy is well endowed with buildings of architectural merit designed by many of the leading architects of their time.
Model Schools were part of a countrywide scheme proposed by the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland in its report for 1835 which stated: ‘32 District Model Schools should be established, being a number equal to that of the counties of Ireland, that those Model Schools should be under the direction of teachers chosen for superior attainments, and receiving superior remuneration to those charged with the general or primary school.’
Little appears to have been done about the Model School proposal until 1846 when the Commissioners in that year’s report gave further details of the proposed new schools.
‘That in Model Schools, established in the smaller county towns, a male and a female school and an agricultural school should be established – that from all the national schools in the neighbourhood, a certain number of the most deserving pupils be selected and be admitted as free scholars into the District Model School to act as monitors therein and to receive for their services small weekly payments.’
Athy was chosen in 1848 as a site for a District Model School, no doubt due to the influence of the Marquis of Kildare who replaced his father, the Duke of Leinster, on the Board of Commissioners for National Education in 1841. The Duke offered to lease a site for the school on the outskirts of Athy and the Commissioners on accepting the offer allowed the Duke to decide whether to have an agricultural college in the town or a District Model School with an agricultural department. He chose the latter and the building designed by Frederick Darley was erected. It was considered by the Education Commission as ‘very ambitious and needlessly expansive’ but undoubtedly it added enormously to the building heritage of the town which otherwise had very little else to boast of at that time.
The school was officially opened on 12th August 1852 and the first report of the school Inspector Edward Butler described the Head Master’s house as follows:-
‘The house contains on the ground floor a good-sized hall, large dining room, store-room, kitchen, with larder and servants’ room, etc; and two apartments, one for the Head Master, the other for the use of the resident pupil teachers during study hours. The second story, which is reached from the hall by a large flight of stairs, consists of an infirmary, two bed-rooms for the use of the Head Master, a wash-room and a dormitory for the four pupil teachers and four agricultural boarders, who reside on the premises, under the superintendence of the Head Master’.
There were two playgrounds, one for boys, the other for girls. On the first day the school attendance was 13 boys and 1 girl and in school to greet them was John Walsh, the Headmaster and Agnes Reilly, Mistress of the girl’s school. Both were Catholics and indeed in the early years of the Model School the teaching staff comprised Catholics as well as members of the Established Church and Presbyterians. The school attendance increased rapidly so that by 1858 there were upwards of 582 on the school rolls.
The Irish Catholic hierarchy objected to the Model School system and Archbishop Cullen of Dublin encouraged the Sisters of Mercy to open a school in Athy. The Sisters of Mercy arrived here in 1852, although it must be acknowledged that as early as 1844 the local clergy had spearheaded a weekly collection in the town to finance the building of a convent and school for the Sisters of Mercy. The Ballitore-born Archbishop was also instrumental in inviting the Christian Brothers to set up a school for boys in Athy and their arrival in 1861, combined with the earlier established Convent school, soon resulted in the non denominational education system in the Model School giving way to a system catering almost exclusively for members of the non-Catholic community. It was a situation which in more recent years had begun to be reversed as the intake of pupils to the Model School came from many different religious backgrounds.
An infant school was added to the District Model School in 1860 and a Miss Craig was appointed mistress of that section. The agricultural department which catered for young trainees who boarded in the adjoining house ran into financial difficulties after what was a promising start which had seen the farm attached to the school extended to 64 acres in 1855. The agricultural department closed in 1880 and the land was sold at auction.
The loss of the Model School is a terrible blow for the local Church of Ireland community and the school’s pupils and I hope that the fine building which has stood at one of the principal entrances to Athy for more than 150 years will be fully restored at some time in the not too distant future.
Michael Foot, the veteran British labour politician, died during the week aged 96 years. He was a remarkable man of great literary ability, a bibliophile, an erudite socialist and a most honourable politician. I first came across Michael Foot, the writer, when I read his biography of Dean Swift, ‘The Pen and the Sword’ which was published in 1957. He later wrote many more books including the two volume biography of another great British politician and socialist, Aneurin Bevan which confirmed his standing as a writer of exceptional ability. Michael Foot was harshly treated by the British electorate when he lead the Labour party in the 1970 General Election, but that most honest of politicians never deviated from the high principles for which he was noted. How I wish we had a few Michael Foots within the Irish political scene.