For an Athy person Barrowhouse is synonymous with the I.R.A. campaign during the War of Independence for the name conjures up images of an ambush which saw the tragic death of two young men from the Barrowhouse area. The Barrowhouse ambush has become part of the folklore of South Kildare and sustains perhaps Athy and district’s most tangible claim to have played its part in the fight for Irish freedom.
Barrowhouse is our next door neighbour and even though it lies across the County border of Leix it is forever linked with the town of Athy. The connection owes as much to the short distance between the two as it does to the vagrancies of Irish church history which places the County Laois townland within the dioceses of Dublin as part of the parish of St. Michael’s Athy. A short distance away its near neighbour Ballyadams is in the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin.
How Barrowhouse on the west bank of the Gaelic Irish side of the River Barrow in medieval times came to be included in the Dublin diocese is a mystery. The Church of St. Mary’s, the only Chapel of Ease within the parish of St. Michaels, is reputed to have been built in the 1820s on a site donated by a Miss Fennell who lived in a thatched cottage to the left of the church. She would later leave her entire 15 acre holding to the local church. St. Mary’s, built in anticipation of the granting of Catholic emancipation, was the post penal law replacement for a church at Tankardstown which in pre-reformation days served as the local church for the people of Barrowhouse and Tankardstown. In Tankardstown graveyard today there can still be found some remains of that ancient church.
Soon after the building of the church at Barrowhouse work began on providing a small schoolhouse and it is believed that the building was completed in 1830. The school site had also been donated by Miss Fennell. Consisting of a large rectangular room the schoolhouse remained in use until a new school building was provided in 1998.
The first teacher in Barrowhouse is believed to have been a Hugh O’Connell and he was followed in later years by George Carmichael, John Fleming, Mr. J. Powell and Mr. and Mrs. J. Boylan, whose son was the eminent scholar and theologian Monsignor Patrick Boylan. The future Monsignor attended Barrowhouse School, as did another cleric, Rev. J.J. Malone who spent his priestly life in Australia. Fr. Malone was a writer and a poet and one of his better known poems was ‘The Old White Washed Schoolhouse of Shanganamore’ It was included in his book of poems ‘Wild Briar and Wattle Blossoms’ published in Melbourne in 1914 which carried a photograph of the old school. It included these lines,
‘I looked up the roll for the playmates of old -
Some were lying ‘neath the grass in the chapel-yard mould,
Some were tilling the fields where their childhood had flown,
And the roof that had sheltered their sires was their own;
Some had tempted the deep, and afar o’er the foam
Eat the bread of the stranger and hungered for home;
Some had followed the flag for the battlefield’s joy,
And the blare of the trumpet would madden the boy;
Some scrambled to fortune, some climbed unto fame,
And pawned their heart’s love to the lust of a name.
But the dead and the living came back to me there,
And the child sat again ‘mongst the children that were;
And the world of enchantment that swam from my ken,
Like a lost planet, rose in its glory again.
For memory, the wizard with magical power,
Flung around me the past, and I stood at that hour
By the well-spring of life and its fountain of lore,
In the old whitewashed schoolhouse of Shanganamore.’
The old whitewashed schoolhouse was closed by the Department of Education in 1975 and the two teachers, Eileen O’Connor, school principal and Frances Kelly were transferred to the newly opened school at Ballyroe. The proud people of Barrowhouse rallied to save their school and like the people of Dunquin in County Kerry whose school was also closed around the same time they kept the school open, paying the teachers out of their own pockets. Ignatius Brennan and Bernie Gibbons were employed and paid by the local community to keep Barrowhouse school open. In the face of the community’s commitment the Department of Education decided in 1976 to reopen the Barrowhouse School and Miss O’Connor and Mrs. Kelly were transferred back to their original positions. When Miss O’Connor retired in 1985 Gerry Mulholland was appointed principal and after many years campaigning a new school was built on a site adjoining the old school. The new school was opened in October 1998 with 44 pupils on the roll book and two teachers.
Barrowhouse school today has 78 pupils and three teachers, in addition to a special needs assistant, a resource teacher and a learning support teacher. The increase in pupil numbers has necessitated the building of an extension to the school and last Saturday Bishop Eamon Walsh blessed and officially opened that extension. Mrs. Pauline Lawlor who was appointed principal last September and Eibhlís Candy and Aoife Brennan and the rest of the Barrowhouse school staff shared in the delight of the local people in reaching yet another important milestone in the proud history of Barrowhouse community.
With the recent opening of the Community Arts Centre at Woodstock Street there is a cultural reawakening in our town. At different periods in its long history Athy was known as an Anglo Norman town, a fortress town, a settler’s town and a garrison town, but now with its various festivals including last weekend’s Medieval Festival Athy is fast becoming a centre for community art activities. Coming up is the Mayday celebrations scheduled for the Arts Centre sponsored by S.I.P.T.U. Starting at 2.00 p.m. on Saturday 1st May there will be a series of talks/lectures on labour history in South Kildare, followed by a concert in the evening. It should prove to be a most interesting event.