The recent announcement that the Christian Brothers were to appoint a lay Principal for their Secondary School in Athy brings to a close an era stretching back 132 years. It was on Thursday the 8th of August 1861 that the Christian Brothers first arrived in Athy. Brother Stanislaus O'Flanagan, the first Principal, was accompanied by Brother Luke Holland and a lay Brother - Brother Patrick Sheehy.
They were accommodated in Greenhills House, St. John's Lane, the former residence of the Weldon family and from 1820 to 1850 that of the Misses Hellen, daughters of Lord Justice Hellen. After 1850 Greenhills House was owned by John Beard through his wife Hannah, daughter of George Mansergh of Riversdale House. Greenhills was later acquired by the Parish Priest, Rev. A Quinn, whether by gift or purchase it is not known. The Annals of the Convent of Mercy disclose that in 1859 the Parish Priest not being able to pay the rent gave the house and ten and a half acres to the Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters later donated the house and some of the lands for the use of the Christian Brothers. The first one storey school building was built on a site adjoining Greenhills House. Patrick Maher of Kilrush, who was a generous benefactor of the local Sisters of Mercy, donated £400 towards the building costs which amounted to £1,000.00.
On Sunday August 11th Archbishop Cullen, a native of Ballitore who had taken a special interest in bringing the Christian Brothers to Athy, preached in the Parish Church and introduced the newly arrived Christian Brothers to the townspeople. The next morning he said Mass in Greenhills House and blessed the new classrooms.
On August 19th the School opened it's doors for the first time and 120 boys were enroled. As the numbers increased a third teaching brother was required. Brother Francis Clarke joined the community with the ever generous Patrick Maher of Kilrush agreeing to pay £30 annually towards his maintenance. In the early years of the School's existence the salaries of the other Brothers were met from Parish funds. For this purpose two annual collections were taken up in the Parish Church.
In 1867 the Parish Priest pleaded inability to further guarantee the financial support of the Christian Brothers. Following a public meeting in the town the Christian Brothers took upon themselves the task of collecting funds for their own maintenance and support. In this they were supported by the local people and a number of general gifts and bequests were made to them by Michael Lawlor, Miss Goold, J. Delaney, Miss Ferris and others.
A second storey was added to the school building in 1901. The extra space was required for teaching experimental science and other subjects under the aegis of the new Department of Agricultural and Technical Instructions. On the townspeoples security £300 was borrowed from a local Bank and the work was completed at a cost of almost £900 in October 1901. For seven weeks after the summer holidays of that year the Christian Brothers held classes in the Old Schoolhouse in Stanhope Place which had been vacated by the Sisters of Mercy in 1893.
The full story of the Christian Brothers in Athy and their labour in the cause of Christian education will be told another day. Some years ago while browsing in an Antiquarian Bookshop in Dublin I came across a leather bound volume with the words "Deceased Brothers" on the cover. The inside cover was marked in ink as volume 2 and a perusal of it's contents showed it to be a necrology of the Christian Brothers.
By a strange coincidence the first entry recorded the death of Brother Luke Holland on the 8th of January 1900 in Marino. He it was who had travelled to Athy in August 1861 with his two companions to open the first Christian Brothers Monastery and School. The same volume also recorded the deaths of his companions - Brother Patrick Sheehy on the 2nd March 1902 and Brother Stanislaus O'Flanagan on the 5th March 1906. How strange to find that the three young religious Brothers who had been brought together in August 1861 to travel to Athy were to have their names reunited in print 45 years later with the death of the first Superior of Athy Christian Brothers School Brother Stanislaus O'Flanagan.