The simple notice in the Parish Church bulletin gave little indication of the historic event which it signalled. ‘School reopening, Scoil Padraig Naofa Thursday 1st September for all students in new building in Tomard.’
The opening of the new St. Patrick’s Primary School to receive pupils marked a further momentous day in the history of education in the South Kildare town of Athy. It was exactly 150 years ago that three Christian Brothers, John Stanislaus Flanagan, Francis Luke Holland and John Patrick Sheehy arrived in Athy to take possession of Greenhills House. Some years previously the house and some 12 acres of land at Greenhills had come into the ownership of the local Parish Priest, Monsignor Andrew Quinn. Archbishop Cullen, a native of Ballitore, had approached the Christian Brothers to open a school in Athy and a two room school was built alongside Greenhills House, funded by local contributions. The Annals of the Christian Brothers disclose that Pat Maher of Kilrush was particularly generous, as was his daughter, Mother Mary Teresa, Superioress of the Sisters of Mercy, Athy who donated £400.
The Christian Brothers took possession of the small school and their new Monastery on 8th August 1861 and three days later Archbishop Cullen preached in St. Michael’s Parish Church and introduced the newly arrived Christian Brothers to the townspeople. The next morning he celebrated Mass in Greenhills House and afterwards blessed the newly built classrooms which each measured 36ft. x 26ft., with a lecture room 10ft. wide in between.
On August 19th 1861 the primary school was opened for the first time. That day 120 boys were enrolled. Young boys continued to be received thereafter and as the numbers increased a third teaching brother joined the staff. Hugh Francis Sweeney’s arrival was facilitated by the continuing generosity of Patrick Maher of Kilrush who agreed to pay the sum of £30 annually for two years towards his maintenance.
The first public examination of the Christian Brothers School pupils took place on 31st July 1862, at which Archbishop Cullen presided. More than 300 visitors attended the very successful examination which was conducted by Brothers O’Flanagan and Holland from 11.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. The continuing success of the primary school necessitated the building of an extension to the original school buildings in 1873 and four years later an additional Christian Brother was added to the teaching staff.
For the first 33 years only Christian Brothers were employed on the teaching staff of Athy Primary School. John McNamee was the first lay teacher to be employed and he took up duty in September 1894 at a salary of £1 per week. In October 1897 Patrick Humbert Ryan, a native of Tipperary who joined the teaching staff in Athy the previous year, died of diphtheria. He was the first Christian Brother to be buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery, Athy.
The Christian Brothers School I first attended in 1949 was very different from the school which opened its doors in August 1861. By then a secondary school was in place, admittedly quite a small one consisting only of three rooms, one of which was subdivided by a curtain. The primary school had a full complement of six classrooms which included a single storey building erected in 1932.
The difference is not confined to the buildings. In my time in the secondary school those of us who lived in the town went home for our dinner at midday, while the country lads ate their home prepared sandwiches in the school yard. Nowadays I see squads of secondary students descending on the local supermarkets and sandwich bars to buy filled rolls, sandwiches and drinks for their midday break. It would appear that few, if any, of today’s youngsters bring home prepared lunches to school. It demonstrates the huge differences which must exist between family incomes of 50 years ago and today.
The primary school buildings at St. John’s were vacated in November 1965 with the opening of a new school on lands adjoining the old school, which lands were donated by the local Sisters of Mercy. That new school consisted of nine classrooms, two teacher rooms, an office, a book room and a cloakroom. However, it soon proved inadequate for the numbers attending so that a further extension was built the following year.
Thirty-six years later St. Patrick’s Boys Primary School has re-located to Tomard and the St. John’s Lane School will be no more. The journey which started with the arrival of the Christian Brothers to teach in two classrooms in August 1861 continues today in a 26 classroom facility on the opposite side of the River Barrow. St. John’s Lane and Greenhills have for generations been associated with the Christian Brothers Schools and with boys’ primary education. Those links are now gone forever. The Christian Brothers left Athy for the last time on Monday 23rd January 1995, two years after the last Christian Brother had taught in an Athy school. The secondary school and the primary school are now located on separate campuses on the Monasterevin Road. As if to accentuate the break with the past what was once the Christian Brothers Boys Schools are now fully co-ed, catering for boys and girls at both primary and secondary level.