St. Patrick’s National School is not a name familiar to those who like myself attended the local boys school 50 years ago. In the Christian Brothers school yard off St. John’s Lane the conker tree which stood just inside the main gated entrance then had pride of place. To either side of that magnificent tree were to be found the sheds which doubled as bicycle sheds and when rain fell, as covered, if somewhat restricted, play areas. Facing the entrance and beyond the conker tree was a two storey building which on the ground floor housed one part of the primary school and on the first floor the entire secondary school for boys in Athy. There were just three rooms at the top of the iron stairs which led from the school yard which had served as the town’s secondary school since local contractor Daniel Carbery added a first floor to an existing building in 1901. Directly below the secondary school and on the ground floor was the original primary school which had been erected before the Christian Brothers arrived to open their school in August 1861.
To the left of the school yard was the one storey building erected in 1931, again by local contractor Dan Carbery to accommodate the increasing demand for primary school places. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart it provided accommodation for manual instruction and I can recall seeing a photo many years ago of a wood working class in that building on a date unknown to me but I suspect it was a class of the 1920’s to 1930’s.
Having spent all my school days in Athy I have memories of St. Joseph’s School in Rathstewart where the kindly Sisters of Mercy looked after all the daily needs of the young boys entrusted into their care. After three years and at the age of 7 or 8 years we transferred to the “big” school where we were to come under the watchful gaze of the Christian Brothers. On the day of the transfer we youngsters gathered in lines on the gravelled entrance way which went by the side of St. Joseph’s leading to the main door of the Convent. We were as proud as peacocks, yet apprehensive of what lay ahead as we left the “protected custody” of Sr. Brendan and the other teaching nuns of St. Joseph’s. We walked in two lines up Stanhope Street, turning right at Carolan’s Corner and over the bridge. Walking ahead of us was a Christian Brother and I can still remember my father standing outside Finn’s Butcher shop, directly opposite Reid Lalor’s pub, waiting to greet me as I passed. Just over the bridge we passed the multi storey building which up to 25 years or so previously was a working mill owned and operated by the Hannon family. Up St. John’s Lane we went with Vernal’s Forge on the right and a row of small houses on the left before reaching the entrance to the Christian Brother’s School. This was to be my school home for the following 11 years. To us it was simply “the Christian Brothers”, the place where we youngsters forged friendships on the anvils of shared experiences, friendly competition on and off the field of play, but never ever by reference to our academic achievements or indeed lack of them.
Brother Flaherty was Principal of the primary school in those days and he is still hale and hearty and living I believe in Drimnagh Castle Christian Brothers Monastery next to the Long Mile Road. It was “Fla” as he was affectionately known who got us to act out the great events of Irish history using upturned chairs and stool desks to resemble the barricades of the Wexford rebels of ’98. Emmet’s speech from the Dock was another memory of those days and it was Brother Flaherty who organised and trained the Mass servers for the Parish Church. I can still recall the kindness of the big Kerry man, when yours truly found himself as the lone Mass server at the first Mass one week day shortly after I had finished my training as a Mass server. Brother Flaherty rose from his place in the nave and came inside the altar rail where he knelt down alongside me and stayed throughout the Mass to guide the frightened youngster through the Mass. I never forgot his kindness on that day, nor indeed the often unacknowledged kindness of the Christian Brothers who worked so hard to give my generation and many others the rudiments of a good education.
Last week Brother John Murphy, a native of County Clare, died in St. Patrick’s, Baldoyle at the advanced age of 97 years. Prior to his retirement in 1974 he had served as Principal of the Christian Brothers Primary School here in Athy for 14 years and he remained in the town for another 20 years, thereby acquiring the distinction of being the longest ever serving Christian Brother in the Athy Monastery. With Brother Joseph Quinn he left Athy when the Christian Brothers Monastery closed in 1994. I have written before and elsewhere of the importance of the Christian Brothers who brought education within the reach of everyone who wanted to better themselves. Both Brother Murphy and Brother Quinn were the last in a long line of Irish men who between 1861 and 1994 gave the youth of Athy an education which raised their horizons and broadened their expectations.
The Christian Brothers primary and secondary schools remain on as Scoil Eoin in Rathstewart and St. Patrick’s School in St. John’s Lane, both with lay principals in charge. The needs of education in the 21st century differ enormously from those of 50 years ago and nowhere is that better reflected than in the range of activities undertaken by the modern pupil. In my day extra curricular activity was confined to Gaelic football on Wednesday afternoons. Nowadays Outreach Programmes in association with the Council’s Art Services give the boys of St. Patrick’s the opportunity to work with artists such as Australian song writer Peter Kearney and percussionist Eddie O’Neill. I understand both artists will be giving a concert in the school this week in conjunction with the young pupils of St. Patrick’s.
My old primary school is going from strength to strength and last year received the Kildare G.A.A. School of the Year Award. Fund-raising is currently going ahead to raise much needed funds for improvements to the school, an indication that improving the work/study environment is an important part of the continuing betterment of academic standards.
Nowadays as I walk up or down St. John’s Lane I will have to take on board the fact that the school I attended is to a new generation simply known as “St. Patrick’s”. “The Christian Brothers” is no more - long may St. Patrick’s Primary School continue to turn out young men whose destiny is to shape the future of “Sweet Athy”.