The developers have moved into what was the Convent grounds at Rathstewart and have begun the work of transforming a site which from just four years after the Great Famine was the nerve centre of education for the girls of Athy and district. The Sisters of Mercy who came to the newly built Convent in Athy in 1852 finally left that much extended and enlarged Convent a few years ago. However, the schools which over the years were built to meet local needs are by and large still in use today in one capacity or another. The earliest school buildings have long gone but the National School which was opened in 1893 is currently in use as an education centre. We locals commonly refer to the building as “Mount St. Mary’s” and recently I came across an unpublished contemporary account of the official opening of that school in August 1893 by Archbishop Walsh of Dublin. The Archbishop who arrived in Athy by the morning train on 13th August was accompanied by Fathers Dunne and Whitty. I will let the correspondent of 111 years ago continue with the story of the day’s events.
“The streets were spanned by arches bearing such mottos as ‘WELCOME TO OUR ILLUSTRIOUS ARCHBISHOP’, ‘EDUCATION’S CHAMPION’, ‘CEAD MILE FAILTE’, ‘WARM GREETINGS TO HIM WHOM WE HONOUR’. On arrival of the train the Archbishop was met by an immense crowd of people. On alighting he was received by the Parish Priest, Canon Germaine, the local Curates Rev. J. Staples, Rev. M. Duggan, Rev. J. Rowan and the members of the Reception Committee. The Archbishop then took a seat in a brake which was parked outside the Railway Station and a procession formed to escort him to the Parochial House. The Barrack Street and Leinster Street fife and drum bands and the splendid brass band of the Artane School which had been brought down for the occasion marched in front of the procession, and each played in turn. As he entered Canon Germaine’s house the Archbishop was warmly cheered and he repeatedly bowed his head in acknowledgement.
Immediately after 12 o’clock Mass a procession was formed in the Convent grounds which were very tastefully decorated for the occasion. Festoons of ivy were twined along the railings of the principal walks and these with the canvass covered band stand in the centre lent an air of festivity to the entire place. The children of the school walked at the head of the procession, each section having its own banner. In all there were over 400 young girls. Then followed the older girls of the parish belonging to the confraternities, also bearing banners. Following them were a number of small boys and the members of the confraternity of the Holy Rosary from the Dominican Church numbering close on 300. The Archbishop mitred and vested with train bearers and attended by a number of clergy and acolytes swinging censers came next.
The new school buildings stands on an elevated spot overlooking the Convent and as the procession wound up the hill the sight was a magnificent and impressive one. The sun shone out brightly and it flashed on the rich banners, the bright costumes and the vivid coloured sashes of the children and girls. Arriving at the door of the new building the Archbishop solemnly blessed the threshold and sprinkled it with holy water. Entering he repeated the ceremony in the Principal Hall. The ground plan of the new building is of a regular formation and the exterior is of plain scholastic character, effect not being studied so much as solidity and usefulness. On the ground floor is situated the principal school which is a fine room measuring 60ft. by 28ft. with a height of 20ft. Adjoining are an infant school and a kindergarten school. On the second story is a work room, 42ft. by 20ft., a classroom, a music room and a cloakroom. The building was constructed from plans prepared by Mr. Hague, Consulting Engineer. General regret was expressed that the contractor, Mr. Daniel Carbery, had not lived to see the school completed, but he was represented by his sons, Messrs Dan and Joe Carbery who brought the building work to completion. [Mr. Dan Carbery Senior had died on 8th July 1893]
The ceremony of blessing over, Archbishop Walsh returned to the Convent where he was entertained to lunch with a number of other guests. The Artane Boys Band performed a selection of music on the lawn in front of the Convent. The grounds were crowded with visitors who enjoyed the music. At half past two the Archbishop returned to the Convent grounds and on account of the great heat of the day the addresses were made in the shadow of the Convent wall. The people in thousands assembled around the speakers, the school children by special request of the Archbishop being placed in front. An address from the pupils of the Convent schools was read by Miss Mary May, a young lady who showed great nerve and whose reading was audible to the whole assemblage. Miss May was very prettily dressed in white lace with purple trimmings and sash, the Archbishop’s colours. The address is on vellum and is a splendid specimen of illuminating art, the colours being rich and tastefully blended. The work of Sr. Mary Joseph Maguire, it was very handsomely mounted in a gilt easel backed frame with Florentine moulding. The Archbishop was also presented by the Sisters of Mercy with a beautiful specimen of Beleek China. D.J. Murphy, Town Commissioner, then read an address on behalf of the local Town Commission in which he bid His Grace a sincere and heartfelt welcome ‘to our old and historic town’.
Responding Dr. Walsh thanked the townspeople and their neighbours who met him at the Railway Station and conducted him through the town with such a magnificent demonstration. He went on at length to speak of the advantages secured for Athy in the establishment of the Convent schools and the schools of the local Christian Brothers who came to Athy in 1861.
At approximately 2.30 p.m. an entertainment was given in the new schools by the pupils of the Sisters of Mercy. A fine stage was erected at one end of the room with drop curtains. The scenery on the stage was all very natural looking, having been painted within the Convent by Sr. Mary Patrick. The string band of the Artane School rendered some splendid orchestral music, in addition to which the girls of the Convent School presented a number of scenes and recitations on the subjects of Irish literature and Irish history.”
Canon Germaine, the Parish Priest who welcomed Archbishop Walsh to Athy on that August day in 1893 had been appointed Parish Priest in Athy on the death in November 1892 of Fr. James Doyle and he was to remain as Parish Priest of St. Michael’s Parish until his own death in April 1905. The schools founded by the Sisters of Mercy are still functioning, even though the Order founded by the venerable Catherine McAuley is no longer represented on the school staff. The National School building of 1893 was replaced by a larger and more up to date building in 1959. Both buildings are still in use.