St. Michael’s School opened in October 1852 when Sisters of Mercy from Baggot Street Convent in Dublin arrived in Athy to take possession of the small Convent building and school which had been built on Church grounds near Clonmullin. It is estimated that almost 500 young girls presented themselves for enrolment, but as it was a time of non-compulsory school attendance the school numbers fell to approximately 100 within 3 years. At the same time pupil numbers in the Model School had increased to almost 400, much to the dismay of the Archbishop of Dublin and the local Catholic clergy who were vehemently opposed to the non-denominational system of education available there. A strong campaign was mounted by the Sisters of Mercy, headed by a new entrant to Athy Convent, Margaret Slevin who took the name Sr. Paul. Encouraged by the local clergy the number of children attending St. Michael’s School gradually increased so that by 1858 it was necessary to build an extension to the Convent to provide school accommodation for infant boys.
In 1866 two houses on the Kilkenny Road, which was known locally as the Turnpike Road on account of the tolls once collected as travellers left Athy, came into the possession of the Sisters of Mercy. The property had an unexpired lease of 16 years and for that period the Sisters of Mercy used the building (which now forms part of the Minch Norton complex) as a school to facilitate children who lived on that side of the town. Two of the Monitresses from the Convent School were appointed to the Turnpike School and two Sisters of Mercy also attended each day to supervise and give religious instruction. The Turnpike School closed after 16 years when the owners sought possession of the building on expiration of the lease.
In the meantime a boys infant school had been built for the Sisters of Mercy in the garden plot to the front of the Convent building. Constructed at a cost of approximately £600 the three classroom building dedicated to St. Joseph would remain in use until 1960 when it was demolished to facilitate the building of a new Parish Church. It was in St. Joseph’s that hundreds of young lads from Athy had their first experience of school. The three years spent there under the careful tutelage of Sr. Brendan and her colleagues in the Sisters of Mercy were happy carefree times and I have very fond memories of St. Joseph’s School which I attended in the late 1940s.
In October 1882 the Sisters of Mercy acquired for £150 a field containing almost 6 acres to the rear of the Convent. The field which at one time formed part of the Commons of Clonmullin was sold by local Solicitor Edward Lord before he and his family emigrated to Canada. This field, where Fr. Theobold Matthew had once conducted a Temperance Meeting and administered Temperance Pledges to Athy men, was to be the site of a new primary school. However eleven years were to pass before the school was built. The foundation stone for the new building was laid by Archbishop Walsh of Dublin on 26th June 1882. Construction work on the school was carried out by the firm of Dan Carbery Senior who sadly passed away on 8th July 1893, just a month before the school was officially opened by Archbishop Walsh.
The school building of 1893, built to accommodate 400 pupils, had 530 pupils in 1952 when the Sisters of Mercy Convent celebrated it’s centenary. During the centenary celebrations it was announced that the Sisters of Mercy proposed to build a new primary school to accommodate 900 children so as to cater for the needs of the growing population of the district. It took another six years for those plans to come to fruition. On 23rd October 1958 the new primary school was opened and blessed by Dr. John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin. The school building which had accommodation for 800 pupils had 18 classrooms, a library, a domestic economy classroom, administrative offices, cloakrooms and a teachers staffroom. The building contractors were the local firm of D. & J. Carbery and it was a previous generation of the same family which had built the town’s second primary school for girls 65 years previously.
On the day of the opening of the school hundreds of school children formed a guard of honour for the Archbishop when he arrived by car in Athy, the town being decorated with bunting and papal flags. He was greeted on his arrival by Rev. Vincent Steen, P.P. and the Superioress of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy, Rev. Mother of the Sacred Heart. The local curates, Fr. Larry Redmond, James Cuneen and Frank Mitchell were also in attendance. The Archbishop opened the school with a golden key presented by the Architects, Ms. O’Connor and Alyward of Dublin and later presided over a Mass, celebrated by Fr. Frank Mitchell in the new school’s assembly hall.
The school, now re-named Scoil Mhichil Naofa, had a state of the art assembly hall with maple flooring, modern stage lighting and curtains, with a seating capacity of 400. It was claimed by a Department of Education Inspector to be the ‘finest assembly hall in any school in Ireland.’ I well remember the opening of the school as I was the Mass server who on the day carried the processional cross which preceded the Archbishop as he walked through the school building. I recently came across a photograph which appeared in the following days Irish Independent of the Archbishop and the Parish Priest with a number of the nuns standing at the main door of the school. Behind them was a solemn faced young Mass server standing to attention with the processional cross tightly held in both hands. My first and only claim to fame!
On Saturday, 11th October, the 50th anniversary of the opening of Scoil Mhichil Naofa will be celebrated with an open day in the school commencing at 10.00 a.m. The day long events will go on until 5.00 p.m. and include a varied programme of exhibitions and cultural events. Later that evening at 7.00 p.m. in the Parish Church Bishop Eamonn Walsh will celebrate what the programme describes as ‘an international Mass’. The entire day promises to be a memorable occasion and gives all of us an opportunity of revisiting our school days and perhaps even more important acknowledging the huge contribution the Sisters of Mercy and the teachers who replaced them have made to education in Athy.
Were the young boys in this photograph the first boys to be enrolled in Scoil Mhichil Naofa after it opened in 1958? The photograph was taken on Confirmation Day 1962. A copy of Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of ‘Eye on Athy’s Past’ to the first reader who can identify all of the boys in this photograph.