“Mol an òige agus tiocfaidh siad” I am reminded as I write the ancient Irish saying of the young girl who came to Athy from the west of Ireland forty four years ago to teach in the Convent Primary School. She was retracing the journey made in the opposite direction by her mother who with her parents and her siblings left Athy for Westport several decades previously. The parents were Richard Phelan of Clogh and Frances Lawler of Churchtown who for a period were the owners of the public house in Duke Street later acquired by Barney Dunne. Mary Grady, granddaughter of Richard and Frances Phelan was joined on her first teaching day in St. Michael’s School by her colleagues Ann Fenlon and the late Mary Lohan, who like Mary had just graduated from Carysfort College. Their arrival in 1970 followed the intake one year previously of the first lay teachers to be employed in Athy’s Convent Primary School, where at one time upwards of 20 nuns were employed.
I first got to know the woman whom the school children know as the “Prìomhoide”, when as a young girl she met and later married my pal, Frank English. Sadly Frank is no longer with us to share the memories of those days.
Mary was appointed Principal of St. Michael’s Primary School on the 1st of September 1993 following the retirement of Sr. Joseph, who was the last of a long line of Mercy Sister Principals stretching back to 1852. As the first, and to date, the only lay Principal of what is now known as Scoil Mhicil Naofa, Mary English has a remarkable track record as an innovative and inspiring school Principal. She has overseen the expansion of the school to cater for over 800 pupils while managing staff numbers which in recent years reached a peak of 61 teachers and 32 special needs assistants. Her drive to provide educational opportunities for those most in need inspired her to address literacy and numeracy issues with special classes and helped attain special designation for Scoil Mhicil Naofa as a DEIS School. The extra staff allocated under that scheme guaranteed smaller class sizes so vital for those pupils with special needs.
Thanks to the pioneering work of the Sisters of Mercy and especially Sr. Rosarii classes for traveller children were already in place in the school when Mary took over as Principal. However, she has managed to integrate those young children into mainstream classes to the benefit of the children themselves and to the wider pupil population generally.
Uniquely, Mary was responsible for establishing special classes in the school for children in the autistic spectrum. The first such classes commenced in 1998 with 12 children who were bussed to Athy each day from around County Kildare and adjoining counties. These were the first such classes provided in this region with at one time upwards of 36 children attending. With the opening of similar facilities in other schools in the area the numbers now attending the Scoil Mhicil Naofa classes for children on the autistic spectrum has stabilised at 30.
Approximately 5 years ago a planned programme was put in place to implement a co-educational policy for all national schools in Athy. This policy is now fully operational and both Scoil Mhicil Naofa and Scoil Phadraigh Naofa have boys and girls on their roles sharing experiences and learning. The fact that the transition was made so smoothly is a compliment to the teachers of both schools but especially to the Principals involved Mary English and Catherine Gillis.
As Principal of Scoil Mhicil Naofa for the past 21 years Mary has seen many changes and dealt with many problems. Lack of finance is for every provincial school a perennial issue but with the help of the School Board and the Parents Association the former Convent National School has been able over the years to ensure that every pupil irrespective of family background has had an equal opportunity to progress their education to their best advantage.
Over the years I have been aware of the multi faceted range of activities engaged in by pupils of Scoil Mhicil Naofa. Encouraged by their teachers the young pupils have embarked on many projects from pairing with Northern Ireland School pupils to the very latest project, the publication of a newspaper. Parents have always been encouraged to participate with their children and the Halla Mòr has on many occasions hosted gatherings of pupils, teachers and parents celebrating yet another successful project by the young pupils of Scoil Mhicil Naofa.
Mary English has been to the forefront in encouraging her teachers and pupils to widen their experiences and knowledge by participating in these school projects. She has proved to be an innovative leader of her school and now retires after 21 years as Principal with only one regret – that the new building to meet the needs of co-education is not yet in place. However, Mary can look back on a career marked with success. Perhaps her greatest achievement is having developed an inclusive school where learning potential is maximised irrespective of one’s culture, religion or social background.
Happy retirement Mary.