Monday, September 8, 2014

Technical Education in Athy

Athy is soon to have a new post primary school built at a cost of €8 million with a capacity to cater for upwards of 400 pupils.  It will replace the school building on the Carlow Road which was opened by the then Minister for Education Tomás O’Deirg on 3rd December 1940.  As a youngster growing up in Offaly Street in the 1950s I was familiar with the ‘Technical School’ as it was then called, before it was renamed St. Brigid’s Post Primary School in 1978. 

Technical or vocational education first became the subject of State involvement with the passing of the Technical Instruction Act of 1889.  At a time when Home Rule and the demands of the Irish Land League were hogging the headlines, the 1889 Act represented a move away from the laissez-faire theory of non-State involvement in the country’s economic development.  Ireland then and for many decades thereafter was an agricultural based economy and here in Athy the only industry of note was brick manufacture which provided badly needed employment for males and females, particularly during the summer months.  The Industrial Revolution which had marked England’s progress during the 19th century had by and large bypassed Irish provincial towns.  The intention of the 1889 Act was to provide technical education for young people in an attempt to grow an undeveloped Irish industrial base. 

The local Board of Guardians which had been established in the years immediately prior to the Great Famine to direct, inter alia, the affairs of the Athy Workhouse, were empowered under the 1889 Act to expend the produce of one penny rate in providing technical instruction in Athy.  The local guardians appear not to have exercised their powers in that regard and it was not until the passing of the Technical Instruction Act of 1889 that technical or vocational instruction first came to be provided in the South Kildare town.  That Act gave local County Councils and Urban District Councils the powers to establish technical committees and the newly established Athy Urban District Council moved to adopt the Act on 24th September 1900.  At the same time it was agreed to set up a Committee ‘comprised of six members of the Urban Council and six gentlemen in the town and neighbourhood to carry out the provisions of the Act.’ 

By the following November the 12 members of the Technical Instruction Committee had been appointed.  The Council’s appointees were M.J. Minch M.P., Chairman of the Urban Council and his fellow Councillors Thomas Hickey, Thomas Plewman, Daniel Carbery, Michael Malone and J.P. Whelan.  The ‘gentlemen’ brought onto the Committee were the local Parish Priest Canon Germaine, Rev. E. Waller, Church of Ireland Rector, Fr. William Duggan C.C., Stephen Telford of Barrowford, P.J. Murphy of Emily Square and W. Whelan of Duke Street.  Five years later the Urban Council sent four representatives to the County Kildare Joint Technical Committee.  Thomas Hickey and P.J. Murphy were Urban Councillors, while the other representatives were local Catholic clergymen, Fr. Joseph O’Keeffe P.P. and Fr. William Duggan C.C.

Initially the classes which were conducted under the aegis of the County Technical Committee rather than the local Committee were held in the Christian Brothers Schools in St. John’s Lane.  In early 1902 accommodation was rented in the C.Y.M.S. rooms at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place for the sum of €25.00 per year.  The classes initially attracted about 25 students.  The local papers reported that ‘drawing classes were progressing satisfactorily and that the subjects being studied were designed with a view to their usefulness.’  A Mr. Michael Mor was mentioned as a lecturer in the as yet unnamed school.

In March 1904 the local curate, Fr. William Duggan, brought a resolution of the Athy Techical Committee to a meeting of the County Committee seeking a reduction in the fees charged for morning classes in Athy.  The six week courses consisted of three demonstrations/lectures followed by three practical classes for which the Athy Committee felt a fee of five shillings was more than sufficient.

In May 1906 the local Urban District Council noted that the local people were not taking advantage of the local Technical Instruction classes.  ‘At present we have a very competent instructress Miss O’Donnell in cooking and hygiene, but only one person attends the morning classes and only two persons the evening classes.  An attendance of 12 persons was recorded at the same time for the poultry classes conducted by Miss Stafford.’

Twelve months later a further report submitted to the Urban Council acknowledged that the technical classes ‘were not proving a success.’  The evening class attendance during the winter of 1906/1907 was only one.  This despite the fact that the absence of industry and the lack of employment opportunities in the Athy area in the first decade of the 1900s was amply demonstrated by a letter in November 1908 from Naas Military Barracks Commander which drew the local Council attention ‘to the Special Reserve (of the British Army) as a means of mitigating the distress amongst the unemployed of the district.’  Following the outbreak of war in August 1914 the Technical Instruction Committee gave use of his classrooms for the setting up of a war hospital supply depot where voluntary workers made splints, bed rests, bed trays and crutches for injured soldiers.

Taking its name from the Act under which it was established the Technical School continued to operate from the corner site in Stanhope Place until 1940.  The Vocational Education Act of 1930 replaced the 1898 Act and provided for the setting up of County Vocational Education Committees to provide education to Leaving Certificate standards through subjects directly related to work.  The first purpose-built Vocational School was provided in Newbridge in 1937 and three years later Tomás O’Derig, Minister for Education officially opened Athy’s new school.  The new Athy Vocational School had 40 pupils on its roll, with T.C. Walsh of Stanhope Street as Headmaster.  Tom O’Donnell who lived in McDonnell Drive was appointed Headmaster in 1950 and he was replaced in 1976 by John Doyle.  John retired as Headmaster in 1993 to be replaced by Richard Daly who is currently in charge of the school.

Over the past 70 years the number of pupils has increased substantially from the 1940 level of 40, necessitating extensions to the school building in 1962, 1981 and again in 1989.  Enrolment in 1989 reached an all time high of 435 pupils.  Today there are approximately 300 pupils attending classes which since 1966 include courses for the Intermediate (now Junior Certificate) examinations and Leaving Certificate courses since 1968.

The opening of a new Vocational School on the educational campus on the Monasterevin Road, to be known as Athy Community College, represents a missed opportunity for the amalgamation of all the post primary schools in Athy.  The former C.B.S. school and the Convent School have amalgamated and the inclusion of the V.E.C. School in that process would, I feel, have provided huge benefits for the future development of post primary education in Athy.  The opportunity however has been missed but hopefully the fact that both post primary schools will be in close proximity to each other keeps open the possibility of future beneficial cooperation between both schools.

It has taken 110 years to progress from the temporary accommodation in a C.Y.M.S. room in Stanhope Place to the modern purpose built school building which will be opened shortly.  The journey was one on which many teachers and perhaps thousands of pupils travelled for part of the time – some still with us, others not so, some not recalled or forgotten, while others are remembered.  All of them made a contribution to vocational or technical education in South Kildare and for this we must express our gratitude.

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