Thursday, September 26, 2002

Athy 150 Years Ago and the Coming of the Sisters of Mercy

One hundred and fifty years ago Athy was noted as having made a decided improvement in its appearance compared to ten years previously. New houses had been built and several old ones renovated while the streets were well paved and kept in good order. However, the townspeople were still relying on public water pumps for water which was untreated and quite often unfit for consumption. An outbreak of cholera had occurred in 1832 and 17 years later just as the worst excesses of the Famine were abating, cholera hit again. The first cholera case was diagnosed in Athy on 25th June 1849 and between then and 29th September of the same year 27 cholera sufferers were reported resulting in the death of 11 locals.

Prostitution flourished on the streets of Athy of 150 years ago, prompting the Town Commissioners to post a notice warning that “persons keeping places of public resort for the sale of refreshment of any kind who knowingly supply any common prostitute or allow them to assemble on his premises will be prosecuted according to the Law”. Thomas Roberts was appointed by the Council to apprehend and prosecute prostitutes and beggars for which he was paid 4/= per week with an additional 2/6 for each conviction of a prostitute. The cases summarily disposed of by the local magistrates confirmed that Mr. Roberts was quite successful in apprehending the “ladies of the night” who were generally fined £1 for each offence, or one month in default of payment.

One hundred and fifty years ago the first Presbyterian settlers who had arrived from Pershire in Scotland in response to the Duke of Leinster’s offer of land in South Kildare were settling into their new homes. On 17th August 1851 a meeting of the Scottish families presided over by Rev. Patterson of Bray and Rev. Powell of Carlow agreed to establish a Presbyterian ministry in Athy. Within five years the “Scot’s” Church was built on a site on the Dublin Road. Nearby and just across the main Athy / Dublin road was the newly opened Model School where boys and girls of all denominations attended school.

In January 1852 Samuel Talbot published from Athy the first edition of what was intended to be a monthly magazine devoted “to the advancement of Science, Literature and the Industrial Arts”. It was the only edition ever published. Consisting of 36 pages it included a report of the lecture given the previous November at a meeting of Athy Mechanics Institute by its secretary Thomas Cross. The Mechanics Institute was part of a countrywide movement which had originated in England intended for the instructions of artisans or mechanics as they were then known, in scientific principals underlying their trade. The local institute was formed from the nucleus of the Athy Literary and Scientific Institute which had been founded in Athy in 1849. Athy’s Mechanic Institute, although intended for skilled workers, was largely dependent for its membership on the middle class elements of the town who made use of its reading room where newspapers and magazines were available.

Just two years previously and despite the ending of the four year long Famine the local Workhouse, then but ten years old, and built to accommodate 600 persons was still experiencing overcrowding. An Orphan Emigration Scheme initiated in March 1848 and intended to rid the Irish workhouses of teenage girls by sending them to Australia met with the approval of the local Board of Guardians. When the last boat sailed in April 1850 as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme, 42 teenage girls who had been inmates in Athy’s Workhouse had emigrated to start new lives on the other side of the world.

Prior to the opening of the Model School in 1852 the children of the town, or rather those whose parents wished them to be educated, attended the local Poor School. The school building had been provided by Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House on ground which at one time formed part of the commonage of Clonmullion. The teachers Patrick O’Rourke and Ann Doogan catered for 150 or so boys and approximately 40 girls who attended classes regularly. In the spring of 1843 the local Catholic clergy called a meeting of their parishioners to promote the idea of establishing in the town a school to be run by nuns. Arrangements were made to take up a weekly collection and in August 1844 the Parish Priest of Castledermot laid the first stone of the new convent building. The weekly collection continued for a few years but stopped in 1847 because of the difficulties experienced during the Famine. Fr. Thomas Greene and his colleague Fr. John Harold, both of whom were curates of St. Michael’s Parish, resumed the weekly collection in 1849 but despite their best efforts the funds necessary to complete work on the convent and school were not forthcoming. Eventually the sum of £300 was advanced by the Superioress of the Convent of Mercy, Baggot Street, Dublin to enable the building work to be completed.

Nine years after the first public meeting held to discuss the school project the Sisters of Mercy were ready to take over the newly built convent and school. On 10th October 1852 Sr. Mary Gabrielle Sherlock and Sr. Mary Angela Rowland left the Baggot Street Convent of the Sisters of Mercy and travelled by horsedrawn carriage to Kingsbridge Railway Station. On arrival they bought tickets to convey themselves and their luggage to Athy on the Great Southern Western Railway line which had been extended only six years previously to Athy and Carlow. On arrival in Athy the nuns were met by the local clergy and brought to the newly built convent building.

In August 1854 the Athy Convent was adopted as a branch house of the earlier established Carlow Convent of Mercy and two sisters were sent from Carlow to replace the Dublin nuns. Sr. Mary Teresa Maher and Sr. Mary Xavier Downey arrived in Athy on 2nd February 1855 and were jointed by two novices from Dublin, Sr. Mary Joseph Leader and Sr. Mary Magdaline. A description of the convent at that time reads :-

“A three storey house of hammered lime stone 95ft. by 20. The Hall, Parlours, Community Room, Corridors and Cells well lighted and ventilated. The hall door is very fine, having outer casings and massive pillars supporting an ornamental canopy all of cut stone. The community rooms a beautiful spacious room has its cornice elegantly designed in stonework and the door ornamented in woodwork. The hall and reception room with ceilings suitably designed in stonework and doors correspond with those of the community room. The oratory is small. It is specially ornamented with stonework on the ceiling and cornice. The vine leaf and grape are most artistically carried through the design.”

One hundred and fifty years later what was once the Convent of Mercy no longer echoes to the sound of prayer or the patter of feet hurrying to or from Chapel or classroom. The last Sister of Mercy to teach in the local Convent National School was Sr. Teresa Ann Nagle who retired on 11th June 2001. The Sisters of Mercy who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as well as a vow to serve the poor, sick and those lacking education are now facing new and different challenges posed by an Irish society which is everchanging. Whatever the future may hold for the Sisters of Mercy the rich heritage of Mercy education which they developed in Athy and district over the past 150 years will continue to live on. On Thursday, October 10th a special service will take place in St. Michael’s Parish Church at 12noon to celebrate the sequicentenary of the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy. Its an occasion which deserves to be supported in great numbers by the people of Athy and district.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Athy C.B.S. Reunion

The Class Reunion has come and gone. It has taken more than 40 years to bring together the lads who shared their young days as schoolboys in Athy. Many persons contacted me over the past week about the reunion which seems to have caught the public attention and ignited its imagination in a very positive way. The general public seems to have looked upon the weekend reunion as an event which highlighted something good about the town in sharp contrast to the seemingly never-ending bad press which grabs the headlines almost every week.

The Class Reunion was just that. It was the coming together of fellows who were companions and colleagues in a particular class which began in St. Joseph’s School in 1946 and finally ended with the Leaving Certificate Examination of 1960. In between those years some fellows left school while others joined the class, either as new arrivals in Athy or alternatively as pupils coming in from outlying rural areas.

As you can well imagine the opening event scheduled for the evening of Friday 20th September in the Leinster Arms Hotel was intended to allow everyone to renew old acquaintances. For men who may not have seen each other for more than 40 years name tags were an essential aid. But truth to tell, while faces and bodies may have become extended and distorted, yet somehow or other the faces from the past were easily superimposed on the aging creatures who trooped into the Leinster Arms. We knew each other, even if a surreptitious glance at a name tag was required on occasions to confirm and in some cases to put a name on a particular face.

That first meeting after the passage of so many years was a great occasion. Imagine my surprise and delight at meeting Paddy Bracken whose family left Athy in 1956. The Bracken’s lived at the corner house, now undergoing reconstruction, opposite the Courthouse and Paddy was not only a classmate, but also one of the Offaly Street youngsters who played together each day of the week. Paddy was immediately recognisable and had a wonderful fund of stories and memories of his days as a youngster in Athy. I was particularly amused by his recall of the famous hurling matches between the Offaly Street lads and the St. Patrick’s Avenue fellas and how those occasional encounters finally came to an end. Paddy contends that the St. Patrick’s Avenue lads deliberately set out to put one of the Offaly Street lads out of commission, courtesy of a skelp of a hurley. Both the perpetrator and the victim enjoyed Paddy’s telling of the story and marveled at his unshaken belief that the head injury inflicted on the awkward Offaly Street player was premeditated and deliberate. As the victim on the occasion in question, all I can say is that the perpetrator who was even more awkward than myself was highly unlikely to have been able to execute a plan of attack with such deadly precision.

Writing of the St. Patrick’s Avenue lads, they were ably represented by Jimmy Malone who travelled from California, and locally based Mick Rowan. The Offaly Street crew were there in the person of Teddy Kelly, Willie Moore and myself. I hadn’t seen or met Willie for many many years and he too had great memories and stories of times in Offaly Street and in the cauldron of learning we called the Christian Brothers School. While Willie travelled from Wexford, a lot of the lads living in and around Athy gave their support.

John Mealy and Jack Murphy who spent a substantial part of their working lives in Bradbury’s Bakeries were there swopping stories of their school days and both astonished me with the clarity of youthful memories culled from so many years back. Two of the great surprises of the reunion was tracing Christy Southwell and Eddie Wall, both of whom left Athy and their classmates long before the class began to break up as it did when our 14th birthday was reached. As it turned out Christy was located in the Curragh where he has lived ever since his time in the Army, while Eddie now lives in Luton, England. Another to travel from England for the occasion was Joe Gordan who was with us in primary school until his father left the Athy area. Joe’s father was a farm steward on Taylor’s farm on the Dublin Road and Joe who entered the Christian Brothers is now the Provincial of the English Province. Another to make the trip from England was Brendan Ward and he enlivened the weekends proceedings with his banter and lively personality.

I can still remember the morning Brother Brett walked into our classroom, leaned over my desk and shook the hand of Enda Dooley who was sitting behind me. “Congratulations on your father’s election to the Dail” he said to Enda. I think that was the first realisation I had that Enda’s father Paddy Dooley, Principal of Kilberry National School, was standing for the Dail, for in common with my classmates I had no interest in the affairs of State. Our lives centered in those far off days around football and the fairer sex. Enda travelled from County Longford for the reunion, as did George Robinson whom I have been privileged to meet on many occasions in the intervening years. Two men I hadn’t seen for years were Pat Timpson, formerly of St. Patrick’s Avenue and Kerry O’Sullivan, originally from Aughaboura. Kerry was another of our visitors from England, while Pat made the cross country trip from Sligo.

The longest journeys were made by Mick Robinson and Seamus Ryan who travelled from Australia and China respectively. Clearly they were delighted to meet old school pals such as Eddie Hearns, now living in Dublin, and the local lads including Eddie Ryan, Jack Carr, Peter Whelan and P.J. Hyland. Like myself they had not met Frankie Bradbury since we all left school. Frankie travelled from Kilkenny winning hands down the laurels for the fellow possessing the exilir of youth in greatest abundance. He looked more like a 25 year old than somebody who is entering his 7th decade.

Joe Brophy came from Dublin and entertained Paddy Lannigan and Brian Finn with stories of his days on the buses. Another visitor from England was John Prendergast whose father Charlie sadly died just a few weeks ago. Paddy Mulhall travelled from Kildare town, while P.J. Wall from Arles met up with Noel Scully, now one of Town Fathers and Michael O’Meara, now a publican in Dublin. John Roche, after spending his Army years in the bomb disposal unit, is well used to the pressures associated with his role in the local Credit Union, even if Frank English, another of our Town Fathers and Fintan Kinsella might claim, that after years in the Christian Brothers School we were all experienced in bomb disposal work.

The weekend reunion was a great experience for everyone involved, and no-one enjoyed it more than another of our weekend visitors, Brendan McKenna who swapped yarns with locals Jim Malone and Ted Wynne, Reggie Lalor and Jerry Carbery.

On Sunday afternoon a service of remembrance and commemoration was held in the local schoolyards where the names of 16 former classmates who had died were read aloud. Little did we know that another name would be added to those who had passed away before the reunion finished later that evening. Michael Cardiff was to attend the reunion but he was not able to do so as he was struck down by illness in some recent weeks. He died on Sunday afternoon, even as his former classmates gathered together for possibly the last time.

With his passing another thread in the tapestry of our youth had unravelled.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Extract from Christian Brother Annals

I was reading through some notes from the Annals of the Christian Brothers in advance of the class reunion last weekend and what I found may be of interest to some readers. It was a short history compiled of the early years of the Christian Brothers in Athy which opened as follows :-

“On the ground now occupied by the Brothers’ house and schools, stood formerly a monastery of Crossed Friars, built about the year 1253, by Richard de St. Michael Lord of Rheban. It was granted in the 17th of Charles II to Dame Mary Meredith.

The present dwellinghouse was built upwards of 100 years previous to its being handed over to the Brothers. During the above time it passed into several hands, mostly Protestant, until at last it and the adjoining fields were purchased by His Grace, The Most Rev. Dr. Cullen Lord Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough.

The whole concern containing about 12 acres, was handed over by His Lordship, the aforesaid Paul Cullen to the Very Rev. Andrew Quinn, P.P. Athy, and Canon of the Archdiocese of Dublin, who subsequently built two school-rooms by the aid of the parishioners and a few friends, but chiefly by the assistance of the generous and truly charitable Mr. Pat Maher of Kilrush in this county (Kildare), who principally at the suggestion of his eldest daughter, Mrs. Mary Teresa Maher, Superioress of the Convent of Mercy, St. Michael’s, Athy, gave £400.

When the Schools were finished in the August of 1861, three Brothers, viz - John Stanislaus Flanagan, director - Francis Luke Holland, sub-director - and John Patrick Sheehy, lay-brother, were sent by our Very Rev. Brother, Michael Paul O’Riordan, Superior General, to conduct the establishment, which was put into the possession of the Brothers on the 8th August 1861.”

The Annals, after making some references to the local Model School, continued :-

“The Brothers commenced the Schools on the 19th of August 1861 having some months previously obtained the consent and signature of the above Dr. A. Quinn to the following conditions :-

1. The Premises to be occupied by the Brothers to be put into proper repair, and furnished.
2. Two Schools to be built (each 36 feet by 26, with a lecture-room 10ft. wide between) on a site convenient to the House.
3. The Brothers to have the management of the Schools and to be allowed the observance of their Rules in the same manner as enjoyed by them in other places.
4. The School-pence paid by the children, to be at the disposal of the Brothers for the benefit of the Schools.
5. £30 a-year to be allowed each Brothers, this sum to be realised by subscriptions, collections, or sermon, as the Very Rev. Dr. Quinn may appoint.
6. The Brothers to be prepared to take charge of the Schools in the month of December, if necessary.

The part of the land not occupied by the Brothers is held by the Parish Priest who received the rent of it. The Brothers have nothing to do with the payment of taxes, etc. This being done by the Parish Priest.

Soon after the coming of the Brothers the above-mentioned Dr. Cullen, Archbishop said Mass in the Domestic Chapel, after which he blessed all the rooms and house. From that morning the Brothers have enjoyed the privilege of having the Blessed Sacrament in the house.

Shortly after the opening of the School it was found necessary to secure the services of a third School Brother. He was accordingly applied for by Dr. Cullen, who succeeded in obtaining him on the same condition as the three Brothers already mentioned. The salary of the fourth Brother (Hugh Francis Sweeney, novice) was procured for 2 years by the before-mentioned Mrs. M. T. Maher, from her father. Both Mrs. and Mr. Maher deserve the grateful remembrance of the Brothers.

The grounds about the dwellinghouse and schools continued in a very neglected state for about 3 months after the coming of the Brothers - then a few of the influential men of the town undertook to defray the expenses necessary to be incurred, and the place was rendered somewhat comfortable before the Brothers entered their Annual retreat before Christmas 1861.

The very necessary appendage of gas was introduced into the house in the beginning of January 1862 at an expense of £20, which sum was supplied by the benevolent Mr. P. Maher.

On the second Sunday of January this year, a Lending Library was opened for the benefit of the children and others who might wish to join it. Mr. Maher gave £5 for the purchase of books. For some months after it could only number 8 or 9 members.

According to the present arrangements the salary of the Brothers is procured by means of two collections every year, made at the doors of the Parish Church - one in February, the other in August. These collections are totally in the hands of the Parish Priest who, if they did not realise the required sum is bound to make up the residue as best he can.

On 31st July 1862 the Brothers held the first public examination of their pupils at which His Grace, The Most Rev. Paul Cullen presided. The examination was held in the room occupied by the junior pupils, the desks were removed, and a platform was erected at the lower end of the room on which the children stood while undergoing the examination. The visitors, who amounted to very near 300 persons, sat on chairs, or stood facing the children. The chairs, for the occasions were abundantly supplied by well-wishers in the town, who, moreover, sent as much carpeting as covered the whole floor and platform. The walls and window recesses were tastefully decorated with evergreen and flowers. There were present besides the Archbishop - the Very Rev. Canon Quinn P.P. of Athy; Rev. H. M. Manus, D.D., Rev. Thomas Doyle; Rev. Eugene Clarke, P.P., Narraghmore and many more. The examination commenced at 11 o’clock and continued until 3 o’clock during which time the audience displayed the greatest interest. At the conclusion the pupils presented the Archbishop with an address which was read by Master John Lawler.”

If ever you walk up St. John’s Lane past the entrance to what was the Christian Brothers Monastery you may notice that the crest about the doorway gives the year 1862. It was in 1911 that the high wall around the monastery similar to that which still encloses St. John’s Cemetery was lowered and a new entrance provided to the Monastery on which was surmounted the Christian Brothers’ crest with the date of the foundation of the Athy house. Clearly a mistake was made when 1862 was given as that date.

Thursday, September 5, 2002

C.B.S. Class Re-union

Michael Robinson will set out from Brisbane Australia this Wednesday morning to travel to Athy. Seamus Ryan will commence his journey in Beijing, China. His destination, like Michael’s, will be Athy. Jimmy Malone will travel from California, while Joe Gordon makes the comparatively short trip from Manchester. All are travelling back to the town where some or all of their schooldays were spent during the 1950’s and earlier. The occasion is a class re-union for men, many of whom started school as four year olds in St. Joseph’s Boy’s School where they were taught by Sisters of Mercy, Bernadette, Brendan and Alberta in the years immediately following the Second World War. Transferring to the Christian Brothers Primary School in St. John’s Lane in or about 1949 they were taught over the following five years by a succession of Christian Brothers and one lay teacher. From that period Christian Brothers O’Loughran, Flaherty and Smith are recalled as well as Bob Martin, a lay teacher who later took up the principalship of Ballyroe National School.

Classes and colleagues changed over the years. Some youngsters skipped classes, others stayed back for an extra year, but eventually most of them passed the hurdle which was the Primary Certificate Examination taken in the Sixth Class. Class numbers were by today’s standards quite large. The Second Class rollbook for 1950 shows 57 youngsters, while the Third Year Class had 62 young, if not so eager, students. In the early 1950’s sickness exacted its toll amongst the frail youngsters and the untimely deaths of Paddy Dowling, George Ryan and Myles Cash were a sad blow to their classmates.

Many of those who sat the Primary Certificate Examination passed on into secondary school. Others however went out into the world of work on reaching 14 years of age. Family circumstances often dictated that a young fellow’s academic career had to be curtailed to ensure a family’s survival during the harsh economic climate of the 1950’s. Not that many of those who left school at 14 and sometimes even younger objected to being taken from school. Given the opportunity, most of us would have followed the same route. After all, the prospect of earning a few shillings as a messenger boy or working with a local farmer sounded far more exciting than spending the daylight hours stuck in the classroom. The 1950’s were difficult times for most local families. Jobs were scarce in the town and such employment as was available required a young man to work in unhealthy conditions which over time would damage health and shorten life expectancy. For many, even such grim employment prospects were limited and the mail boat journey to Holyhead was as familiar to many Athy men and women as the train journey to Dublin is to present day locals.

As those with whom we started school in 1946/1947 left the educational system others remained on in secondary school. We had no choice in the matter, for if we had, the school yard would soon have been but a memory. In any event we stayed on in secondary school, each morning making the trip up St. John’s Lane and climbing the metal stairs to the school rooms on the first floor. The upper story of the school building consisted of three rooms, one of which in time was divided by a curtain to make an extra room. The teachers were Brother Brett, who was the headmaster, and Brother Keogh, with lay teachers Bill Ryan and Paddy Riordan. All but Riordan were there for the entire period my classmates spent in secondary school up to 1960.

In the third year of secondary school you sat your Intermediate Certificate Examination and it was the common practice in the 1950’s to repeat your Inter Cert. I know I did, as did some of my classmates. During the first three years of secondary school there was a steady stream of students leaving to take up employment. This exodus became an avalanche after the Inter Certificate and following years classes had but a sixth of the number which had started school 12 years previously in St. Joseph’s at Rathstewart. In the meantime of course many young lads joined the class from outlying country areas but while they swelled the class numbers in first and second year, they seldom stayed for the full six years of secondary school.

The final hurdle was the Leaving Certificate Examination of 1960 and the class size that year was the largest ever known in the Christian Brothers School. It was all of eleven students and compares with this years Leaving Certificate class of 64 students. Coming after previous Leaving Certificate classes where there had been three or four students and a single student on at least one previous occasion, a class of eleven was a significant improvement.

I was talking yesterday to a pupil from this years Leaving Certificate class, and marveled to hear that most of the students will attend university or some form of third level education. From the class of 1960 only one student had the opportunity to go to university on a full time basis and that was at a time when the only restriction on entry to university was your parents ability to pay the university fees. Times certainly have changed and nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the opportunities for further education now available for present day students.

All of the above is by way of background explanation to the travails of those one time youngsters now in their 60th year or thereabouts who will come together this weekend for the first time since they left school. For some it will be the first time to meet for over 40 years or more. On Friday evening the Leinster Arms Hotel will host the gathering of past pupils where the years will be wound back, memories dusted down and friendships renewed. On Saturday afternoon a civic reception in the Town Council offices will be followed by a further reception in Scoil Eoin. Later that evening the former pupils and their partners will sit down to dinner with a number of invited guests at Kilkea Golf Club Restaurant. On the last day of the weekend reunion a service of remembrance and commemoration will take place in the yard of the old school in St. John’s Lane and will be followed by a tree planting ceremony in Edmund Rice Square and a going away reception.

In conjunction with the class reunion a photographic exhibition will be held in the Heritage Centre which will be of particular interest to anyone who remembers the people or the events of Athy of the 1950’s.