The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
Dr William Moran, a distinguished man of letters and former parish priest of Tullamore (1949–65), published the article below in 1962 and in the same year as his pamphlet on the history of Tullamore. In many ways it was a seminal overview that has not as yet been superseded. Material has of course been published by the late Sister Dolores Walsh on the history of the Mercy schools in Tullamore while others have written of the Presentation schools in Rahan and Birr, Mercy Birr, Mount St Joseph, Tullabeg College, vocational schools in county Offaly including Tullamore, and primary schools in Durrow (See Irishhistoryonline and the OH Library catalogue online for guidance). Dr Moran’s strongly held and trenchantly expressed views come across in this piece.
Dr Moran wrote:
Between 1682 and 1685 Dr. Dopping, Protestant Bishop of Meath, conducted a visitation of the united parishes of Durrow and Kilbride. In the copybook1 , in which he kept a record of his visitation, he wrote a note on this occasion, which reads, “Owen Conroy, a popish school (master) teacheth at Tullamore”2. If, as seems very probable, he is not referring to the townland of Tullamore, but to a village of that name, his note is not only the earliest reference we have to education in Tullamore, but it is also the earliest certain indication we have that a village of Tullamore was then in existence. From the kind of houses in Tullamore a century later, and from the kind of schools in Tullamore at the beginning of the nineteenth century, we can infer that Owen Conroy’s school was “a hedge school”- in fine weather he taught his class in the open air; in inclement weather he took his children into his thatched cabin. As a result of the establishment of a large cavalry barrack in Tullamore in 1716 and another one about forty years later, the trade and population of Tullamore expanded greatly during the eighteenth century. But education did not keep pace with the growth of population and trade. When Dr. Plunkett [the bishop of Meath] made his first visitation of the parish in 1788, he found only four Catholic schools (all of the hedge school type) in the whole parish. He does not mention their location; but we may take it that there was at least one in the town. The Protestants, who at that time numbered at least 1,000, including most of the well-to-do people of the town, seem to have been no better served in the matter of schools. As late as 1801, Sir Charles Coote3 tells us: “I do not learn that there is yet established a school of consequence in Tullamore.”
If Sir Charles Coote had returned about twenty later, he would have found that some schools “of consequence” had been established in the meantime. From a list of the principal inhabitants of Tullamore (and their occupations), drawn up in 18234, we learn that there were then in the High Street area four “academies”- two for boys, and two for girls. We are told nothing about the girls’ academies, except that they were both boarding schools. The boys’ academies are described as “classical schools.” One of these, as we learn from an Education Report a few years later, prepared boys for admission to the university – the university in question being, of course, Trinity College, Dublin.
In 1824 a pious and well-to- do Catholic lady, named Pentony, came from Dublin and bought a house in Store Street, near its junction with Thomas Street. She was then in her seventies, but still fairly active.
Finding, that many children were badly in need of religious instruction, she began to give lessons in her own house. She also interested a number of Catholic ladies in the town in this work; and for some years religious instruction continued to be given in Miss Pentony’s house, and, probably, also in the church. Being convinced that the only effective way to give permanence to this good work was to get a convent of nuns established in the town, Miss Pentony made a will, in which she left all she had to the Parish Priest (Revd Dr. O’Rafferty) for the purpose of establishing a convent in the town. Miss Pentony died in 1835. About the same time the business, in which most of her money was invested, went bankrupt.
The result was that Dr O’Rafferty got little more out of Miss Pentony’s estate than her house and furniture. Nevertheless, he went ahead with the convent project. He found some difficulty in getting a foundation, but eventually got a small group of Mercy Nuns – the first Mercy foundation outside the parent house in Dublin. The nuns lived in Miss Pentony’s house from their arrival in 1836 till the new convent was ready for occupation in 1841.
Meanwhile, many other things had been happening, which it is necessary to mention. The National Board of Education had been established for some years; and the Commissioners decided to have a detailed survey made of the educational position throughout the country, especially in respect of primary education. The results of this survey appeared in the Education Report of 1826. The following table gives the list of schools (in the parish of Tullamore) conducted by Catholic teachers, together with details about the numbers of Protestant and Catholic pupils, male and female, etc.
Charleville Schools boys and girls. Mrs Taylor was teacher at the girls’s school. LocationTeacherDescription of schoolP.C.M.F.Henry StreetAlicia Taylor (Protestant)A good slated house built by earl of Charleville. Total annual income £153060 90Church StT. Fitzgerald, RC (boarding)Slated house, £400 income from scholars, rent £40202040–Chapel LaneJames Farrell Slated house, Rates of pay 4d to 2d per week–502822Store St.Thos. CannonStone and Lime £7; 2d to 3d per week3271812Bury QuayDarby BerrySlated house124205Pound StreetEdward Smith, ProtestantLime and stone, pay £1814 14 Tea LaneJames CarthyStone and lime, £14 per annum–22166Barrack St.James McCabe do.2644026do.Mrs. Mite (or Might)A hired room16141416 Collier St.Patrick KellyStone and Lime322205BallinamereJohn DowlingA poor cabin–342410BallydalyJames ReganStone and mud2261612do.James RooneyA bad house–15105KunnikarJames KellyA poor cabin–452223KildanganJohn DalyA miserable cabin–653035BelleekWm. KendillonStone and lime–603030KilclareL. Clooneydo.2342016 Totals …49522348223
Source: The Education Return of 1826, Tullamore Kilbride Parish. P-Protestant; C-Catholic; M-Male; F-Female.
In addition to the above there were a few Protestant schools, in which there were 125 Catholic pupils. The number of mixed schools (Protestant and Catholic) explains why Miss Pentony found so many Catholic children badly instructed in their religion. In the light of the Education Report of 1826, plans were devised for the setting up of schools “in connection with the National Board of Education” – the forerunners of National Schools as we now know them. The Commissioners of Education were not yet prepared to pay the teachers. But they were prepared to consider applications for grants to supplement local contributions raised to build schools. They were also prepared to pay part of the cost of books and school equipment.
In 1830, Dr, O’Rafferty began the erection of a boys’ school; “in connection with the National Board of Education.” The cost of the building was defrayed entirely out of local subscriptions. In August 1832, when the building was almost completed, Dr. O’Rafferty applied to the Board for a grant of £150 to buy desks and other equipment for the school. In the same letter he asked for a grant of £250 to help him build a girls’ school, “equal in extent to the boys’ school now erected.” This latter grant (or at least £245 of it) was given eight years later, when the new convent school was opened in 1840.
In June 1834 the new school for boys was opened. It was the building now known as St. Mary’s School – part of the present convent schools facing Bury Quay [the old convent was demolished over the period 1963-67]. Dr. O’Rafferty was anxious to open a similar school for girls about the same time; and in fact opened one the following month (July, 1834). As the convent project had been already mooted, he waited for the coming of the nuns before beginning the erection of a new school for girls. For use during the interval, he obtained a house in Thomas Street, and there the girls’ school was opened in 1834. When the new convent school was completed in 1840, the children were transferred to it.
The new girls’ second level school of 1911 to the left of the convent 1841, national schools 1832-4
The 1835 Survey
The Commissioners of Education had a new survey made in 1835. The Report shows, as might be expected, that the opening of the two National Schools in Tullamore in 1834, had put most of the older private schools out of business. The 1835 Education Report gives us a few interesting items of information. The boys’ school with an average attendance of 280 (out of 490 on rolls), had only one teacher, Michael Sullivan. His salary was £30 a year, paid by local subscriptions, most of which was made up of the children’s fees, which varied from a penny a week to five shillings a quarter. The programme included: reading, writing, arithmetic, book-keeping, geography and “scripture extracts, as recommended by the Board.” This last item also appears in the programme for the girls’ school. On the other hand we find in a few of the private schools, that still survived with diminishing numbers of pupils, the programme is given as, “reading, writing, arithmetic and Roman Catholic Catechism.”
The omission of any reference to catechism then in the programme of the two national schools, and the mention of scriptural extracts instead, tend to show that no religious instruction was given in these schools.
The 1835 Report also gives us some information about the secondary schools in Tullamore at that time:
John Fitzgerald had a boarding and day school (40 boys, number “increasing”). The programme was, “a general course of classics and mathematics for admission to the university.”
George Lougheed had a day school, opened only 12 months (19 boys); programme, “English and the classics.”
James Farrell had a school for 20 pupils, 16 males and 8 females, paying about £20 per annum, reading, writing, arithmetic and Roman Catholic cathecism.
Mrs. McDonald had a boarding and day school for girls (number, 20 “stationary”); programme, “English, French and music.”
Miss Lock had a boarding and day school for young ladies (number, 25, “increasing”); programme, “English, French and music.”
Mrs Might, a day school, payments by pupils £60, males 2, females 22, reading, writing, arithmetic and needlework.
Day school kept by Mrs Kavanagh, payments to pupils amounting to £50 per annum, females 26, English, French, writing and needlework.
Day school kept by Mrs Arthur, payments by pupils of £20 per annum, males 2, females 13, reading, writing, arithmetic and needlework.]
Miss Burton had a day school (number, 18, 5 males, 13 females increasing”); programme, “reading, writing, arithmetic, French and Needlework.”
Apart from some minor changes in the convent schools, the situation, so far as Catholic education was concerned, remained the same till Dr. O’Rafferty’s death in 1857. Rev. Matthew McAlroy, a native of Rahugh, succeeded as Parish Priest of Tullamore. The following year, Rev. Patrick Dunne, born near Tullamore, but in Kildare Diocese, and already known to Fr. McAlroy, returned to Ireland from Australia. He had served for six years in Brisbane diocese, which at that time included the greater part of Queensland. Fr. Dunne was anxious to devise some scheme for stepping up the supply of priests to Australia; and seems to have proposed to Fr. McAlroy the establishment of a junior seminary in Tullamore, in which young men willing to go on the Australian Mission would be prepared for admission to Carlow College. Fr. McAlroy was willing to help Fr. Dunne, but was doubtful about the feasibility of the proposal. There were several difficulties to be met. The first was financial – the difficulty of raising funds to build a seminary. The second was the difficulty of getting suitable men to staff it. Eventually Fr. McAlroy thought he saw a way of getting round both difficulties. The Grand Canal Co. had discontinued passenger services on the canal about five years before; and the Grand Canal Hotel soon became a white elephant on the Company’s hands.5 It was probably closed down altogether before 1858 [see an earlier blog]. Fr. McAlroy approached the Canal Co. with a proposal to rent the hotel and found the Company willing to deal with him. He appears to have rented the hotel and adjoining yard and garden from year to year for a trial period of three years (at £20 a year), with an option of taking out a long lease during that period. This was about the first of May 1858.
The 1874 CBS to the left and the hotel demolished 1974 (right)
He now had a building for the seminary; and only required a suitable master, capable of teaching classics, or at least Latin. He hoped to get a teacher from the Christian Brothers, but they could not give him one at the time. He wrote again about the middle of 1859. About the end of August (1859), Rev. Thomas Nulty (subsequently Bishop of Meath) and Bro. Maxwell, Superior of the Brothers in Mullingar, arrived in Tullamore “to commence some negotiations about getting Christian Brothers for this town, as also for opening a classical school for young men.”6 We have no record of how these negotiations went; but we can deduce the trend they took from what happened soon afterwards.
The Brothers must have held out hopes of a foundation for Tullamore in the near future. It would consists of primary teachers to take over the boys’ school, together with a classical teacher if and when there were sufficient applicants for admission to Fr. Dunne’s proposed school. A few days later (8th September 1859), Fr. Dunne opened “St. Bridget’s Seminary” in the Grand Canal Hotel. Pending the coming of the Christian Brothers, he took charge himself, though he was already due to return to Brisbane. [For more on Fr Dunne see Jennifer Harrison, ‘“One of the most picturesque of the early priests”: Father Patrick Dunne in Eastern Australia’ in Offaly Heritage 10 (2018), pp 239–73.]
The 1962 article of Moran’s was published here. We have a copy in Offaly History Library at Bury Quay, Tullamore
Three months later (December 13th), we find Fr. McAlroy writing again to the Superior of the Christian Brothers: “I have been waiting in the hope of hearing that you could say, ‘we are ready’. . . Let me hear what you can do. I dread the loss of another year.” The Superior replied that when prior claims had been satisfied, he would send a Community to Tullamore. It was not till October 1861 that two Brothers from headquarters came to examine the proposed accommodation, prior to the sending of a Community. They reported favourably, and it was arranged that the first Brothers would come in January 1862. Confident that all would be well with his seminary, Fr. Dunne prepared to return to Brisbane, and left Tullamore a few days after Christmas.
Dr Moran’s 1962 booklet
We have no record of the number of students Fr. Dunne had succeeded in enrolling. Apparently, the Superior of the Christian Brothers did not think the number was yet large enough to justify the sending of a classical teacher. In any case the Community that came in January 1862, consisted of two primary teachers and a Brother to look after domestic affairs. They were given half of the Grand Canal Hotel for living quarters, while Fr. McAlroy tried to keep the seminary alive in the other half, till he could get a Brother to take charge of it. For that purpose he got Fr. Farrelly to take charge temporarily; and after Fr. Farrelly was compelled by illness to leave, he got a Fr. McCann.
Meanwhile, Fr. McAlroy took out a lease of the Hotel on 29th April, 18627. The lease was for 61 years, to count from 1st May, 1858 (presumably, the date on which Fr. McAlroy first rented the Hotel). For three years, the Hotel was occupied in part by the Brothers (who had taken over the boys’ school), and in part by the seminary. On the death of Fr. McCann in1866, the seminary was allowed to lapse. Fr. McAlroy’s curates then agitated to be allowed to leave their cramped quarters in the presbytery for the more commodious accommodation available in the hotel. The result was that the Hotel became practically two houses, one occupied by the Brothers, and the other by the Curates.
In 1874, Fr. McAlroy began erection of a new school beside the Hotel. When it was completed in 1876, the Brothers were given charge of it; the boys were transferred to it from the original boys’ school; and the latter was handed over to the nuns to be used as a girls’ school. Fr. McAlroy stipulated that one room in the new school should be reserved to be used as a classical school. As the Brothers had no classical teacher available at the time, a lay teacher was employed. He was not a success; and after several others had undertaken the work without much success, the classical school was allowed to lapse, and the room was taken into the national school.
As a result of the failure of Fr. McAlroy’s efforts, Tullamore remained without a Catholic secondary school till Fr. Callary built St. Columba’s classical school. When it was completed in 1912, he invited the Christian Brothers to take charge of it, and they accepted. The number of pupils steadily increased until the school became too small to accommodate them. In 1960, the Brothers erected their present school in High Street; and the building previously known as St. Columba’s Classical School, became the centre for all forms of Catholic Action in the town, under the name of De Montfort Hall.
Still preserved in Marsh’s Library, Dublin. [now with RCB]
For this and a few other items I am indebted to Rev. John Brady (Diocesan Historian).
Statistical Survey of King’s County, page 178.
See Cooke’s History of Birr, Appendix 18
The Dublin Evening Post of Aug. 18th, 1801 carried this advt. :-
“Grand Canal Hotel at Tullamore.”
“The public are hereby acquainted that the said Hotel is now completely finished, and that the Directors of the Grand Canal are ready to receive proposals for renting the same. No one need apply who is not capable of furnishing the said Hotel in a complete manner: and to such a tenant, if eligible in other respects, the Directors would rent the premises on terms that would be found highly advantageous.”
Quoted from the annals of Mercy Convent, Tullamore
It was about this time that “numerous friends and admirers” of Dr. O’Rafferty, wishing to erect a “suitable monument to his memory,” subscribed funds to buy “St Bridget’s Seminary to be a residence and school for Christian Brothers.” Fr. McAlroy probably inspired this move – the school to be established in the in the Hotel to be a classical school. The Canal Company, however, was either unwilling to sell its title outright, or else demanded a price that Fr. McAlroy could not pay; and so Fr. McAlroy had to be satisfied with a lease for a term of years.
 Moran does not provide evidence for this.