Remembering Bridget O’Neill (née Conroy) of Greatwood, Cloonagh and Mucklagh, Tullamore, with a note on attending at ‘the French nuns’ Convent’, Ferbane, and the Banagher Royal School prize. By Timothy P. O’Neill.

My grandmother was Margaret Lambe from Greatwood, Killoughy. Her sister married Thomas Lawless of the pub at the Blue Ball. Margaret married Timothy Conroy of Cloonagh. My mother Bridget(1904-87 , was her eldest child. She was the eldest of nine sisters and one brother, the youngest of the family who died in his infancy, and she was reared by her grandmother in Greatwood from a very young age. Margaret, my grandmother, died in 1916 after childbirth from postpartum bleeding. My mother was sent as a boarder to the convent in Ferbane run by “The French nuns” as they were known [The French missionary order of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny who came to Ferbane in 1896.] In my mother’s time some of the nuns in residence were born in France and still spoke French to each other. The records of her time there survive and she was an outstanding student. In November 1918, Stanislaus Murphy, Secretary to the Commissioners of Education in Ireland wrote to her, “Miss Bridget M. Conroy, The French Nuns Convent, Ferbane”, informing her that she had won, what was known as, the Banagher prize. The money paid her fees for that year in the school in Ferbane. The full title of the prize was the Diocesan Schools and Banagher Royal School Endowments.[1] My mother was very proud of her Banagher prize and she retained the letter from the Department as a prized reminder. In her old age she did put the laconic comment; “She must have had brains once!” on the back of the letter telling her of the award.

The boarding school in the former Gallen Priory home of the Armstrong family. The school was here from the early 1920s.

The Banagher prize was well known a hundred years ago and it was a matter of pride to be the winner. The origin of the prize, like so much in those colonial days, was deeply rooted in the seventeenth century. Charles 1 by  Charter dated 16th September 1629 and as amended by subsequent legislation,  granted 555 acres and 23 perches of land in Offaly for the endowment of the Banagher Royal School.[2]The lands consisted of three townlands in west Offaly of which 166 acres were bogland. The tenants were all yearly tenants by the Great Famine years when rents were reduced and never raised afterwards. After the Famine 33 acres of the best land was taken by a merchant from Birr and as the bog was cutaway bog with tenants squatting on it. The school house in Banagher was in bad condition, the population of the town was down to 1,846 in 1854 and 1,206 in 1871, the school buildings were in poor repair and the lease on the building was uncertain. The building had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1875. By 1881 there were a mere 16 pupils in the school, five boarders and 11 day boys. Rev J. P. Mahaffy described the school as a complete failure in 1881. In contrast in 1881 St Stanislaus’ College in Tullabeg run by the Jesuits in 1881 had 164 boarders and 20 teachers.  The examination of endowed schools in Ireland was ordered by the Duke of Marlborough as Lord Lieutenant in 1880 and Lawrence Parsons, the Earl of Rosse and Lord Randolph Churchill were among the commissioners of inquiry. Like so many of the Victorian inquiries this was a comprehensive study of all endowed schools. The hand of Henry Robinson can be seen all over it. The study revealed that there were 219 endowments of various kinds all over Ireland. Banagher was the only Royal school with Catholic pupils but it was all but finished. A reform programme followed and by 1893, The Educational Endowments (Ireland) Commission produced its final report. Involving the Judicial Commissioners to resolve legal issues the schemes were placed on a new footing. The range of endowments was staggering from the Baltimore Fishery School started by Coutts to the Erasmus Smith Schools to the Gilson School in Oldcastle to Magee College they ranged far and wide. 1350 primary schools had various endowments and all were restructured. Among the other changes the Banagher Royal School disappeared and a scholarship fund was introduced. The scholarship schemes in the other Royal schools had applied to university fees in Trinity but the Banagher scheme applied to money for secondary boarding.

Ferbane in the 1930s

On completion of her education in Ferbane she went as a monitor teacher to Mount Newtown near Slane in County Meath, a place of which she always retained happy memories and spoke of the people of that area with great affection. Like many young women of her age she had a special affection for Francis Ledwidge the Slane poet who died in action at Passchendaele.  In the 1920s she had to learn Irish to remain a teacher under the new government and went to Rosmuc in Connemara. There, she met my father Stephen who was teaching the course having qualified as a primary teacher in the De La Salle College in Waterford. He was the first teacher in a one teacher school at Dearavorida near Maam. Together they moved to Offaly and my father’s first Offaly school was in Durrow and my mother was appointed to Mucklagh National School. Later my father moved there as principal in the 1930s. They both retired in the mid 1960s.

Children at Mucklagh primary school, believed to be early 1900s with a Miss Lloyd. Can you help with names?

[1] Report of the Commissioners appointed by the Lord Lieutenant to inquire the actual endowments, funds, and actual condition of all SCHOOLS endowed for the purpose of education in Ireland, accompanied by minutes of evidence etc. Parliamentary Papers 1881, vol. 2831, 1881. Final Report of the Endowments (Ireland) Commission, 48 & 49 Vic., cap, 78. Parl, Papers 1893.

[2] 14&15th Chas 11, cap. 107, sections 11712; Geo IV, cap. 79, section 8; The premises in Banagher were held under a 7-year lease from 1878 at rent of £50. Ibid., 1881, p. 372, table 1.

For more on the school at Ferbane see

Helen Sheil, Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, Ferbane : celebrating 100 years of apostolate, 1896-1996