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. 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.
In these days when there is so much of war and pestilence it is good in looking at the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland to focus on the positive. Things that were done the good of which is still with us. So it is with technical education. Today we look at the early efforts and how positive and innovative were the early pioneers. Our own founder of Offaly History in 1938-9, James Rogers, was one who contributed. So too did those unsung heroes E. J. Delahunty and Willie Robbins. In regard to technical, or what is sometimes referred to as practical education, the earliest attempt in the county to provide such a facility was made at Birr about 1841 when the Parsonstown Mechanics Institute was established in, or to the rear, of the memorial hall at John’s Mall. It was not a success. There were other experiments in agricultural education and model schools, but the first real attempt to provide children and adults with opportunities for technical or practical education came with the passing of the Technical Instruction Act, 1889. A further important stimulus was the passing of the Agricultural and Technical Instruction Act. 1899, which led to the setting up of a new department of agriculture and technical instruction. As a result of the two acts over fifty committees throughout Ireland were working to promote agriculture and technical instruction by early 1900.
The records of the Valuation Office stretch all the way back to the 1830s and are an invaluable source for the genealogist or local historian. They allow a researcher to trace the occupiers of land and buildings for decades. Just as importantly they give us insight into our ancestors’ lives in Ireland long ago. The enormous collection – thousands of ‘books’ and maps – cover every house and garden, field and townland, village and town in the country. These records have survived when so much of our heritage was lost. The majority of the collection was kept, organised logically, catalogued and safely stored. The records are now held in three repositories: The National Archives of Ireland, The Valuation Office of Ireland and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, and are generally accessible for researchers. Some of the records are available free online, with plans to add more. [Laura Price will give a lecture via Zoom on this topic on Monday 1 November to Offaly History. Get the link by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You do not have to be a member and you are welcome.]
Starting in Tullabeg as a boarder in September might mean not getting home until the following June. Tullabeg, the Jesuit boarding school near Tullamore was opened in 1818 and closed in 1886 as a boarding school, following amalgamation with Clongowes Wood. This account of the four years spent there as a schoolboy was written in 1951 and published almost seventy years after the event.
On the 2nd of September, 1882, close on seventy years ago (almost 140 now), my father left me at St. Stanislaus’ College, Tullabeg. At that time Fr. Sturzo, an Italian, was Rector ; he was succeeded later by Fr. George Kelly. Fr. Wisthoff was Higher Line Prefect, Fr. Vincent Byrne, who lived to be ninety years of age, was Third Line Prefect. I forget who was Lower Line Prefect, though I remember that Mr. Charles Farley, S.J., held that position sometime later; whoever it was, I am sure that he had a hard time. The captain of the Third Line, known to us then as Billy O’Leary, was afterwards the famous seismologist at Rathfarnham Castle, Fr. William O’Leary. The youngest and, I think, smallest boy in the house at that time was Paddy Rath, who became Captain of the House in Clongowes in 1890. The oldest person in the house was, strange to say, Fr. Young, S.J.
This week’s Decade of Centenaries blogpost is by Margaret Hogan, retired teacher of St Brendan’s Community School, Birr, and local historian.
Catherine Mahon is represented in most of the strands of the Decade of Centenaries: the labour movement, the women’s movement, the nationalist movement and even the implications of World War One for women teachers and agriculture. She became principal teacher at Carrig Mixed National School in Birr parish in 1892, and many of her friends and ex-pupils remembered the building of the nucleus of the present school by direct labour in 1911 and spoke about her activities during the Decade of Centenaries.
She was co-opted to the executive of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) in 1907 after she protested that the executive was all male in a majority female profession. Her ability was recognised, and she became first woman president of the INTO in 1912 for two years. Female teachers then had to work longer hours than male teachers, training girls in laundry, needlework and cookery, and often buying products at their own expense, even though their salaries were much lower than those of male teachers. Then a pregnant woman teacher was obliged to take three months’ leave and employ a substitute at her own expense, and this enraged ‘Miss Mahon’, as she came to be known. It was alleged that inspectors at the time operated ‘a reign of terror’, humiliating, fining, demoting and having teachers dismissed in an arbitrary way. The UK government set up the Dill Commission to investigate teachers’ conditions of work and it is agreed that Miss Mahon starred when she gave evidence at the inquiry, with able responses to stiff challenges.
In the Pigot directory of 1824 Birr was described ‘as far the most considerable of any of the towns in the King’s County. It is situated on the river Birr [Camcor], and adorned with a fine castle, built by the family of the Parsons, the residence of the second earl of Rosse, the proprietor of the town. This town it was said has since been rebuilt by the present earl’. Birr was the leading town in the county from the 1620s until the 1840s but began to loose out because of the lack of an easy and direct link with Dublin, and it being that bit more distant from the capital and less central for local administration. The decline would accelerate after 1900 with the loss of political and administrative influence. By the 1820s Birr had new Protestant and Catholic churches (the latter nearing completion at the time of the census and the publishing of the Pigot directory), two Methodist chapels and a Quakers’ meeting house. The charitable institutions of Birr, were a fever hospital and dispensary, supported by county grants and annual subscriptions; a Sunday school for children of all denominations; a free school for boys, and another for girls. Birr had a gaol and a courthouse (from c. 1803), where the sessions were held four times a year. The prisoners were sent to Philipstown, which was the county town until 1835 for trial for serious crimes. From 1830 when the new gaol was built in Tullamore Birr prison was more a holding centre only. The ruins of the old church near the castle wall are still visible. One mile from the town were the barracks, ‘a large and elegant building, capable of holding three regiments of soldiers’. Birr has two large distilleries and two breweries, which, it was said, gave employment to the poor of the town.
The role of religious orders in Irish society is a subject which frequently arouses passionate debate and, like many other debates, often generates more heat than light as extreme positions are taken, with members of orders seen as either saints or demons. The sisters of the Tullamore Mercy Convent are held in high esteem for their educational and charitable work and have always been willing to learn and to adapt with changing times.
The Sisters of Mercy have had a presence in Tullamore since 1836, when the original sisters came on the flyboat from Portobello down the Grand Canal, from the mother house in Dublin’s Baggot Street, founded by Catherine McAuley.
St Joseph’s Convent was the first foundation outside Dublin by an order which was to become the largest order of women religious in the English-speaking world.
Brought to Tullamore at the request of the then parish priest, Father O’Rafferty, it went on to play a major role in local history, as well as to found convents in other locations.
In writing about the order, I am conscious of my own dealings with it as a young boy, having attended the old St Joseph’s NS (where St Philomena’s is now located) from 1965-68. In those days, the norm was that boys attended there for the first three years of schooling, until First Communion, when they departed either for Scoil Bhríde or, as in my own case, to the primary school then run by the Christian Brothers in Coláiste Choilm.
The girls then continued for another year or two until moving to St Philomena’s, which was then based in Harbour Street, in what is now St Mary’s Youth and Community Centre.
I have good memories of the four nuns who taught me in St Joseph’s – the late Sister Bernadette Nevin was my first teacher in Junior Infants, and she was followed by Sister Scholastica (now Sister Kathleen), Sister Regina (who later moved to teach in the USA) and Sister Columba (now Sister Nuala).
I cannot presume to speak on behalf of my female counterparts regarding their memories at more senior primary and secondary classes, that is something they would have to outline themselves. During my schooldays and for many years thereafter, the Sisters of Mercy ran three primary schools in Tullamore – in addition to St Joseph’s and St Philomena’s, they ran Scoil Mhuire on the other side of the town – in addition to the Sacred Heart School, the only all-female secondary school in Offaly.
In addition to such a major role in education, I am conscious of their involvement as nurses in the local hospital, where a separate convent, the Sacred Heart convent, long existed, as well as their work in Riada House and its predecessor, the old County Home.
One also thinks of the order’s legacy in terms of setting up the Day Care Centre at Whitehall, the old launderette on Convent Road and of course involvement in the development of youth services and work with Travellers.
By the late 1980s, the effect of declining vocations was already beginning to be felt – the appointment towards the end of that decade of Ann Cooney as the first lay head at St Philomena’s was followed by that of Geraldine Byrne at St Joseph’s in 1992 and Máire McRedmond at Scoil Mhuire in 1999. At secondary level, Sheila McManamly became first lay principal at the Sacred Heart School in 1991, when Sister Ann O’Neill kept her promise to do no more than six years as head following the retirement of the late Sister Dolores Walsh.
St Joseph’s Convent has been linked to a number of foundations away from Tullamore – in addition to the Kilcormac convent, which has closed in recent years (with the remaining sisters moved to Tullamore), it is worth noting the role in founding convents in Derry and in Costa Mesa in Orange County, California.
Sisters from Tullamore have also served in Zambia and Kenya as well as Iceland.
With the remaining sisters predominantly elderly, the time will come when few will be aware of their work, but the legacy remains in schools and youth services. Those of us of a certain generation are well aware of the great work done by Sisters Ann and Genny, among others, in the youth services, and the order’s generosity in donating the old St Philomena’s to become the Youth Centre in 1980.
We also remember the work of Sister Veronica Gilsenan in helping bereaved families, as well as her work with Travellers and others in need – at a personal level, I recall her going to see my father when he was dying in Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin in 1990.
In assessing their work, we have to remember that they often reflected the mores of their time and as sisters aged, they often re-evaluated positions they previously took for granted.
From conversations I had with sisters down the years, I could see they were quite pragmatic in coming to terms with the changing position of women and the adjustments in social mores.
Schooling in Ireland: a clustered history 1695-1912. by John Stocks Powell. Published by Offaly History (2020) , 364 pp in softback and limited run of 50 only for sale in hard covers €28. Offaly History Centre, Whelehans in Portarlington and Midland Books, Tullamore.
The cluster is Portarlington, and now appears in book form, published by Esker Press for Offaly History in Tullamore. It should be remembered that Portarlington is as much in Co. Offaly as in Co. Laois; and in this history of schools the exact locations revealed more on the Offaly side than the Laois.
The early schools of Portarlington have so often been seen as a follow-on to the Huguenots, and more or less left at that. This book shows the school history to have surpassed the Huguenots both it time span, and in importance: so many eighteenth and nineteenth century printed sources wrote of the schools as significant, and not the French. Indeed the 1803 Post Chaise Companion for Ireland ignore the French and cite ‘several schools in great repute’.
It was generally in late May of each year that school tours and school sports were held and provide happy memories of times past. Besides the serious stuff there were lots of fun events such as the sack race, the egg and spoon, wheelbarrow and much more. Charleville Demesne, Tullamore had sports days back in the 1830s for its tenantry with events such as climbing a greasy pole and other fun and frolics fit to be described by Carleton or Hardy. These early efforts have been much studied and collated in early tomes such as Blaine’s Rural Sports and W.H. Maxwell’s Wild sports of the West. Durrow, Tullamore man, Paul Rouse, has surveyed the traditional sporting pattern and the onward commercialising and politicisation of sports by the late nineteenth century in his acclaimed history published as Sport and Ireland (2015).