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Carlow – Oakley Park (Convent, 1811)



At the invitation of Fr. Andrew Fitzgerald, a Carlow College Professor and a native of Kilkenny, the Kilkenny Presentation Community gave three sisters who founded Presentation Convent, Carlow on 29th January, 1811. The founding sisters were Sr. de Sales Meighan, Sr. Magdelene-Breen (originally from Wexford) and Sr. Agnes Madden. Sr. de Sales had trained at South Presentation in Cork under Mother M. Ann Collins – one of the ‘original five Presentation Sisters.

The community was founded because the Catholic population was poor and subject to great distress from famine and fever. The children were poor, ignorant and undisciplined. 1798 saw 600 men die on the streets of Carlow and their thatched cottages were put to flames. The ‘new place’ of Carlow was a garrison town for many years and the county had not been noted for the liberality of the ascendancy, who controlled most land and all public offices.

The great work of the Sisters began in the dark, damp, cellar of a house on the edge of Tullow Street, which housed the Sisters’ quarters and the school combined. The Parish Priest and a Fr. Henry Staunton gave money to purchase the house. There, some poor and sickly children were fed and taught free gratis. The first Mass was celebrated in a small temporary chapel, by Fr. Staunton. A Mr. John Clark gave his only daughter and all his property. A Mr. Michael Cahill fixed a yearly income on the house. Nonetheless, in 1824, the continuing hardships and lack of means caused the return to Kilkenny of two foundresses, Sr. de Sales and Sr. Agnes.

The numbers in the school increased so that a ‘free‘ school for 130 girls was opened in College Street in 1819, under the chapel – at that time parents paid for education at ‘hedge schools’. Improvements and additions to the Convent were constantly made.   The Sisters effected many conversions among the workers on site. The new chapel was blessed in 1818. Bishop Doyle (affectionately known as J.K.L, James of Kildare & Leighlin), was a true friend to the Sisters from 1818.

In 1824, a Government enquiry into Irish schools reveals that the Presentation School was one of two out of 29 Carlow schools which made no change – quote – ‘they are instructed in reading, writing, figures, needlework, spinning, knitting and plaiting’

In that year (1824) foundations were made in Portlaoise, Manchester, Kildare, Muinebheag (Bagenalstown), Clane and Portarlington. By 1881, Stradbally, Mountmellick, Clondalkin (Dublin) and Kilcock had received Sisters from Carlow. The Foundress of the Mercy Sisters (M. Catherine MacAuley) was welcomed in Carlow Convent by the Sisters when she came to found Mercy, Carlow. Their first (young) Sister to die is buried in the Presentation cemetery, as the Mercy Sisters had no burial place then.

Visitors to the Convent have included Mother Lyons, Carmelite Monastery, Warrenmount (1820), Bishop England from Chesterton and Bishop Purcell, Cincinnati who came seeking Sisters. Daniel O’Connell also visited once.

By 1837, a new chapel and school were needed. The Dean of College, Fr. B. Fitzpatrick collected money in England and Ireland. The P.P. of Tinryland called on his parishioners to convey stones to the site. In addition, two gardens were added. Building was completed in 1840 on College Street. Later, the schools were placed under the National School System. By 1847, Ireland was reduced to destitution. Many kind and charitable friends rallied round our poor people and the Sisters received many sums of money from home and abroad to relieve the wants of our poor children (Annals).

A new school was built in Tullow Street in 1899, adjoining the Convent, to accommodate increasing numbers. It was replaced on 20th June, 1960, by Scoil Mhuire gan Smal on Green Lane, the building of which can be truthfully described as an educationalists dream.

The Secondary Top, which was an extension of the Primary School and under the National School Department of Education Section, opened in 1949 and continued to offer secondary education up to 1970 when application was made for a full girls secondary school. The secondary school was located in the old primary school on Tullow Street which was vacated when Scoil Muire gan Smal was opened in 1960.

In 1983, the secondary school was replaced by a new post-primary school on a Greenfield site in the new parish of Askea, Carlow, on the growing South East side of the town. This school was designed as a co-educational school and was built for 650 students. It was believed that co-education provided the best forum for an all-round complete education. The secondary school – now Presentation College, Askea – inserted itself into a new parish and new development and provided for the town’s expansion. A full range of subjects and school activities with a truly dedicated staff, provided great vitality and focus. The first lay Principal, Mr. Noel Keating, was appointed in 1989. A significant extension to the school, including specialist classrooms and a large gymnasium, was completed in 2007 and the official opening of the extension took place in early 2008. A number of existing class-rooms were incorporated into social areas for health and safety reasons and the overall capacity of the school remains at 650 students.

The introduction of ‘Free Education’ (announced in 1967) increased the number of students whose parents saw education as important (even though, no fees had previously been charged). The increase in numbers allowed for more variety in subjects on offer. The fact that there were fewer Sisters on staff allowed men and women of great talent and varied interests to give of their services. The establishment of a Board of Management and a Parents’ Council from the mid 1980’s added to the life of the school and engendered a spirit of genuine partnership.

Many of the students were well motivated and went on to third-level colleges or found their niche in local employment. The town’s employed numbers grew in the earlier years of Presentation College, especially with new factories established in the town. Many of the students went into careers in Arts and Music. Some returned to teach in their own school.

Other Ministries in which the sisters are involved, include St. Lazarian’s Special School. Srs. Mary Byrne, Goretti, Martina and Aine Meaney together with Brother Farrell and a group of lay people founded this school. The Holy Angels Day Care Centre for children with special needs (a pre-school) was founded by Sr. Columba, Brother O’Connell, Fr. Tom Brophy and Dr. O’ Brien, together with a group of lay people.

July, 1st 1989 saw the closure of the convent in Carlow. There was dry rot in the building and it became too costly to redo it in the climate of change. It was subsequently sold for affordable housing to the Council. Part of the deal was that the Council would look after the cemetery. Current use includes a library, tourist office and exhibition room. The Sisters now reside in Oakley Park, Tullow Road, Carlow.

Current ministries for the Sisters in Carlow include education: primary, secondary, special needs school (St Lazarian’s), for children with mild, moderate and severe learning difficulties and the pre­school day care centre in the Holy Angels.

Over the years, Carlow gave rise to many other foundations. From 1824 onwards, the Carlow community spread out to many towns and villages of Kildare and Leighlin and other parts of Ireland and England i.e. Kildare, Bagenalstown, Clane, Portarlington and Manchester. By the end of the 19th century, Sisters from Carlow joined other Presentation sisters in far away Australia to found a convent in Wagga Wagga. It is of significant interest to note that before the convent closed, the community was asked to form a small community, to be a presence on the other side of the Cathedral parish and they occupied a house at Hanover at that time.

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