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Galway – Athenry

THE STORY OF OUR COMMUNITY

ATHENRY

Athenry is a medieval town located 8 km off the N6, the main Dublin to Galway road and20 km North East of Galway city. Athenry is recognised as a Heritage town since1992.

The Community was founded on 2nd of January, 1908 from Presentation Convent, Tuam, Co. Galway, during the reign of Archbishop Healy. The Founding Sisters were Sr. Gertrude O’Sullivan (Castleisland, Co. Kerry), Sr. Catherine Story (Co. Wexford), Sr. Magdalen Costello (Dunmore, Co. Galway) and Sr. Anne O’Keeffe (Co. Carlow). The reason the community was founded was to work in Primary Education Mrs. Dolan and her daughter, who were the staff of the local school, were due to retire in December 1907. The invitation came from Canon Canton, in June 1907, who asked the Sisters “to instil into the children, solid Religious principles” (Letter1907).

The first residence of the Sisters was the Parochial House, situated in Old Church Street, between the Catholic Church and the Railway Station (on the site of the present convent). The first house belonged to Canon Canton who offered his own house to the Sisters and took apartments down the town until a new Parochial House was built. The house looked to be a five bed roomed house. In preparation for their arrival, some necessary works wee undertaken on the house in 1907. The Canon met the Sisters at the railway station and, after some prayers at the church, delivered the sisters to their new home.

The first school dates back to January, 1908 when the Sisters joined the staff of the existing Primary school in Abbey Row. This was already a state-run school – there were two classrooms and a teacher’s residence. Though Athenry was a substantial town and had a railway junction with a link to Tuam, it seemed to the cloistered Tuam sisters of the time like moving out into unknown territory. After their retirement in December 1907, Mrs. Dolan and her daughter continued to reside in the teacher’s residence. For a number of years, in order to preserve the strict rules of the cloister, the Sisters had to journey each day by darkened coach to the old National School at Abbey Row until a new primary school was built on the parish lands at the rear of the Convent. Their local contribution to the total cost of €1,054 was €876, an enormous sum for the time and almost 85% of the total cost. In meeting this they were helped solidly by the parishioners.

A convent primary school was built close to the convent in 1910 and a new wing and an Oratory were added to the convent in 1913. In the 1920’s the Sisters began to provide some Intermediate Education for the senior classes of the Primary school by establishing a Secondary Top. Music and commercial subjects were taught at first but the curriculum gradually widened, allowing four girls to proceed to Intermediate Certificate examination in 1930. From this on, for a further eighteen years, this facility was provided with great effect in the Primary School. Fortunately, the train service to Galway was good enabling some to journey to the schools there to complete their Leaving Certificate. Some other fortunate ones were able to go to a boarding school. The rest of the girls had to discontinue their education and look for some meager employment at home — or emigrate. In 1948 this was developed in a full Secondary school for about 100 girls.

In 1963 the Sisters were requested by local people to make the secondary school co-educational and this they did. The school was expanded between 1963 and 1968 when other post-primary schools in the region closed. New primary and secondary schools were opened in 1980.

New Primary School: Scoil Chrio Naofa was officially opened on 1st September 1980. There was a need for a new school as the Convent school, built in 1910 had, by the mid-sixties, become over-crowded and, despite various renovations down through the years, was by then inadequate for the growing numbers on Roll. By 1976, negotiations for a new building were finalised between the Presentation Sisters and the Commissioners of Public Works. The site was provided by the Presentation Sisters. The calculated cost of the building was £176,000; of this amount, £19,555 was to be a local contribution and £156,445 to be paid by the Office of Public Works. A Finance Committee of parents and school staff collected the local contribution from people in the school catchment area, who very generously supported their efforts. September, 1st, 1980 was fixed as the Opening Day. The school Band, trained by Sr. Vincent Canney, gave the guests a rousing welcome. The school was officially opened by Mr. Mark Killilea, T.D. and was blessed by Very Reverend James Canon Gibbons, P.P., Athenry, who celebrated the opening Mass.

New Secondary SchoolPRESENTATION COLLEGE, ATHENRY: In 1948, arrangements were put in place to allow those who wanted to proceed to Leaving Certificate in Athenry itself to do so. This involved the registration of the school as a full-scale Secondary School and the broadening of the curriculum. There were 74 pupils in the school in 1949-50, with every prospect of the school growing further. The junior classes continued to be housed in the old primary school the building [1]. The fourth and fifth year classes had to move to the Canton Hall on the street near the Church while one class was also contained in the small parlour in the Convent — a room no more than five metres by four. Nonetheless, the girls who joined these classes were forever grateful to the ‘nuns’ for what they did in providing secondary education for them, at a time when it was still a rare experience in the rural towns of the west.

All this time a new building, with five classrooms, was being erected on the school grounds by the sis­ters, from a combination of their own resources and local fund-raising. This building is still used today (2008) and is known as the Technology Block of the secondary school. The original intention had been that this building was to be two-storied but this was not feasi­ble, as funds were short. All decisions about projects like this, especially if finan­cial outlay was involved, were referred to the Presentation mother-house in Tuam and were subject to the sanction of the Archbishop. Financial constraints resulted in the building plan being modified and it was finished with a flat roof — and so it remains today. The facility, however, was ready for the second group of Leaving Certificate Candidates to sit for their examination there in 1951. Despite its limita­tions, it remained as the main building of the school until 1980.

The school population grew to 96 girls in 1952-53. The students cycled, or were transported, from places up to ten miles away – such as Craughwell, Monivea and Turloughmore. Some lucky ones were able to travel by the 8.15 am train from Ballyglunin Station, near Abbeyknockmoy.

What About the Boys?

In the late 1950’s, when the number of convent schools in the diocese taking in boys had grown to six, the murmuring for a similar facility in Athenry was being heard from certain local people. The Presentation sisters in Headford had begun taking in boys as early as 1955. Sr Rita O’Toole, Principal from 1952-59, was favourable to the idea, if they could get the funds and the local support. Athenry, as a railway junction, had the benefit of a good rail service. Train schedules to Galway made it possible for children from Athenry to attend these schools without much difficulty — even if they had to miss part of the first class in the morn­ings. Some boys, even those of Primary school age, had attended Galway schools in the 1930’s. So, boys had been quite accustomed to travelling to Galway. Others travelled by bus to the De La Salle Brothers’ school in Loughrea. The tradition of travelling was therefore established and, thus, the urgency for secondary accommodation for boys in Athenry was not as great as in more remote towns and villages in the diocese. However, the desire for education was there. In 1933-34, in a corner of a primary school-room, the parish priest, Canon Michael Conroy, had taught a few boys a little Latin, Geometry, Algebra, History and Geography. The boys were selected by the teacher. Some of these boys secured scholarships, and later attended St Jarlath’s in Tuam.

However, by the end of the 1950s, there had been no development of secondary education for Athenry boys. Whatever might have been happening elsewhere, the Parish Priest, Canon McGough, who was then in his eighties, was not in favour of a mixed secondary school. He had hoped for a separate school for the boys. As late as 1959, a Vocational school in Athenry was still only a concept in the distant future at meetings of Co Galway Vocational Education Committee, though some day facilities had been available in Athenry since the 1940’s. The town did, however, have a Hotel School, under the VEC, with boarding facilities for about sixty boys. In November 1959, the VEC announced that plans would shortly be drawn up for a Vocational School in Athenry. It was not to be completed, however, until the late 1960’s.

In September 1959, Sr Rita O’Toole, the Athenry Principal, had been moved to Carraroe to set up a co-educational school there. The people of Athenry could eas­ily say: ‘and why not us?’ The new Parish Priest of Athenry, Canon Conor Heaney, appointed in 1961, had previously been President of St Jarlath’s College, Tuam, for fourteen years, so he was a man committed to education. He did his best to hasten the provision of the Vocational School, but progress remained so slow. As he moved among the people he became aware of their desire for a co-educational full secondary school, where boys also could have the benefits of secondary education to Leaving Certificate level.

Up to 1964, the Presentation Sisters school had been such a no-go area for boys that many parents were astounded by the news in the late Summer of that year that boys would be admitted from September. The announcement came so late, that some of the boys had already booked their places in boarding schools but were immediately delighted to have a school now on their own doorsteps. And so, twenty five boys joined the 126 girls in the school which was henceforth to be called Presentation College, Athenry. A whole new era was now opening up.

Archbishop Walsh gave his support to the decision but did not, as in other schools, appoint a priest teacher. There was no male staff whatever but the curate of the day, Fr Martin Gleeson, became the chaplain and the very welcome trainer of the boy’s football and hurling teams which soon developed. For many years, the sisters had some difficulty in understanding and coming to terms with this new craze for foot­ball and hurling competitions, with the boys travelling to matches when they might be better off doing school tests, or whatever!

An Influx: In 1968, Sr Brid Brennan became Principal. Because ‘free education’ and ‘free transport’ had been announced by the Government in 1967, the school quickly swelled in numbers. As well as this, due to the closure of the short-lived co-educational in Coolarne, a contingent from that school arrived in September 1968. The Coolarne people and pupils, however, conscious of their separate identity, had demanded that their teachers, Martin O’ Grady and Maureen Coppinger would be transferred to Athenry ‘to look after their children’. The introduction of ‘free education’ followed in 1969. Another influx came in 1973 when a small Technical school at Newtown, Abbeyknockmoy, was also closed by the decision of the Department of Education. The result was that a school which had just 122 pupils in 1963 grew to 386 in 1969-70, and to 489 in 1975. It was a phenomenal growth – the school population had grown by 400% in 12 years.

The educational explosion in Ireland of the late 1960’s was made possible only by a new age of the temporary pre-fabs, of various shapes and sizes, all over the country. Because of the suddenness of the growth in the school, Athenry was very much on the receiving end of the pre-fab solution. Each year a few new pre-fabs were being added until, eventually, the number reached an incredible twenty three — occupying a space in the present car-park that was many times the floor space of the orig­inal school building.

In spite of new Government grants, much local effort in fund-raising had to be undertaken. All the time, pressure was mounting for a properly built, permanent school. The people of Athenry and the surrounding districts rose to the occasion. With the co-operation of the Vocational School, it became possible for the students to do such subjects as Woodwork, Mechanical Drawing and Agricultural Science. Later, Italian and Spanish were added to the curriculum.

At last, in 1975, the then Minister for Education, Richard Burke, sanctioned a large new school. The present school at Presentation College was completed with substan­tial Government grant-aid, in 1980 on what had been, until then, the school foot­ball pitch. The following year a massive gymnasium was provided by local effort.

The first lay Principal, Gilbert McCarthy, was appointed in 1988. By then the school had 575 pupils. As the sisters moved to new areas of pastoral work, their numbers in the school reduced to two. However, the ethos of the Presentation Sisters and their foundress, Nano Nagle, live on in Presentation College, Athenry to this day. Mary Forde was appointed as the second lay Principal in 2004. The school has now (2008) grown to over 700 students and there are once again a large number of pre-fab classrooms on the site.

The nearby Athenry Vocational school has also almost six hundred pupils, making a total of nearly thirteen hundred pupils attending second level schools in Athenry. The total number sixty years earlier was 75 — all girls.

Such was the vast change in educational opportunities in a town in rural Ireland in these sixty years.

[1] The old building was still to be seen in 2008 at the rear of the Convent. However, because of its deteriorating condition the building was due to be demolished in July 2008.

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