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Leinster Leader 30 October 2008

Archbishop opens magnificent Athy school with a golden key
The formidable Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. McQuaid, visited one of the farther reaches of his archdiocese in October 1958 when he travelled to Athy to open the ‘most beautiful, spacious primary school in rural Ireland.’ The magnificent two-storey building, provided by Athy Sisters of Mercy at a cost of over £100,000.
The front page report in the Leader spared nothing in the way of laudatory vocabulary in praising the setting and design of Athy’s new school. Situated on a slightly elevated site in the Convent of Mercy grounds, the school looks out upon a broad expanse of gently rolling countryside north and east of the town. The huge, many-windowed edifice, with its large walled-in concrete playgrounds, in which circular pillars support roomy playsheds, stands amid macadam-carpeted paths and carefully tended lawns.
Nearby was the old primary school, rendered unsuitable by the ravages of time, and by the big increase in the number of pupils and by modern educational needs and requirements. There was great local continuity in the construction of the old and new schools. The late Mr. Daniel Carbery, senior, Athy, had built the old sixty-five years previously; the local firm of Messrs D.J.Carbery Ltd., which he founded and directed for many years, erected the new one. The architects for the new school were the Dublin firm of Messrs. O’Connor & Aylward.
The tremendous commitment of the Sisters of Mercy to Athy was lauded in the article fifty years ago. The new primary school marked a turning point in the illustrious history of Athy Convent of Mercy. It was 106 years since the convent was established in the town. Throughout those years the sisters had worked unsparingly, suffered and sacrificed, to promote the spiritual and educational welfare of the Catholic children of the district. One of the difficulties they had to contend with for many years was to find accommodation for about 800 pupils in a primary school built in 1893 to accommodate 440 children.  Now that they had achieved their long held hope of a new school the whole of Athy joined in celebration.
On the day of the blessing and opening ceremony Athy town presented a picture of gaiety and rejoicing. Over the roadways hung line after line of coloured bunting and from the windows of the houses flew flags and banners.  Archbishop McQuaid was greeted on his arrival at the new school by Rev. Vincent Steen, PP, Athy, and the convent Superioress, Rev. Mother of the Sacred Heart. There was a magnificent spectacle as over 1,000 girls of the convent primary and secondary schools, resplendent in their uniforms, lined the walks to form a guard of honour for his Grace.
A golden key, presented by the architects, was used by the Archbishop to open the school after which he blessed the building. He was attended by Father Steen, and three Athy curates Frs. L. Redmond, J. Cunneen and F. Mitchell.
The article went on to describe the up-to-date design of the new building with modern facilities for the full range of subjects. The school, which took two years to build, had eighteen classrooms; a domestic economy room equipped with a range, electric cooker and gas cooker; a library and reading rooms; administration offices; teaching staff rooms and cloakrooms. There was accommodation in the new building for 800 pupils.
A feature of the school was the beautiful assembly hall, which had a maple floor, permanent stage and dressing rooms, modern stage lighting equipment and curtains. The hall had seating for some 400.
In the afternoon of the opening ceremony there was luncheon for some seventy guests. There was sustained applause when ‘Athy’s beloved Meath-born parish priest, Very Rev. V. Steen’ who presided, heartily congratulated the Sisters of Mercy on their courage in building such a magnificent school.
Another speaker at the luncheon gave a fascinating insight into the shifts of identity which the nuns had to grapple with in their early years of setting up education in Athy. Mr. Fitzgerald, Assistant Secretary of the Dept. of Education, told an interesting story about the old days when the British established National Education Board of the 19th century supervised school provision in Ireland. The Board, he said, had not recognised Nuns as such, and in the Board’s records for 1893 the then Reverend Mother of Athy convent of Mercy was described as Mrs. Margaret Slevin . Whatever about their difficulties with old officialdom the records showed that right from the beginning excellent work was done by the Mercy community, in spite of a gross lack of accommodation. Now they had a school which was a credit to them, to Athy … and to the country.


Liam Kenny in his regular feature, 'Nothing New Under the Sun, in the Leinster Leader of 30 October 2008, looks at the opening of the Sister of Mercy primary school in Athy in October 1958 by Archbishop McQuaid.

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