On July 25th 1887 the General Council of the Holy Ghost Fathers meeting in Paris gave its approval for the establishment of a Secondary School in Rathmines. The plan was delayed by two factors – lack of available personnel and the difficulty in obtaining a suitable site.
April 11, 1890 was the significant date on which the decision was made to begin the project of founding a day school in Dublin “without delay”. On July 27th Fr. Jules Botrel – the Provincial Superior – was able to write with evident relief:
“We shall take possession of Larkhill (the present St Mary’s ) after tomorrow at midday”.
Larkhill was originally built in 1841. It was later rented and then bought by Mr. James Walker, a Quaker. Fr. Botrel bought it for £2,000. Adapting it for the first intake of students on September 8th 1890 cost another £1,000.
In a letter of July 27th Fr Botrel informed the Superior General that “the alterations at Larkhill are well advanced. For £500 we have transformed the stable and coach-house into two fine classrooms; we have changed the courtyard into a magnificent assembly hall with a glass roof. This will be the centrepiece of future buildings. The £500 includes the building of an office and ten toilets.”
A nearby house at 13 Leinster Square was rented to house the Community temporarily.
The first Superior and President of the College was Fr Thomas Fogarty. He was joined by Frs. De Waubert, H.M.G. Evans and Norris, two prefects and three brothers. Fr. Fogarty was succeeded as President by Dr. Crehan, while remaining on as Dean of Studies from 1900 to 1910..
On September 9th 1890 about 50 pupils ranging from nine to seventeen years were present at the opening of the College. In a letter to the Mother House on November 10th Fr Fogarty wrote:
“Our hopes have not disappointed us. Parents seem eminently satisfied with the progress of their children, and sympathy in our favour is increasing daily. When I last wrote the number of pupils was 51. Today we have 65. We hope to reach 80 by the beginning of the New Year.”
At the end of the first school year in June 1891 the numbers were 115. It had truly been a Herculean task to start from absolute scratch, without a single penny of capital, buy a family residence and within 18 months turn it into a flourishing school capable of accommodating 250 pupils, furnishing it completely with everything necessary for a successful academic institution. Perhaps only an incurable optimist like Fr Fogarty could have done it.
In 1896 Fr Fogarty was reflecting:
“Our students, he said, are not yet perfect. It cannot be said that they show an excessive enthusiasm for study! …..and yet in spite of everything we managed to succeed in the examinations at the end of the year.”
According to the 1899 results of the General Examinations in Ireland, St Mary’s with 16 distinctions holds first place among the day-schools in Dublin. The Freeman’s Journal reported:
“The Holy Ghost Fathers have every reason to be proud. Because of the 754 Distinctions gained by all the colleges of Ireland their three schools, by themselves, have gained 160, which is more than one fifth of the whole; it is a truly phenomenal success!”
Drama and music had a prominent place on the curriculum; sport in the form of rugby and cricket and especially gymnastics was introduced to the new school.
A Past Pupils Union was established between February 1898 and May 1899. The following year saw the formation of the Past Students Rugby Football Club. From the beginning vocations to the secular priesthood in the Dublin diocese were plentiful
In the presidency of Dr. Edward Crehan (1900-04), who came from Rockwell, the prestigious Gymnastic Shield was won six times in a row and dramatics flourished in the College. He was soon transferred to Blackrock as President, however, and shortly afterwards becoming Provincial.
Fr. Tom O’Hanlon became the third President of St. Mary’s in 1904, a post he held until 1916. It is to be noted that Eamon de Valera taught Maths in St Mary’s from 1906 to 1910. Evening commercial classes took place in the College, a unique project in Dublin schools.
Generally, key Spiritan staff members were taken from Rathmines for other posts elsewhere. Pupils Bertie Farrell and John McGlade joined the Congregation, together with eleven others who became religious and diocesan priests. The Past Pupils’ Union was very active at this time and the Rugby Club made a mark on the Leinster scene, winning several cups and reaching senior status in 1911-12. Rugby and cricket flourished. Staff member Fr. John O’Reilly CSSp campaigned for a Leinster Schools’ Junior Rugby Cup and was successful when the Cup was first competed for in 1909.
Probably the two most prominent names from St Mary’s in this phase of Irish history were patriots Rory O’Connor and Kevin Barry. Other pupils were the inimitable comedian, Jimmy O’Dea. Thomas J. Kiernan, Seamus O’Braonáin, together with leaders in academia, banking, law and the civil service were educated in St. Mary’s in these years.
CLOSURE IN 1916
But numbers began to fall from the beginning of the war in 1914 and were down to 140 in 1916. As early as 1906 the Mother House was asking: Can Rathmines not be abandoned? The debt and lack of Holy Ghost personnel became acute and in July 1916 a formal decision of the General Council in Paris closed St Mary’s after an existence of 25 years.
After the closure of the school in 1916 the buildings were turned over for the use of the Philosophy students from Kimmage, and the Provincial administration and Mission Promotion work. Fr. J.C.McQuaid and others were ordained in the College chapel. When the parish church burned down in 1920, the parish availed of the Provincial’s offer to use the school hall for parish masses. But strangely enough there were no buyers for the property. Providence? It might well have been sold if the price was right.
REOPENING IN 1926
In 1925 Fr Hartnett became Provincial and St Mary’s had found a friend and supporter, since he had been on the teaching staff as a young priest. Within months of this appointment he was writing to Mgr. Le Roy at the Mother House in Paris: His Grace, the Archbishop of Dublin, is forever asking us to re-open St Mary’s.
The new Superior General Mgr Le Hunsec finally gave the all clear provided that the debt was taken care of. The College was re-opened under the presidency of Fr. Michael Meagher on Sept 6 1926 with 65 boys on the roll. On the staff were Frs. Dan Leen, Michael Sexton and James Dowling, with prefects Kevin Devenish, Patrick O’Carroll and James Giltinan. Among the first boys to arrive were Denis Coveney, Ted Colleton, John and Paddy Branagan, Charlie Wilson, Thomas O’Higgins, Peter Nugent and James Ganter.
The school was officially, but temporarily, recognised as a secondary school for the academic year 1926-27. Full definitive recognition came on May 25th 1928. The debt was liquidated largely by the SAMACORA (St. Mary’s College Rathmines) Fete, which realised some £3,500 and Samacora entered into the Rugby Cup match supporters’ repertoire. The fees were now 18 guineas for Senior School and 15 for Juniors.
Cricket and Rugby were resumed immediately. The Past Pupils Union was re-formed, under whose aegis a Literary & Dramatic Society flourished. The Rugby Club was re-activated at Kimmage Grove. 1933 saw the most extensive internal alterations in the school for 40 years. Rugby got a boost when the Under 13s won the Provincial Cup and two years later went on to win the Leinster Schools’ Junior Cup in 1934.
Fr Peter Walsh guided the College for 11 years from 1934. In 1941 he undertook the first major building project since the school was first opened fifty years earlier.
1934 saw the new re-organisation of the school in its division into Senior and Junior Schools. Fr. Joe Gilmore CSSp returned from Kilimanjaro mission to found and direct the Junior School from 1934 until 1951. He built up a school library and directed dramatic productions yearly. He was greatly helped by prefects or student-priests from Kimmage, who taught and took extra-curricular activities for one or two years, before returning to complete their studies. These prefects had a great impact on the pupils, and inspired not a few priestly vocations.
In 1939 the future Bishop Joseph Whelan became Dean of Studies and breathed new life into the College. He introduced the Legion of Mary into the College and Frank Duff inaugurated the first Praesidium.
St Mary’s remained a small school until after World War 11. There were 93 pupils in 1930-31; 123 in 1934-35; 138 in 1941-42; 199 in 1947-48. in 1943, 16 did the Leaving and 21 did the Intermediate. By 1944-45 the Senior School was double streamed in the lower classes and by 1950 the entire school was double stream, though still quite small in numbers (233 pupils).
GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT
During the Presidency of Fr Tom Maguire (1945-51) Kenilworth Square was acquired fortuitously and a private park was quickly transformed into rugby, cricket, tennis and basketball areas. It was improved every year, mainly by the prefects, under the direction of Fr. Frank Barry. A small magazine, An Réalt, appeared bi-annually from 1947-1953). Dramatics flourished under Fr. Barry, and in rugby Fr. Austin Seagrave brought St. Bede’s College, Manchester to Dublin to play St. Mary’s in Donnybrook, prior to his departure for missionary work in Nigeria. Leinster Cricket cups at Senior, Junior and Under 14 levels were won under the direction of Fr. Barry. Swimming was available weekly at the Iveagh baths.
Past-pupil brothers and Dublin diocesan priests, Frs. Tom and Ernest Farrell, founded the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland in 1927. At first a parish-based organisation, since the early 1940s scouting has been a strong feature of life in St. Mary’s, with three school troops flourishing at cubs, scouts and venturers levels. A fine Scout Den was built in Kenilworth in 1971, and St. Mary’s has given several national leaders to scouting, with the troops having excellent leaders and committed chaplains.
Regrettably, St. Mary’s is now the only Holy Ghost school with scouting available to its students.
Fr. Joseph Gilmore (President 1951-57), together with Dr, Michael Kennedy set in train the negotiations for the building of a magnificent new chapel (350 capacity) that was completed in 1955, together with 7 new classrooms, a Science room, an Art room and accommodation for seven Spiritan staff. The playing area behind the school was tarmacadamed. Fundraising activities were planned and carried through. Numbers increased, though at this time many pupils still left school before 6th year to go into work situations.
Dr. Michael Kennedy took over as President (1957-63), to be succeeded by Fr. P.J. Murray (1963-19690. In 1963 there were 352 boys in the Senior School and 303 in the Junior school. Academics reached a high standard, dramatics under Fr. Barry flourished. The Rugby Club won the Leinster Senior Cup for the first time in 1958. In schools’ rugby in 1961 (under Fr. Walter Kennedy) St Mary’s won the Leinster Senior Cup for the first time and again in 1966, 1969, 1994 and 2002. There was a first win for the Juniors in 1963 and later in 1971, 1974,1992 and 1997.
College developments in the latter part of the 60s included the bridge connecting the Chapel to the Community House, a major Junior school extension, a new Main Entrance on Rathmines Road, a new small Gymnasium and a new entrance to the Junior school. In a time of significant increase in educational uptake nationally, when Fr. Jim Hurley was President between 1969 and 1975, school enrolment rose from 621 (325 in the senior school and 296 in the junior) to 719. The sanctuary of the College chapel was re-ordered in accordance with Vatican II norms. It was a notable period of success for the Rugby Club, with internationals like Lynch, Denis Hickie, Moloney, Deering and Grace to the fore.
In Fr. William Nugent’s time as President (1975-81) the Rugby Club moved from Fortfield Road to new grounds in Templeville Road, with the cooperation of the Provincial administration. In the College, debating and other extra-curricular activities took on a new lease of life. Fr. Cyril Byrne was leading the way nationally, as well as in the College, in the introduction of computer studies (including his CSSP software educational programme). PPU activities and scouting went from strength to strength. The St. Mary’s Lawn Tennis Club prospered.
LAY LEADERSHIP AND PLANT DEVELOPMENT
The ‘80s, under Fr. Hugh O’Reilly’s presidency, proved a time of great change in Irish education and an important decade in the history of the school. When the old rugby pavilion burnt to the ground, a new pavilion in Kenilworth was opened in 1981. in 1985 Ronan McNulty won the prestigious national Young Scientist of the year award and the College emerged at the top of the list of all schools nationally in the Leaving Certificate exam. To succeed Fr. Jerome Godfrey, on April 4th 1988 it was announced that Mr Francis Conlon had been appointed Principal – the first lay-man – who took office at the beginning of the 1988-89 academic year. 1989 saw the addition of 7 new classrooms, a laboratory, an art room and a canteen/kitchen.
In 1990, Fr. Jim McNulty came from Willow Park to succeed Fr. O’Reilly as President/Manager. On September 8 1990, the 100th birthday of the College was celebrated, with a Concelebrated High Mass in the College chapel. The Chief Concelebrant was past-student, Fr Brian McLaughlin, who at the time was Provincial Superior.
In 1995, Fr. McNulty undertook the challenge of adding a 10 classroom and laboratory extension, that gave extra space and facilities to the 400 pupil Senior School. Success in sport improved in the 1990s. The Senior Rugby Cup was won in 1994, fitting reward for Mr. Brian Cotter who had coached the team since 1977. The JCT played in four finals in the 1990s, winning in 1992 and 1997. There was a revival of interest in cricket, which had languished with the retirement of Fr. Barry. Choral music was very strong under the guidance of Fr, Peter Raftery and musicals were performed every autumn in conjunction with Notre Dame, Churchtown and later, St. Louis High School. In 1997 Mr Clive Byrne became Principal, succeeding Frank Conlon.
No account of St. Mary’s would be complete without acknowledging the importance of the Junior School. Following Fr. Gilmore, it came under the direction of Frs. O’Brien, Hourigan, Little, O’Reilly and O’Shaughnessy. With a dedicated lay staff, a wonderful ethos developed and ensured that there was a seamless transition of pupils into the Senior School and an education was provided that was the equal of that of the best primary schools in the country. In 1996 Mr. Dan Dunne succeeded as first lay principal of the Junior School, to be followed in 2004 by Mrs. Mary O’Donnell. After some fluctuations, enrolment is again at maximum capacity.
In 1996, Fr. John Flavin succeeded Fr. McNulty as President/Manager. In 2000, it was decided to build a multi-purpose hall, with a conference room and training/ conditioning room. At the same time, the canteen/kitchen was transferred and enlarged and a fine Biology laboratory and sanitary facilities added. The Fr. Barry Hall is the equal of the best in the country and facilitates new sports, as well as being a whole-school exam venue and a concert hall and function-facility for up to 500 people. All this development cost in excess of 5 million euro and the response to fundraising by parents has been tremendous and inspirational.
The College President continued to act as College Manager until, in October 2004, two Boards of Management took over responsibility for Senior and Junior Schools under the direction of our trustees, the des Places Educational Association. A Spiritan still continues as (non-executive) President of the College and Spiritans continue to provide chaplaincy services and pastoral care and counselling in both schools.
The last ten years have seen huge changes in education in Ireland. Very detailed legislation covers all aspects of school life, so that management and administration of schools are now a huge challenge to all concerned. Principals must delegate much responsibility to deputies, deans and middle management. Parents and pupils have legally defined roles as partners in the education-enterprise.
St. Mary’s is fortunate to have trustees, the Des Places Association, giving it support, affirmation and direction at this challenging time. As its Mission Statement has it:
“St. Mary’s continues to be a community of faith and learning that fosters idealism, inspires hearts and informs minds in the wisdom, which enables people to know and do what is right”.
“Being faithful in difficult circumstances (Fidelitas in Arduis) remains a realistic motto for this school, as it is for life itself”.