|Where We Live & Work|
|Portlaoise - The Story of Our Community|
Portlaoise Convent: The convent in Portlaoise was founded in 1824 from Carlow by Mother Magdalen Breen, Sr. Ann Brennan, Hannah Gurley and Mary Joyce (a widow) in order to teach the children of Portlaoise. Hannah Gurley was a great aunt of George Bernard Shaw. One of the Sisters was a Stanley and was related to the Royal Family. Her considerable dowry helped establish the school in Stradbally.
The Convent was situated beside the Old Parish House. The Old Infirmary, a small hospital, now derelict, and the adjoining house owned by Peter Brennan was given to the Sisters as a dowry for his daughter, who wanted to be a nun. It was Mr. Brennan and the Parish Priest, Fr. Nicholas O’Connor, who got the schools and convent established.
The first school dates back to 1824. This school was housed in the cellars of the new church. They were damp, airless and poorly lighted but the Sisters managed to make them reasonably comfortable for the 216 girls who flocked to the school. The Sisters probably used the Sacristy and the Church itself. It is said that three of the nuns died very young, through illness from bad conditions in the cellars.
Cholera and Typhus plagues caused many deaths among the people, even before the Famine. The health of the Sisters was already vitiated by illness. The Sisters gave breakfast to many of the children and did all in their power to lessen the misery and hunger.
Daniel O’Connell also befriended the schools and a couple of years before he died, he stayed with his party in the local Hotel and attended morning Mass with Holy Communion in the Convent. He gave the Sisters legal advice on how to secure their property.
In 1879, the Duchess of Marlborough visited from the Vice Royal Lodge in Phoenix Park (now Aras an Uachtarain, the home of the Irish president) in memory of her sister, the Countess of Portarlington who lived in Emo Court and had become a Catholic. The Duchess became a great benefactor to the schools. She was grandmother of Sir Winston Churchill.
In 1878, a structural fault was found in the convent building which comprised two joined houses. This led to the whole front of the Convent being demolished and the convent was rebuilt, adding to the number of rooms. A great staircase was added at this time.
In 1886 ‘the far school’ was built after the Sisters purchased land. They had to pay disturbance money to compensate for some removals and a lot of fundraising was done. It served its purpose well but required a new roof after 100 years! In 1932, the Sisters, with great judgment and foresight, purchased the ‘rampart’ field from Mr. Eyrie Coote and in 1955, Scoil Mhuire was built on this site.
The Secondary School began in the primary school building known as ‘the far school’. In 1968, Scoil Chriost Ri was built on land the Sisters owned, originally donated to them. They sold a field they had acquired for cows to offset the expenses of the school. At the time of writing (2008) Scoil Chriost Ri is on the move and hopes to occupy a brand new school on a greenfield site by September 2009. The site has been purchased by the Department of Education and the school is being built under the Public Private Partnership scheme. Two beautiful stained-glass windows from the convent will be placed in specially designed back-lit cabinets in the Oratory of the new school.
There were many religious vocations - many nuns from such ‘far flung’ places as Texas, Western Australia returned to tell how they had set up schools along the Portlaoise lines wherever they went.
From an Old Article:
Of the thousands of girls to be educated in our schools few of them will have observed the tower hidden in the back of the Convent between the Convent and an annexe that was once a school. It is not the usual fortress associated with round towers in Ireland but rather a tower house which is not only habitable but has a beautiful round room with an outlook over the moorland of Laois and the fast expanding town. It is the oldest part of the Convent, perhaps built in the 16th century. When the nuns came to Portlaoise in 1824 the outlook was pretty bleak for them and the prospect of having a good school building was very poor indeed.
The good parish priest who welcomed them, appreciated that they came to teach all the children of the town at a time when there was no free education at all in the country and he did his best for them. He procured a building known even at that time as "the old infirmary", a small hospital that had served the English establishment and was now derelict. However providence gave them a valued friend in the adjoining house. He was Peter Brennan whose daughter, born and living in Dublin, wanted to be a nun. Peter gave her the house including the tower, garden and field (where this school now stands) as her dowry, and he seems to have returned to Dublin. Peter Brennan had also leased the ground for the old parish church, now demolished, to the Parish Priest, Father Nicholas O' Connor who was a very saintly man. He got the parish church built and, with considerable self sacrifice, got the convent and schools established as well.
The new Church had cellars and these cellars were the first schools. Damp, airless and poorly lit, the sisters managed to make them comfortable for the 216 girls who flocked to them on the first day. The register of these first admissions is still to be seen in the Convent; the first girls were from all parts of the town as well as from distant parts, Ballydavis, Ballyfin, Ratheniska, Lalors Mills, etc. Some of them were fourteen years old and none of them were very young in the beginning. Not until an infants school was built for them did the three year olds arrive.
The Sisters probably used the sacristy, and the Church itself as well, to offset the lack of space, air and light. Nevertheless many succumbed to illness; three of the nuns died very young indeed. It woke the conscience of the people to hear from Dr. Jacob, the famous physician of the Protestant faith, that their illness was due to the conditions in the cellars. He called a meeting, asked for contributions from both Protestant and Catholic and put his own name down for a large sum. The school was not finished until 1844. Part of it was still being used as a school for infants at the start of the 21st Century! The upper part had become part of the Convent itself. The Sisters were for along time trying to pay off the outstanding debt. A charity sermon would be preached annually. One priest who preached here and cleared the debt after a rousing sermon on the blessedness of contributing to the education of the children, was the great Father Matthew, a Capuchin and the famous apostle of Temperance. The Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, also befriended the school and a couple of years before he died, he paid a visit to tho Convent. He stayed with his party, his niece, her friend and his chaplain, in the local hotel so that he could attend morning Mass with Holy Communion, in the Convent. He gave the nuns legal help to secure their property — from his own office in Merrion Square he expressed gratitude for the reception he and his party got from the Sisters and he stayed until one o'clock.
The Sisters had yet to face the famine years, the health of the community being already vitiated by illness, the cholera and typhus plagues had caused many deaths among the people, in these difficult years the Sisters gave breakfast to many of the pupils and did all in their power to "lessen the misery and hunger". One marvels at the speed of the recovery among the pupils but it would seem that the numbers in the school were going down as children had so often, understandably, stayed at home, so we read of a school bell being erected right after the famine. For nearly ten minutes every morning, the bell summoned the Sisters and the students to school. It is silent now but the bell itself is there still, a memorial to those far off days of trials and achievements. The first nuns were a remarkable group in that they were mature, well educated and excellent administrators. The choice of foundress lay with the dynamic Bishop James Doyle, known now in history as the great J.K.L (James of Kildare and Leighlin). Mother Magdalen Breen, a Wexford lady, had already left Kilkenny Presentation Convent to found Carlow Convent, and she was sent here to begin this Convent and set up the schools after the pattern of Nano Nagle's schools in Cork, which in turn were modelled on the "little schools" of Paris. Years later she was asked to found the Convent in Bagenalstown, and later still she was asked to found the Convent in Portarlington.
Sr. Ann Brennan, after doing trojan work to get the convent set up, started an industry for the girls to help them earn their living, and after fulfilling the office of Superior, bursar, and Novice Mistress was asked to proceed to found a Convent in Clane. Two Sisters went with her to help and as soon as novices began to come in to the Convent there, they returned to Portlaoise. One of them was a widow. She was Mary Joyce from Mayo and was married to an English officer, who we are told rode in the battle of Waterloo.
Another founding member was Hannah Gurley, a convert from a very bigoted family in Carlow. The family were associated with George Bernard-Shaw - Hannah was his grand-aunt. After serving in every responsible capacity, she volunteered lo help the foundation in Stradbally which was threatened with closure. She and three others left Portlaoisee, bringing not only personnel for the schools, but the considerable dowry which one of the Sisters had received from her father. She was Lady Stanley from England who had been introduced to Portlaoise as "having a real Presentation Vocation". Time proved the prophecy true. There is a tradition in Stradbally that she was related to the royal family but a much stronger one of her love of the poor, her interest in education and her always gentle courteous manner.
About 1878, a structural fault in the front of the Convent building (two houses had been joined together) led to the whole front of the Convent being demolished — and the present Convent being re¬built, adding to the number of the rooms and the building of the great staircase.
Increasing numbers in the school led to the erection of the building still known as "the far school". Land had to be purchased, disturbance money had to be found to compensate for some removals, and a great deal of collecting of funds had to be done, yet the great building was erected by 1886, and served well for a hundred years, when a new roof had to be built. Apart from serving its full use as a primary school, it housed the beginning of our post primary school. It is very much in use now.
In 1932 the school fronting the road at Church Avenue was built, this time with government assistance. It was with great judgement and foresight the Convent purchased in 1932, the "rampart field" from Mr. Eyrie Coote. Once more the Sisters were to give their purchase for the building of "Scoil Mhuire" in 1955.
In 1968 the building of "Scoil Chroist Ri" was finished. It was built on the land originally donated to the Sisters and which had been used as a garden for vegetables, a crop of hay or oats, for farmyard use and a hen run. The Sisters had acquired land for cows as they needed all their own produce. This field was also sold when it was decided not to keep cows any longer, and the money was used to off-set the expenses of that school.
It would take a volume to record the achievements of the schools. There are many famous names associated with the school, some of whom we share with the Christian Brothers. Colonel Fitzmaurice, who was a second pilot on the "Bremen" which flew successfully the Atlantic from East to West in 1928 visited. He made a nostalgic visit to the infant school, recalling his days as an infant scholar there.
However, the real pride the Sisters have is in the thousands of housewives they educated to build up the homes of the parish, and in the hundreds who had to leave for a livelihood and who built up the Christian faith wherever they went. There were many religious vocations, many nuns from such far flung places as Texas and Western Australia returned to tell us how they had set up schools on the Portlaoise lines wherever they went. They are too numerous to catalogue. There are many priests in the diocese and in the mission fields who began in the "boys school" and who cherish it. A mission in Chile was arranged and Srs. Lilie O’ Reilly and Carmel O’ Connor went, continuing a Portlaoise tradition of generous and courageous self-giving.
In recent years, when President Mary Robinson visited the town, I recalled a historic precedent for a visit from the Vice-Roy; Lodge to the Convent and to the Schools. Her Grace, the Duchess c Marlborough, in 1879 visited us in memory of her late sister, the Countess of Portarlington, who, having become Catholic, became a friend an benefactor of the schools. She had lived in Emo Court and no doubt it was while the Duchess was staying there she fulfilled her wish to meet the Sisters and visit the schools "so often spoken of by her late sister". It was a gala day for both pupils and Sisters. Her daughter was with her (Lady Spencer Georgina Churchill — Her Grace, the Duchess was grandmother of Sir Winston Churchill).
The visit meant so much to the Sisters, because it signified the closing forever of the social gap that existed between the Ascendancy and the native Catholic Irish. Our schools were neither materially nor socially in the "cellars' The Cead Mile Failte was proudly displayed and the songs included "The Exile of Erin", according to our annals. Her Grace had tea in the Convent parlour and again spoke of her sister, thanking the Sisters for the reception given to her and showed herself, as her sister was, a truly Christian lady, before getting in to her carriage accompanied by outsiders and it set off for home!
By Sr. Carmel McLoughlin
Knockmay Community was established on 19th September, 1986 by Sr. Kathleen Hallinan, Provincial Leader, at the request of the Presentation Sisters, Portlaoise and the then County Manager, Mr. Deegan, who was keen to have Sisters in deprived housing estates in the town. The founding Sisters were Srs. de Sales Egan (Kilcock), Pius Madden (Carlow) and Carmel O’Connor (Mountmellick).
Knockmay housing estate is on the outskirts of the town of Portlaoise. In 1986, it comprised 150 families with children, mostly at Primary and pre-school level. The estate had an unemployment rate of 70%.
The location of the community was at No. 17, Parnell Crescent (one of 6 rings or sections). Accommodation comprised 3 bedrooms, and the house was a two storey, semi detached residence. The County Council in Portlaoise gave the house to the Sisters for a nominal rent and in 1990, it was bought by the Province. In 1988, Community Centre was opened and used for childcare and homework for children. In 1991-1992, Cookery Courses were introduced for women as well as budgeting and art classes for children. In 1993, this house was extended to include a Prayer Room and Kitchen.
Our community was founded in 1989 from Portlaoise Convent. The founding Sisters were Sr. Francesca Kelly, Sr. Paula O' Dwyer and Sr. Justin Wall. The then Laois County Manager, Mr. Michael Deegan had asked for Sisters to work in O' Moore Place, Portlaoise - a deprived area at the time.
The area is best described as a small housing estate on the edge of the town of Portlaoise (on the Mountmellick Road) and the population is approximately a few hundred people who live in small, terraced houses with little front and back gardens.
Our first house consisted of two council houses attached and standing on its own space. The benefactors were the Presentation Sisters, Northern Province. The Provincial Leadership Team, based in Athlone, provided personnel. The Laois County Manager provided a residence for Sisters and a building where they could work.
The first school (pre-school) was established in 1989, and it consisted of a 3-bedroom council house where approximately 20 children formed the first cohort of students.
Current ministries are pre-school and after school homework.