On November 21st 1848 the Dominican Primary School in the parish of St. Michael’s, Dun Laoghaire was opened.
After having arrived on July 10th 1847 the group of six Dominican nuns began their work for which they were invited and for which they were supported. That task was to come to Kingstown to open schools for the poor in the town. Dun Laoghaire during these years was known as Kingstown.
The history of Kingstown and its development involves the influx of people in the town for a variety of reasons. There were those seeking employment, those moving out of Georgian Dublin for better air and location, those coming to serve the needs of the people settling into the town and there were holiday makers availing of the seaside. But in the back lanes and alleyways out of the public eye and the scenic view many other citizens of the town were living in cramped and unhealthy conditions as there was no legislation concerning the living conditions of those forced to dwell in such unhealthy buildings.
The Dominicans who came offered poor children an education that was varied at times but above all it was stable and longterm – as we have remained for 176 years – celebrating 175 years of the National Primary School. These women came amidst the chaos of a developing town, and like many suffered hardships. Their involvement in education was flexible and various establishments were added, opened and closed. Its flexibility is a response to the town’s and the children’s needs, the resources available at the time, other women joining the group and later changes in the legislation in religious life and in the State in relation to education which would affect how establishments were run.
The aim here tonight is not to portray this group of women as being triumphant or even to apply success to their educational work as their purpose was to be of service for an unmet need. The validity and necessity of their work in the town is indicated by the members who attended the Dominican Dun Laoghaire schools, the donations that they received towards the charitable work and the support they received from the people in the town. They were inserted into the area which maybe a reflection of these religious women responding to the welcome of the people of the town.
As well as remembering our Dominican Sisters we also must recall other individuals and groups of people who saw the poverty of Kingstown during this time and who set out to do something about it as they too ministered to the people at the time. They included Dr Charles Haliday, Dr. Swan in the maternity hospital, the group of women from the Cottage Home, St Vincent de Paul, Mrs Harriet Daly.
- Dr. Charles Haliday, directed his attention to the sanitary needs of the poor of the town of Kingstown and he personally examined the habitation of the poorer class.
- Dr Joseph Swan, who had been on the staff in the Rotunda was responsible for the Kingstown Maternity hospital in 1842. He had witnessed how the journey form Kingstown to the Rotunda was too treacherous for the women and their babies and therefore set about opening a lying in hosptial, as it was referred to this time.
- The Ladies Association of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul opened its first branch in Kingstown in 1843.
- The Cottage Home was one of the first establishments to provide Creche facilities for working mothers.
- Mrs Harriet Daly who provided the house and grounds for the Dominican nuns and paid yearly for its upkeep until her death in 1862 so that the Dominican nuns would be able to continue to educate the children of Kingstown.
All of this highlights the extreme poverty of the majority that the inhabitants of the town were forced to live in and their children were the pupils who made up the numbers for the poor school which the Dominican nuns began in 1848. While not wishing to underestimate the positive contributions of any of the above it is to one specific group of religious women, our Dominican sisters, that attention will be directed to in terms of the contribution of these women to education in the town.
The history of the Dominican nuns in Ireland dates back to 1644. Following in the footsteps of St Dominic these women set out to affirm the values of the Gospel message and the search for truth. In 1847 a group of six Dominican nuns arrived in Kingstown, from Cabra, with the specific task to do in the town – that was to establish schools in Kingstown for the young, and especially for the poor. They were:
- Mother Mary Aloysius Purcell
- Sister Mary Ursula Maher
- Sister Mary Agatha Moran
- Sister Mary Gonzaga O’Farrell
- Sister Mary Veronica Kavanagh
- Sister Mary Anne Gowran
Despite the confinement within the convent walls their educational establishments were well inserted in the town from the very beginning and offered what the population needed. In July 1847 this small community took possession of the house known as Echo Lodge and the surrounding grounds consisting of six acres.
The building of the poor school began on the 2nd February 1848 and was opened on the 21st of November 1848 when it was blessed and placed under the protection of the Blessed Virgin and St. Aloysius. The school was a two storey building with a room in each storey and each room was 20 feet X 20 feet and 10 feet high. The school newly built and having required furniture and desks applied to the commissioners of education in December 1848 for a grant for teachers’ salary and books. The two ladies, from the community teaching, were Teresa Moran (Sr. M Agatha Moran) and Ellen Maher (Sr. M Ursula Maher). School began at 10 O’Clock and continued until 3pm. To secure the attendance of the poorest children the sisters gave breakfast and clothing to all who needed such help.
In 1865 there were 867 children attending the National School. Such was the need to for education in this town and these women came to provide a longterm and stable education with the help and support of the people of this town and of course Mrs. Harriet Daly. Mrs Harriet Daly died in 1862 leaving a sum in her will for the nuns to continue to provide for the education of children, particularly the poor, in the area.
From the house records it seems that the early years seemed a particularly hard time health wise. Indeed the great Famine in Ireland was from 1845 and in parts of Ireland it lasted until 1852. In the late 1840s the cholera epidemic affected the Dominican community of nuns. There were a few outbreaks of the cholera disease in the town of Kingstown. On the 6th of October 1849 their youngest member, Sr Agatha, died of the cholera disease. Sr Agatha as mentioned, was one of the two nuns teaching in the primary school. The nuns were so upset by the sudden death of Sr. Agatha that they thought they could not continue in Kingstown. However, Mother Aloysius encouraged the community with her hopeful spirit. Two sisters from Cabra were sent out to take the place of Sr. Agatha. And again between 1937-1941 seven members of the community died, some of them from TB and in 1942 two boarders died – 15 and 17, one of TB and the other of a streptococcal throat.
There were many who left an impression on the history of the school community. Sr Concepta Lynch is one example of someone who used her talents and has left a gem in the town, this was referred to recently by a local historian as the Sistine Chapel of Dun Laoghaire! This small oratory is there now to remember the boys of Dun Laoghaire who were killed in Flanders in the First World War. These boys attended the Dominican school and lived in the surrounding streets. Sr Concepta painted Celtic designs on the walls, leaving us a monument of beauty that directs us to God. She taught the boys in the primary school and later taught oil-painting and illumination in the boarding school.
During their first 50 years in the town 112 women joined the community. The nuns accepted the challenge not only to confirm their educational work in the town but also went elsewhere to take up new challenges.
In 1867 8 nuns from Kingstown community left for Australia never to return and a second group left in 1868. In 1870 7 members left to establish a foundation in Wicklow. They were invited to these places because of their involvement in education. They ran schools in Australia and Wicklow taking up new challenges in different settings.
Following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 Kingstown was renamed Dun Laoghaire. Other changes took place in the following decades and changes continue to be a part of our lived experience. Free education in 1967/68 in Ireland and in 1971 with the introduction of the new Primary Curriculum – enhanced further child-centred education which is very much of the Dominican tradition with great emphasis on music and art in our school. Curriculum changes and additions continue to be a part of school life. Changes in the local community brought many challenges for all to care for one another. We in our school community remain a place of welcome to all in our care for it is to you that we hold precious. All change offers the potential to grow and become truly human. All are welcome in this place – behold Love’s amazing grace. Let us continue with our celebration of thanksgiving.