St Mary's CBS says goodbye to the hill

Seamus Dunne, himself a past pupil, reports on the end of an era in Portlaoise with the move of the CBS from Tower Hill.

REMEMBER the St Mary's CBS, Portlaoise, of the old days? Secondary students upstairs, primary pupils downstairs? The croquet lawn, the suffocating science room and, just inside the entrance gate, the bicycle shed and the statue? And, of course, the outside iron stairway and landing that reverberated to generations of young feet?

Down the road was Odlum's Mill. Across the road was Mick Burke's builders' yard. (He died earlier this year at a venerable old age). Up the road was "The Tech", Brennans' printing works and the former Aldritts' garage.

All gone - and, this summer, St Mary's will itself be gone from Tower Hill. Next September it will reopen in a new secondary school at Borris Road, thus bringing to an end an 163-year sojourn just outside the old town wall of Maryborough.

The secondary or senior school can trace its history back to 1906. That's when the foundation stone was laid. The contractor was local man Mr W Carroll who had submitted a tender of 900. Parish priest Mgr Murphy inaugurated the building in January 1907. Secondary and primary students shared the same campus until 1963.

In that year, supervised by Br Sean Nolan, the primary school, later to be called St Paul's, moved to a new home at Borris Road. It is still there. As older readers may recall, Br Nolan was an influential and highly regarded figure in Portlaoise, where, from 1955, he taught for 15 years. He died in 2003.

Until the advent of free secondary education in 1968, enrolment in St Mary's was quite small and fees were charged. In fairness to the Christian Brothers, these were often waived in cases of hardship or to facilitate academically gifted boys.

A milestone in the school's history came in 1991 when Oliver Meagher was appointed as its first lay Principal. His successor is Tony Brady, a Dubliner, who took over in 2007. He heads 30 teachers and five ancillary staff. There are 406 students.

Other important chapters in the St Mary's story included the establishment of a Board of Management and Parents' Council and, in 1984, the purchase of a playing field adjacent to the school.

Still with us are two men who taught in the school for many decades, Chris Clerkin and Tom Bleech. Sadly, their colleague, the very popular Michael O'Brien, died a few years ago. He was an unapologetic proponent of the language of Horace and Virgil, to use his term, and the axing of Latin from the curriculum saddened him. Interestingly, St Mary's had a classical department as far back as 1898.

It was in 1847 that the Chistian Brothers came to Portlaoise (then Maryborough), just three years after the death of their founder, Edmund Rice. Over the years, St Mary's gained a high reputation, academically and on the Gaelic sportsfield. Controversy there was, too.

In the 1880s, the then Superior, Br Austin Maher, began a project to improve and enlarge the school. A bazaar held for this purpose raised 340. On to the scene came Mgr Andrew Phelan (PP Maryborough, 1884-1901). Apparently, he contended that the upkeep and staffing of the schools were too great a burden on the parish and he urged the CBS to link up with the National School system, thus availing of Government aid.

The Brothers, distrusting Government control, declined to make the move. Fr Phelan himself then established a national school in a garden across the road from the CBS. A wooden structure, it was called the "Tin School." As joint treasurer of the bazaar fund, he refused to sanction payments from it to the Christian Brothers.

A new Superior, Br Matthew O'Brien, was appointed in 1886 and he persuaded Fr Phelan to release the funds. The unfortunate episode eventually ended in 1898 when the "Tin School" was handed over to the Brothers.

Many St Mary's alumni achieved distinction, notably Colonel James Fitzmaurice who, in 1928 with two Germans, completed the first East-West flight across the Atlantic.

In 2000, Portlaoise Town Council (then Town Commission) accorded a civic reception to the Christian brothers to thank them for their contribution to the community and education.

Then TC Chairman Tom Jacob noted: "Many excellent students can attribute their success in life to the great start they got from the Christian Brothers."


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