St. Brendan's Community School

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Historical Background to St. Brendan’s Community School

St. Brendan’s Community School Celebrates 40 Years

1980 – 2020

In January 2020 St. Brendan’s Community School will reach its 40th birthday. A significant mile-stone in any school’s life but St. Brendan’s origins stretch back 178 years, to Ven. Catherine McAuley’s foundation of her Birr school, in January 1841.

The school established by Mother McAuley (today Mercy P.S.) flourished under the guidance of her Mercy Sisters. Responding to a need for second level education for girls in the 1920s, they developed a Secondary Top School, in St. John’s Convent. This school progressed to full secondary school status in 1963. Known as St. John’s Secondary School, it moved into the building vacated by the closure of the Industrial School (adjacent to the playground, on Wilmer Road).

Recognising the need for education for boys in Birr, the Parish Priest Fr. John Egan approached the Christian Brothers in the 1860’s. They were stretched to the limits and unable to accede to his request. His successor Dean Michael Bugler was persuaded by his Curate Fr. Brennan to invite the Presentation Brothers, in the late 1870s. The parish built a school on Moorpark St. and purchased a house for a monastery for the Presentation Brothers. They arrived at Birr Railway Station, on 29th September 1878. The school (now St. Brendan's P.S.) opened on 2nd October 1878. In the 1920s like the Mercy Sisters they opened a Secondary Top School, in Moorpark. The famous ‘Tin Shed’ was part of its infrastructure. In 1952 the Brothers purchased Brendan House, the former home of Dr. Morton, on Oxmantown Mall and Presentation College came into existence.

As early as 1833 the 2nd Earl of Rosse opened a Mechanics’ institute in John’s Hall. Then in 1909 the 5th Earl of Rosse and his father’s astronomer Dr. Otto Boedecker were instrumental in establishing a Technical School in Green St. In 1930 the Vocational Education Act was passed by the Oireachtas. The new Offaly Vocational Education Committee decided to move from the outdated facilities in Green St., to a new purpose-built Vocational School, on Railway Road. Students moved there in early 1937. Today this building has transformed into Birr OEC.

Following the advent of free secondary education in 1967, numbers of students attending all second level schools in Birr grew at an unprecedented rate. The existing buildings could not cope, and prefabs were erected in the grounds of all three schools. A debate ensued in the 1970s discussing the viability of extending each school separately or building a single school, with all facilities under one roof. Following much discussion, the vested interests decided to opt for the new community school model. Birr U.D.C. provided a site at Cappaneale and Taoiseach Liam T. Cosgrave turned the sod to commence the building project in 1977. Peter and Mary Doyle’s architectural design was chosen for the school and local firm of Michael Loughnane & Sons, were appointed main building contractors for the project.

In December 1979 Bro. Denis, Principal of the Presentation College was appointed first principal of the newly amalgamated school. That same month Presentation Brothers’ College, St. John’s Secondary School and Birr Vocational School closed for Christmas holidays. Remarkably in January 1980 the new Birr Community School opened it’s doors, with the students and staffs of all three schools uniting as one unit. Current Principal Mrs Ming Loughnane is the last member of staff from the old schools, staff member Mr Brian Kennedy was a 1st Year student on the day. Ms. Fidelma Donnelly and Ms Anne O’ Keeffe SNAs were also students at the beginning. Mr Christy Sullivan, Caretaker is a constant presence since day one.

When the school commenced it had no playing pitches or sports’ hall. Games were played in Early’s field to the north of the school and two former railway goods carriages were used as changing rooms. The current sports’ hall was in construction at the time and the pitches were developed after a large fundraising drive during the first few years.

At the time a rather unpleasant fact was the presence of open sewage pits at the bottom of the lower field, thankfully long consigned to history.

As part of a policy of supporting local industry the school was originally heated by briquettes manufactured in the near-by Bord na Móna, Derrinlough, Briquette Factory. During the winter months the furnaces consumed up to 13 tons of turf per week. The furnaces were lit on Sunday evening and it took until mid-week for the building to reach full heat. This was later replaced by an oil-fired system.

The school was officially opened in early 1982 by Minister for Education John Boland. On that occasion the late Bishop Michael A. Harty announced that the new school would be called St. Brendan's Community School. Up to that point it was just Birr Community School. The first school musical ‘Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ was staged in the Canteen to celebrate the official opening. In 1990 the annual musical moved to the Sports Hall to celebrate the schools’ 10th anniversary. The musical has developed a great reputation and is part of the rite of passage of students through St. Brendan’s.

From its opening to the late 1990’s St. Brendan’s had a very popular post Leaving Certificate Secretarial Class, in D5. This class trained many of the town’s current clerical officials, at a time when typewriters were still the main office machine. The school was a pilot in the introduction of Senior Certificate. This in turn was replaced by the Leaving Cert Applied Programme. In the 1990s St. Brendan's introduced Transition Year as an option. Over the years this has developed into a very popular course, with most students opting to take the extra year.

In the early 1980s the school was given one Apple computer by the government. Today's students would think it fantasy to hear of up to 30 students going to U6, to see Mr Brian Hensey operating this wonder of modern technology. The students watched as the bright green writing scrolled across the black background. Then in 1983 a batch of Commodore 64 computers with original shared floppy disk drive were installed in the Library, where the Guidance offices are now located. In the early years E7 and E8 were normal academic classes until the computer labs were created. In fact, the first computer lab was in F1 and this was the location of the first internet connection. In a world of high-speed broadband students of 2019/2020 would not believe how slow this connection was. One of its highlights was to access a camera with a live view of O’Connell Bridge, Dublin.

The original floor plan has stood the test of time with additions of 4 class rooms, including a new Music Room in the F Block, two new Science Labs and an Assembly Hall in the B Block and three new class rooms and computer lab comprising the new G Block. E block has been extended to include a reading room, a classrroom and two new offices. The most recent acquisition is the computer lab in A9 and the DreamSpace, in the A Block. In 1998 a new Oratory was built adjacent to the main entrance. It was extended when St. Mary’s was added. In 2018 the school was awarded the prestigious Getty Architectural Prize and deemed worthy of preservation as a classic example of a 1970’s building.

Over 40 years three principals have taken the helm of St. Brendan’s Bro. Denis (1980-1997), Mr. Tom Foley (Deputy-principal 1986-1997) (Principal 1997- 2011), Mrs. Ming Loughnane (Deputy Principal 1997-2011), (Principal 2012 to date). The first vice-principal was Mr Des O’Brien (1980-1986). Mr. Brian Hensey was Deputy Principal 2012-2018. Today Mrs. M. Loughnane leads the management team assisted by Deputy Principals Ms. Fidelma Foy, Mr. Paul D’Arcy and Mr. John Kennedy. The trustees of St. Brendan’s reflect the history of education in Birr, they are the Presentation Brothers and Laois-Offaly ETB. The Mercy Sisters were trustees up to 2018.

The school’s crest best expresses its views on a holistic educational experience. The hurl and soccer ball representing sport, the masks drama, arts and music, the praying hands spirituality and the book academic studies. As its Mission Statement declares it is ‘A caring community of learning where each student is valued as a unique human being’.

For four decades St. Brendan's has educated thousands of students from South Offaly and North Tipperary. The 40 classes that passed through the school are in every imaginable trade, profession and way of life. They are spread across the world creating St. Brendan’s very own diaspora. The school is proud of its past but looks ahead with confidence to what the next 40 years will bring.

Cappaneale, Birr, Co. Offaly
057 912 0510
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