Story of Mercy sisters in Castletown recalled

On the occasion of the centenary of the coming of the Sisters of Mercy to Castletownbere in 1964, a local paper carried the following comment: 'By their devotion to the corporal works of Mercy, their care and attention to the sick, the poor and the training of the children of the town under their care in their schools, they have endeared the Order to young and old'.

It was a fair comment and a fitting tribute to the Sisters, especially to the pioneer group who arrived in Castletownbere in September 1864, making it their home and the centre of their charitable activities. Now forty-two years on, we reach a milestone in the passage of time and witness many changes, changes that the Sisters themselves could never have envisaged or imagined. We now live in a prosperous town where there is little, if any, real poverty, among the people, who are highly educated and technically advanced.

We live in a time of great opportunity and great liberation. In order to understand why the Sisters of Mercy were founded, as indeed many of the religious congregation, we need to familiarise ourselves with the state of affairs in Ireland around the early nineteenth century.

Ours was a broken and divided land, the Ireland of the Big House culture where the minority, mainly English settlers and absentee gentry enjoyed the fruits of the land and the labours of the poor people. Unemployment, poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy were their lot, drunkenness and vice were widespread among them. Educational facilities were inadequate and proscription of Catholicism had effectively excluded the Catholic Irish from the professions and from political power in their own country.

Into this Ireland Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sister of Mercy, was born in 1778, the eldest of a family of three. She lived in Stormanstown House, north Dublin. The only concession towards Catholics in her father's day was that which allowed them to engage in trade and non-professional activities, so he became a carpenter, builder, real estate dealer and gradually moved towards prosperity as a self-made man.

It was he who taught her the important things in life - prayer, the truths of Christ and integrity of character - but from her mother she inherited an amalgam of refinement and culture which led her to observe later that 'a perfect religious is a perfect lady'. However, the family was soon to meet with tragedy in the sudden death of her father. Afterwards her mother mismanaged the family finances and exposed her children to anti-catholic influences which claimed allegiance of all except Catherine.
After her mother's death in 1798, Catherine was adopted by a Protestant couple, the Callaghans. She went to live with them in Coolock and, because of her constant witness to Gospel values, she had the joy of leading both her adoptive parents to conversion.

In 1831, two years after Daniel O'Connell had broken the chains by the Emancipation Act, Catherine founded her Order and came with her seal of Mercy to relieve human misery in all its forms and work for the physical, social and moral regeneration of the people. The rule and constitutions of her Congregation were approved by his Holiness Pope Gregory XVI in 1835. The tree of Mercy was planted in December 1831 in Baggot Street, quickly spread its branches throughout Ireland. In September 1864, a branch reached out to isolated Castletownbere and under the authority of Most Rev. David Moriarty, Bishop of Kerry, Mother M. de Salles Bridgeman and Sister M. Xavier Kenyon left Holy Cross Convent, Killarney, and arrived safely in Castletownbere, covering the journey in a 'covered car'.
On arrival in the town they stayed at a Miss Greenway's house until a house was ready for them. (Some research shows that there was a family named Greenway living in Greenway Lane", at the West end of the town. It is now "Tallon Road".)

Some time later, a Mrs. Geran, who is described as a member of the Broderick family, donated a house to the Sisters which was fitted out as a convent. This house is the house adjoining Fr Sean O'Shea's at the rear of the Garda Station. The Sisters took possession of it on September 8, when Holy Mass was celebrated there for the first time by Rev. Fr Michael Enright. On September 20, these sisters were joined by four more sisters from the Holy Cross Convent, Killarney. They were: Sr. M Assisi Taylor, Sr. M. Frances Kavanagh, Sr. M Gertrude O'Connell and Sr. Martha.

This little band was the nucleus of the Sisters of Mercy here in Castletownbere. They were the pioneers of the works of the Order of Mercy among the poor people who seemed to have lost all hope. For a historical record tells us that there was in fact no actual difference between Berehaven during the famine and Berehaven then. Poverty and distress and dire want were visible in everypart of the locality - "vast tracts of land untilled and undrained; very bad public roads; dirty streets without flag-way or foot-path for the greater part; a fine harbour with out even a fishing-boat; not one landlord that owns an acre resides in the locality".

The branch planted in Castletownbere in September 1864 grew and blossomed over the years into the stately tree now over looking Bantry Bay. Mrs. Geran's house, which became the Sisters' first Convent, was situated at the top of the town, quite close to the sea in the vicinity of where now stands the Garda Siochana Barracks. Mr Thomas Leahy of Cork, a large land-owner and landlord in Berehaven gave Fr Enright £300 towards the erection of this Convent.

(This is the same Leahy who carried out the evictions of his tenants in Kilmacowen in 1907.) The Castletown people contributed £219 and a friend gave £50. The Sisters remained in the building for ten years. Then they decided to leave the West End. Why? "For the proximity of the old house to the sea, though pleasant in summer, was rather inconvenient in winter, as the tide occasionally made its way into the lower apartments."

In 1872, Mother de Sales, who was the local Superior, set about the building of a new convent near the parish church. The site was given by the Earl of Bantry and work commenced on August 28, 1872, Mr. Thomas Leahy came to the Sisters' Aid again with a donation of £1,000. Voluntary subscriptions amounted to £450. Dr. Moriarty contributed £100 and the proceeds of a bazaar brought in £150. On April 4, 1874, the Sisters took possession of the new building.

They were £400 in debt to the builder, Mr. Murphy, Bantry (who was a native of Castletownbere and father of William Martin Murphy, MP), but once more Mr Thomas Leahy came to the rescue and sent £500 to Dr. Moriarty. The extra £100 was for the chapel, which was to be built later.
As the community increased the Convent had to be enlarged. In 1883 plans were drawn up by Mr Galvin from Valentia for a new wing. But the contract was not accepted until 1889. £600 in funding was raised by means of a bazaar and a grand drawing of prizes. On the 26th of April 1890, which was the Feast of Our Lady of Good Counsel, the new wing was blessed and Mass was said for the first time in the new Chapel in July 2nd, 1890.

On the Feast of the Guardian Angels less than a month after their arrival on Castletownbere the Sisters took charge of the existing school, run by the two secular teachers in one of the two houses on the Convent ground. One of these teachers resigned immediately and the other continued for sometime to help the sisters. They got the other house fitted up for senior classes and by November the schools were connected with the National Board of Education and were working satisfactorily.
These schools, though fitted up at considerable expense, were only makeshift and were unsuited to the purposes of education; they were built on soil won from the sea over which high tides continued to ebb and flow and they afforded such scanty accommodation as to imperil the health of the children. So after the Sisters transferred to the new Convent, Mother de Sales, urged by Dr Moriarty, set about the erection of new schools.

The foundation was laid a little South East of the Convent on 31st May 1877 and the schools were opened on 30th January 1878. They consisted of two long rooms divided by a glass partition - a class room and Children of Mary's Room. They were known as St Mary's and St Joseph's. They cost £793 plus. Though Priests and people gave generous contributions the Community was £400 in debt. Appeals for aid, approved by the Bishop, were published in four papers The Cork Examiner, The Kerry Sentinel, The Freeman's Journal, and The Nation. Letters of appeal were sent in various directions.
Here is an extract from The Kerry Sentinel, November 4th 1879:

"The appeal which we publish in our columns today from the Sisters of Mercy, Castletown Bere, is one which we would strongly urge upon the attention of the charitable. For the erection of the Convent and schools, the good people of Castletown Bere willingly taxed themselves at an extent commensurate with their means, and were it not for the distress which prevails there both now and for some time past, we have no doubt but the parishioners of Castletown Bere would still make a further effort towards completion of their good works.

We can speak from personal observation of the excellence of the instruction imparted in the schools at Castletown, and we unhesitatingly state that no where have we seen imparted an education more thorough and practical, or more calculated to exercise a good and beneficial influence on the future lives of those instructed. We therefore strongly urge upon you the attention of our readers the modest appeal of the Castletown Nuns."

In October 1889 after many almost insurmountable obstacles the building of St Joseph’s School was commenced in a field close to the back of the Convent. The school was opened on 8th September 1890. In order to facilitate the Sisters to go alone from the Convent to the School the tunnel was built (Cost £27) thus connecting the Convent and the school and keeping the enclosure unbroken. The school cost £1200 and there remained a debt of £300. The principal merchants of Castletownbere and others held a meeting for the purpose of raising funds to help Rev. Mother Assisi to pay this debt. When Miss Julia McCarthy resigned her position as teacher of the smaller boys, Rev Canon McDonnel, P.P gave the boys (44 on rolls) to the care of the Sisters and St Patrick's School was opened for them on 4th July 1904.

After a short time, the school was recognised by the National Board of Education. Many boys who are now priests received their early education here.

In the early 1920s the staff of St Joseph’s' School depleted, but in 1925 Mother M Rosaire Corcoran went to the training college of Our Lady of Mercy, Carysfort Park, Blackrock, Co. Dublin to be trained as a National Teacher. She was the first religious to be admitted to the College, so she literally made history: she opened the doors of the College to members of all the religious Congregations in our Country. Two years later Mother M. Thaddeus Lyne was sent to be trained too, so the school was then fully staffed.

In 1932 Mother M. Therese Corcoran, (Mother Rosary's sister) a valiant woman of great vision and an outstanding educationist, began the Secondary Top in St Josephs' School and since then, all through the years, the people of Beara had no more worries about educating their children.
The school ranked among the best in Ireland and the pupils were always outstandingly successful, obtaining first place several times in competitive exams. From it, numbers have passed to positions in the Civil Service and to the Preparatory Colleges which led on to training for the teaching profession.
About 1946 the Sisters began to collect funds for a new school because St Joseph's was now in bad repair. The collection amounted to a little over £300 which they lodged in the bank. In 1954 appeals were sent out to all past pupils and to all Berehaven friends in the USA. The Beara Clubs, both in New York and Boston took up the cause and collected about £6000. Appeals sent to past pupils, raffles and donations brought in about £800.

This money was invested in 1956 until the country could afford to give a grant for the new school. There was no local contribution whatever. In the Spring of 1961 the Beara Clubs in USA sent another donation of £271 and in April of that year the O'Brien Brothers, Kenmare, commenced preparing the site for the new school. As the old site had to be extended the Sisters bought a field from Mr. Arthur Hanley and in addition to this they sacrificed a big portion of their own field. June 15th 1963, the Community gave dinner to all workmen and on July 1st the new school - Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal - was opened.

St Patrick's School was now empty as all the Junior School (boys and girls) moved up to Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal. As there was no secondary education available in Castletown at that time for boys, Most Rev. Dr. Moynihan asked Rev. Mother Rosari to consider renovating St Patrick's School and its environment in view of making it suitable as a secondary school for boys. In accordance with the Bishop's wishes the construction of Mean Scoil Naomh Iosaf was started in the Summer of 1963. Mr. D. Kennedy, Tralee was Architect and the O'Brien Bros. accepted the contract at a cost of £8,842 plus extras for roof repairs etc There was no financial help from any source, no State grant, no local collection or contribution; the Community had to bear the burden of all the expense together with all the inconvenience the expansion entailed, because rooms had to be taken from the Convent to provide sufficient space for all the pupils who sought admission to the school.

Mein Scoil Naomh Iosaf the first co-educational School in Ireland, opened in 1964 with 100 girls and 30 boys on the roll. (Some ten years previously we did have co-education, but there was only one boy on rolls! Brendan Hanley of Eyeries came to Mother Therese in desperation because he was unable to get a place in a boarding school that year.

She got permission both from the Bishop and from the Department of Education to accept him in our school and he was the only boy in Inter Cert class that year. He was later Father Brendan Hanley, MSC. The Secondary Top for girls which functioned in St. Joseph's since 1932, was transferred to the renovated building and classes were recognised by the Secondary Department of Education. Renovation and expansion had to continue to meet the needs of the increasing numbers. The immense blocks of hard rock yielded to machinery and gave way to two fine playgrounds as well as to shelters for bicycles. By September 1968 there were 220 pupils on rolls.

The care of orphan children being one of the works of the Order of Mercy, as soon as the Sisters came to Castletownbere they fitted up part of one of the houses on the Convent ground as a small orphanage. The Annals say that an amount of good was effected in this small building.

But the work was abandoned in 1874 when the sisters moved to the new Convent. Orphans were numerous in Beara because of the occurrence of fever and other contagious diseases arising from the poverty of the people and also because of the many fathers who lost their lives fishing. For all these children there was no provision now but the Workhouse where they grew up without any domestic or industrial training.

After much prayer and consideration, the sisters decided to establish an orphanage in connection with their Convent. Rev. Mother Assisi discussed the project with Father Dan Harrington, a native of Castletownbere, and President of St. Michael's College, Listowel at the time. He encouraged the undertaking and promised to go to the USA to collect funds if the Bishop approved.

Most Rev. Dr. Andrew Higgins fully approved of the enterprise and gave Father Harrington a letter of recommendation. A collection was made in Castletownbere on 24th September 1883 by the two curate, Father Pierce and Garvey and a concert was held too.

The people gave according to their means. The priests of the diocese generously and promptly responded to the appeal and the Bishop gave £20.

Father Dan Harrington sailed for the USA on February 3rd, 1884 and after a terrible voyage of 14 days landed safely in New York. For over a years, he travelled about questing for funds; the sacrifices he made and the difficulties he encountered and the hardships he endured in this cause are known only to God.

Several times he wrote to the sister keeping them au fait with his success. One letter tells how all the Berehaven people received him with open arms. He collected money in New York, in Boston and made "a fruitless journey" as far as Lake Superior. On one occasion he sent a cheque for £300 "most of which was received from natives of Donegal, Derry and Tyrone." In all he collected £1,000.
In March, 1886, the community bought Denis Neill's field as a site for the orphanage. They gave another field in exchange for it plus £155. By 1891 the building was completed and the next step was to apply for the existing grant, allocated by an act of parliament to industrial schools for the maintenance and clothing of orphans.

The Lord Lieutenant and his suite visited Castletown Bere on May 8th just when the orphanage was finished. Mother Assisi invited him to see it and asked him for the Government grant. He promised to do his best, but was not at all sanguine that the Treasury would vote the grant as £100,000 was already being spent on Industrial Schools in Ireland.

Petitions were addressed to the Lord Lieutenant on various occasions afterwards, but all to no avail; the grant was never given, and so the orphanage never sanctioned as such. In 1904 the building became St. Patrick's School and in 1963 it was completely remodelled and became Mean Scoil Naomh Iosaf.

Mercy is all embracing and can never do enough. Many waters cannot quench it, no floods can sweep it away. During their early years in Beara the Sisters hastened to meet the various needs all around them. Repeatedly we read in the Annals that they gave breakfast to the poor children attending school.
They also collected clothes for them even from the USA. Sister M. Francis Clare (Kenmare Convent) sent regular donations of £50 for the poor. On one occasion, February 1880, some of this money was given to Canon Carmody to provide Spillers (fishinglines) for the fisherman of Bere Island and Deeshert, seed potatoes and meal were bought to others.

December 26th 1895, the Sisters were requested by the Board of Guardians to take charge of the Workhouse. They were only too glad to accept as they longed to help the sick and dying. Mother M. Xavier O'Connell; and Mother Margaret Mary Griffin were the first Sisters appointed for this work. A plan was drawn up for the convent and changes in the wards. Work started in March 1896. In the meantime four sisters set out to visit the hospitals in Killarney, Tralee and Listowel in order to acquire a knowledge of hospital duties. When they returned in June the Convent was almost completed; they took possession of it July 1st and called it St. Joseph's.

A lace class granted by the Congested District Board, was opened in Castletownbere on 10th March, 1906. Miss Mary Roche was the first teacher. At a later date this industry was taken over by the sisters. The industry flourished' employment and training in machine knitting and in the making of Limerick Lace were given to many girls in Beara. The Lace Class was discontinued in the late 1940's.
In the days when the sisters resided up town the first "invasion" of the tide in to the lower apartments was a memorable one! It was the 29th January, Rev. Mother de Dales' Feast Day.

Early in the morning one of the Sisters proceeded to the kitchen and as panic-stricken to find the dainties prepared for the feast floating on the waves. She thought she could save them, but she emerged minus a shoe!

Imagine Pope Leo XIII was acquainted of a bazaar held in Castletownbere in 1888 in aid of St Joseph's School! He sent an exquisite Cameo as one of the prizes. Small wonder that it headed the long list of 69 prizes!

Even the Royalty visited Castletownbere! On July 31st, 1903 the town had one glorious hour when King Edward VII and his Queen Alexandria passed through the streets. The children of the parish too had one great feast with the £12 given them to commemorate the Royal Visit.

Because of the convent being founded from Killarney, it remained affiliated with it under a local Superior until 1878. That year Most Rev. Dr. McCarthy decided that it should become an independent house and on October 4th, he appointed Sister Mary Assisi Taylor first Mother Superior of the Convent.

Since then all through the years the Convent kept its autonomy and flourished under the authority of a long line of dedicated and competent Superiors. On April 28, 1973 the two hundred Mercy Sisters in the diocese were amalgamated and the Castletownbere Superior, Mother M Philomena Harrington, was elected the first Mother General of the group: Once again the convent had a local superior, as in the early days superiors came to Castletownbere from Killarney and Tralee.

The first schools the Sisters had in Castletown were situated in the West End until 1878, when they were transferred to new building near the convent. When the new Community School was built in Cametringane some of the sisters were teaching up town again.

As a result of all her labours and exertions, Mother M de Sales, the foundress of the Convent, returned in very delicate health to Killarney in July 1878 and she died there seven years later. It is significant that almost a century later another great "builder" of the local community - Mother M Therese Corvoran, the last one to join the glorious galaxy of those gone before them - that she, too wore herself out in the service of her children and of the people of Beara.

For during the last eight years of her life she paid the price for her unselfish giving and total commitment to the Lord. Yes, History does repeat!

In its hey-day, the convent owned a farm which extended along the old river road at Toormore and also had a large herd of milking cows. They made their own butter and kept a large garden, as well as a good orchard, which we well remember for its fine apples.

Over the past number of years, painful decisions have had to be taken. In 1971 the Sisters of Mercy in the Kerry Diocese amalgamated and in 1994 those of the whole country. With a view to the future and in line with modern thinking, the nuns left their big Convent in December 1989 and moved to smaller groups into smaller residences which were built near St Joseph's Hospital.

The old convent building is now a hostel. The twenty-first century Ireland, though having its own special needs, has outgrown the needs of the nineteenth century, and one can say that Catherine McAuley's vision for society then, had come to fruition in our time, in that we enjoy many privileges among which are free education, free health care for those in need, a social service which caters for the poorer section, and we live in a time when the old and infirm are well catered for.

It was not from chance or mere accident or just for the sake of a name that the Castletownbere Convent was called "Divine Providence". These two words enshrine for the nuns a wealth and a heritage over the years and treasured beyond all the gold in the world.

For them, Divine Providence was their Heavenly Father, watching over them, taking care of them and providing for them and doing everything a good father does for his children. For the history of their convent to the story of God's fatherly care, visible and tangible at all times down the years.
So often the tender "branch" swayed and rocked beneath the force of violent storms of problems and pressures of financial difficulties and anxieties, of sickness and death, but it never broke.

The winds of death started as early as 1870 and on three occasions swept away the young - Sister Bridget Murphy in 1870 was still a novice; Sister M. Fincarr Murphy in 1916 had been just eight years a nun; Sister M. Patricia Kelly in 1940 was only thirty-six years.

At its peak the convent had some twenty-four sisters, now sadly the numbers are down to five plus two sisters in hospital in Tralee. When we visited the little cemetery at the rear of the old Convent, we counted forty-four graves.

Writing some years ago, one of the sisters said the following: "Dear Sisters - our Community in Heaven, as we lovingly call you, we dedicate these pages to you and to the memory of your great deeds which we have endeavoured to recount. We will remember you forever with unbreakable affection, with admiration, with gratitude and with nostalgia.

"No one among us now in Divine Providence knows you all, but all of us know many of you. We have lived with you and walked with you and talked with you and laboured with you. We sat at your bedside and we nursed you and we have accompanied you to your resting place.

"We miss you- life is not the same without you. But we continue to show our trust and gratitude to our Heavenly Father by accepting a new manifestation of His love in this change. We carry on your work as best we can. We strive to be totally committed and dedicated to Christ like you.

"Despite any trappings of riches acquired by us in recent years we want to be pure of heart and poor in fact just like you - you really had nothing. Life to you was Christ and now death had brought you something more, for what you desired, you now see, and you will sing forever of the Lord's love.
"We are still 'racing for the finish' and we look forward to rejoining you on the great Eternal Shore. I bParrthas na nGrast go rabhaimid."

Courtesy of the Southern Star