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
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
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
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
"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
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
In October 1889 after many almost insurmountable obstacles
the building of St Josephs 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 Josephs' 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
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
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
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
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
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