Behind every good man - is a good teacher

It is a strange fact that men, or women, who were in later life to prove that they could hold their own, and in many cases surpass the best the world could offer, came from the rural parishes of Ireland. Stranger still that in many cases, more than one came from a single parish and that their ability to rise above others could be traced back to a certain individual, a school teacher, master or mistress, who, for a few short years, had been a big factor in their lives. This applied to many schools in many parishes throughout the country, where boys and girls, were willing, even eager, to fain all the information they could concerning subjects that they were to use in later life. It is also a fact that this was more to be seen in the mid 19th and early 20th century.

Today we talk about an area of county Carlow that produced a number of people who became well known worldwide. Again one man, a schoolmaster, John Conwill, was involved with two people whose exploits we extol in this article. The area was the Leighlinbridge/Ballinagranna area of Carlow, the man John Conwill.

Let us take a look and see who John Coneill was. He was a teacher in the school of Ballyknockin Pay School, Ballinabranna N.S. and Leighlinbridge N.S. Conwill was a man who literally learned with his pupils. He spoke to the senior classes as if they were on the same level. He could be stern when required but preferred to bring his pupils along rather than drive them. His fame as a teacher soon spread and pupils came from outside the area to learn from him. He was a man who endeavoured to keep his pupils interested, and, where possible, used practical demonstrations such as sending two of his boys at a time to measure intricate places and them comparing their efforts. He was an expert in Geometry and taught Land Surveying and Geometric Calculus to the higher classes.

He was born in 1802 and received his first education in his father's hedge school in Rathornn. He retired from teaching in Leighlinbridge N.S. in 1877 after spending 56 years as a teacher. He died on the 23rd of June 1880 at the age of 75 years and is buried in the family grave in Ballinabranna along with his wife Mary who died in 31st May, 1890 aged 80 years.

While the three men whose lives we will talk about today were from the same area, two of them, Myles W Keogh and John Tyndall were pupils of John Conwill. There were many more that deserve mention and whom we will discuss at a later date. At this stage it would be of interest to name some of the distinguished pupils who passed through his hands, among them were Professor John Tyndall (1820-1893), Myles Keogh (1840-1876) Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran (1830-1911) First Cardinal of Australia, Bishop Patrick Foley (1850-1926) Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Fr. John Foley (Bishop's brother) President of St. Patrick's College, Dr. Michael Maher S.J (1860-1918) Psychologist and Philosopher, Dr. William Delaney S.J. (1835-1920) twice President of University College, Dublin, Professor Robert Donovan, held the chair of English Literature in U.C.D. and was first Editor of the "Irish Catholic". There were others not so well known outside the county but who in their own way paid tribute to this excellent teacher.

Let us commence this short account of the lives of the men in question with the oldest, William Dargan. Dargan was born in 1799, the year following the insurrection of 1798 in which two of his uncles were executed in Leighlinbridge. William Dargan was to become known worldwide as a constructional engineer. One of his first real tasks at which he proved successful and showed his ability as a man with foresight as an engineer was as one of Telford's overseer’s in the London-Holyhead-Dublin railroad. He was the man who built Ireland's first railway from Dublin to Dun Laoghaire, then known as Kingstown. Among the other lines Dargan built was the Dublin-Cork and the Dublin-Galway lines. When we think of the amazing amount of work which he organised and had done in Ireland, north and south, it is true that he was really the "Builder of a Nation" doing as much and more in his own way as any politician ever did.

An out-and-out nationalist, he promoted Irish industry by building exhibition buildings. He also constructed many canals and waterways including the Ulster Canal and the Queens Island on which the Harland and Wolfe shipyard was later built. Dargan was involved in many other projects which helped the promotion of Irish industry in other ways, such as initiating the sugar beet growing long before it became an industry such as we know today. He also turned his attention to the value of attracting visitors to our shores and getting them to see the beauty of our countryside. Was he one of the first to have Wicklow called "The Garden of Ireland"? It was he who first introduced horticulture to that county and to the fertile lands of north Wexford. It is ironic that he refused honours bestowed on him by Queen Victoria in recognition of his services because he felt that it would be an insult to his nationalist beliefs, and that Queen Elizabeth named a bridge he designed, The Dargan Bridge, in Belfast just a few short years ago.

Dargan had a vision of what this country should and could be, long before others claimed that they had been the founders of the way we should travel as a nation. His thoughts were always for the betterment of the people. He tried to lessen the effects of the famine by having 100,000 men working on his improvements during the terrible time. It should be remembered that at this stage of our history the country was beset by hunger, illness and emigration, we were literally a dying race, yet Dargan saw hope and used his God given gifts to help the country and the people he loved.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist
02 December 2005