CB, CB, CBS Will we win? Yes! Yes! Yes!

That was the age old battle-cry that would burst from the hordes of exuberant male students who proudly followed and supported their hurling team from the Christian Brothers School at James's Street, Kilkenny City. And they had every right and good reason to do so because the CBS had produced a myriad of All-Ireland hurling stars since its inception as a place of learning for boys and blossoming young men of Kilkenny.

Even in my time, there were many fine athletes who later wore the black and amber jerseys with distinction, the two Galweys, John Doherty, David De Loughrey, Denis Heaslip, Jim (Fox) Maher, Sean Clohosey and Tom Dowling to name but a few. Tom would later go into the Guinness Book of Records for scoring all the scores for his own side (Kilkenny) in an All-Ireland final.

Like the song sings: “Those were the days my friend. We thought they’d never end”. And I’m proud to say we had great teachers. They had to be if they were going to have any success in educating us, it seems to me. We were reluctant partakes of knowledge. Not all of us of course, for some progressed to become captains of industry and commence. And others became great educators too. To my mind, teaching has to be the noblest profession of all. I find myself, every now and then, unconsciously reciting Oliver Goldsmith’s The Village Schoolmaster.

Beside yon struggling fence that skirts the way,
With blossomed furze unprofitable gay,
There, in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule,
The village master taught his little school
A man severe has was and stern to view
I knew him well, and every truant knew
Well had the boding trembles learned to trace
The days disasters in his morning face
Full well they laughed, with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Conveyed the dismal tidings when he frowned
Yet he was kind, or if severe in aught
The love he bore to learning was in fault.

There you have it: “The love he bore to learning was in fault.” And this brings me to the essence of what Edmund Ignatius Rice was all about. He was first and foremost a teacher, a teacher especially of the poor and deprived youngsters who had little chance of getting even the crudest kind of education although the dreaded Penal Laws were at that time relaxed. Yet there were few if any schools at a primary level for Catholics.

This great man of God was born on June 1, 1762 on a farm of 150 acres in Callan. It was rented property for which his father paid two sovereigns per acre per annum. When Edmund grew to school-going age, he was forced to attend a hedge school which was held on a daily basis in the old moat in Callan. The fee was four pence per week with an extra half penny for dancing lessons.

These hedge schools were set up because of the ban on Catholic education by the British authorities. And believe it or not, Edmund attended this school until he was fifteen years old. After that, to continued with his studies he had to go to Kilkenny City to a boarding school known as Burrell Hall.
I do know that this old edifice of learning was close to St Mary’s Cathedral. And I remember an article by the late Dr Birch, Bishop of Ossary about Burrell’s Hall. I have this article somewhere but my filing leaves a lot to be desired. In any case if memory serves me right, Burrell Hall was in Capel Lane where the Presentation Convent stood later and where the Market Cross shopping centre stands now.

Edmund Rice was further educated directly opposite to where the Christian Brothers School was later be erected in his name. On reaching the age of seventeen years, he was sent to Waterford to his uncle Michael Rice who was a wealthy businessman with offices at Barron-Strand Street. Michael owned a meat factory and exported mostly to England but also to Newfoundland, and he imported fish from the latter land. Edmund was a fast learner and was soon given a free hand to run the large enterprise. he was now a highly respected member of the city’s business community. He was only twenty-three when he married. But his young wife died only weeks after giving birth to their daughter.

All along, Edmund Rice has been a most decent and dignified person, who had spent his time and money helping the poor, the sick and afflicted. He regularly visited those who were gaoled because of debts they could not pay. Very often he paid their debts and set them free. As he saw it, it was the poor children who suffered mostly because of their parents ill fortune or bad disposition. The lack of good schools prevented the children from achieving their full potential. Something would have to be done about this, Edmund reasoned with himself.

About the year 1778, a “Buy Irish” campaign got underway in Waterford and a resolution was passed by the Corporation which said “That we will not deal with any merchant or shopkeeper who shall, at any time hereafter, be detected in imposing any foreign manufacture as the manufacture of this country”.

About a year later in 1796, Edmund Rice set up an organisation to help adults who needed food and money. It was known as the Distressed Room Keepers Society. But their children would have to be educated if they were ever to break this wheel of everlasting hardship. And so in 1800, with the help of Bishop John Lanigan of Ossory and Bishop Thomas Hussey of Waterford, Edmund Rice was teaching poor boys in a business premises in Waterford City.

Two years later he rented a stable in New Street and converted it into a schoolhouse. Almost 100 young boys were enrolled on the first day. But it was tough work, so tough that the two men whom he employed to help him failed to turn up on the second week. He gave the boys a day off and went by coach to Callan that very day. He knew two staunch Callan men who would help him. Thomas Grosvenor and Patrick Finn were the soundest men in Callan town. Together, the three of them gave the poor boys of Waterford a first call education.

In 1803, Edmund Rice sold out his business and devoted himself entirely to teaching and good works. One year later on May 1, 1804 he opened a new school at Mount Sion. This was the first of thousands of Christian Brothers schools that would be built all over the world. In 1808, Edmund and his teaching friends decided they would take religious vows and wear habits. In doing so they all took a new name. Edmund chose Ignatius. He was now the leader of a dedicated order of men who would change the entire system of education in Ireland and far beyond.

In 1811, Cork City was the first recipient of the school of the new Order and Dublin was next.In 1820, Pope Pius VII sanctioned the establishment of the Order under the name of Religious Brothers of Christian Schools (Ireland). Two years later in 1822, Edmund Ignatius Rice was unanimously elected as the first Superior General of the Order.

One very famous man who was helped by Edmund Rice when a boy, was Joachim Carlo Guiseppe Bianconi. This man would later give Ireland its first complete transport system The Bianconi Coaches. He was born near Lake Como in Northern Italy. When he arrived in Waterford he had very little money and a poor grasp of the English language.

Later he told his story: “When I arrived in Waterford I was a poor, penniless, desolate Italian boy. But I found Mr Rice a generous and sympathetic friend. He was tall, vigorous, somewhat austere looking man; grace, practical, businesslike and eminently respectable, though decidedly plain in appearance and homely in manner”. Bianconi settled in Clonmel. There the people called him Brian Cooney, they were unable to pronounce Bianconi.

The British Government passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. There were clauses in it which seemed to threaten the religious orders. The Protestant clergy of Carrick-on-Suir were so worried about what might happen to the Christian Brother Schools that they set up a petition which was led by their Rector Standish O’Grady (father of our own Standish, the eminent writer). In any event, the petition pleaded with the government not to interfere with the Christian Brothers’ Schools. People of all beliefs agreed that the Brothers were doing trojan work in educating the poor of the country.

In 1838, Edmund Ignatius Rice gave up the position of Superior General. He was than an old man and the work and very demanding. He retired to Mount Sion. He died on August 29, 1844. The cause of his beatification was opened in 1663 and he was beatified in Rome on October 6, 1996.

Courtesy of the Kilkenny People
By Sean Kenny