It is something of a coincidence that St Joseph’s Secondary School was opened by the Sisters of Mercy in Castlebar in 1918. For that too was the year, as current principal Marie MacCabe reminds us, that women were given the right (albeit restricted) to vote for the first time in Ireland.
All of that is by way of announcing that the centenary celebrations of the school have been arranged for next month, when 100 years of service to the town and its hinterland is due to be marked.
The school was originally opened at the old convent on Rock Square, but by 1924, such was the demand for secondary education, the sisters realised that more spacious surroundings were required. And it was then that the school’s first engagement with a legendary aristocratic family, whose exploits have gone on to fill acres of newspaper space, came to pass.
By the 1920s, the sisters had become owners of a substantial tract of land running from the present Cathal Duffy’s garage to beyond the Railway Station. They had acquired the property from the Beckett family, who lived in Spencer Park, but decided to dispose of it to fund their plans for a new St Joseph’s. The land was sold to James Bourke, and the proceeds were used to buy The Lawn and Castlebar House from Lord Lucan, for a sum of £2,900.
Castlebar House was extended and converted into the new St Joseph’s school, which then became both a day and boarding school, attracting students from all over the province. Although the school was gutted in a disastrous fire in 1935 (contemporary reports tell of hundreds of townspeople rushing to The Lawn in the small hours to try to save the building, while they awaited the arrival of Galway fire brigade), it was rebuilt to the original architecture and design at a cost of £10,000.
And while it is unlikely that any scion of the Lucan family will make an appearance next month at the centenary celebrations, there remains one tangible reminder of the school’s link with the once-ruling Castlebar family. In an ornate frame, and on permanent display on the wall outside the principal’s office, is the Lucan Scroll. This was the illuminated address of welcome presented by the people of the town to the Earl and Countess of Lucan on the occasion of her ladyship’s first – and, as it turned out, only – visit to the ancestral residence of Castlebar House.
Presented to them in 1889, the intricately decorated scroll went missing for well over a hundred years, only to turn up in recent times in the basement of St Joseph’s Secondary School.
As might be expected, the Address of Welcome, heavy on superlatives extolling the virtues of the Earl and his Lady, was signed by 45 of the town’s leading professional and business people. Official appointees to offices of the Crown took pride of place – Joseph Sheridan, County Court Registrar, who read the address; Crown Solicitor, Malachy Kelly; postmaster, John B Sheridan (father of Margaret Burke Sheridan); and the County Surgeon, Dr Midleton O’Malley-Knott.
But the signatories also included leading lights of the business sector of the town, among them one Laurence Gildea, a butcher from Rush Street. Mr Gildea, who lived to be 106, had the distinction of supplying the meat to Humbert’s French troops when they invaded Castlebar in 1798, one of the objectives being the dispossession of the Lucan family.
But whether that awkward situation came up for polite discussion following the address of welcome is, unfortunately, not recorded.