The crowds who lined the streets of Castlebar for the St Patrick’s Day parade extended, as always, a sustained appreciation for the St Angela’s school band. The award winning band has for long been an integral part of the Castlebar celebrations. But not all might have realised that this year’s appearance would be the last time the St Angela’s school band will ever perform on the streets of the county town.
Come next September, St Angela’s NS will cease to exist. After a century-and-a-half of serving the educational needs of the town, the school will be no more. Later this year, St Angela’s will amalgamate with St Patrick’s boys’ national school to create a new entity, the co-ed Castlebar Primary School, and a chapter of local history will have come to an end.
It was on St Angela’s Day in 1853 that the first small group of Sisters of Mercy arrived from Galway at the invitation, eight years earlier, of the Parish Priest, Fr Gibbons. In the meantime, the ravages of the Famine, and the implacable opposition of George Bingham, Third Earl of Lucan, had placed significant obstacles in any plans to establish a Mercy community in Castlebar.
Fr Gibbons had called a public meeting in the town in 1845 at which there was overwhelming support to a proposal to acquire a site to build a convent for the intended arrival of the Sisters. The third Earl was approached for a site, but refused on the grounds that the Relief Act, which had given a modicum of religious freedom, had precluded the establishment of any monastic institution, adding that it was a stipulation with which he was in total agreement.
When a barrister on Fr Gibbon’s committee pointed out that, on the contrary, the law had specifically provided for the setting up of convents, Lucan admitted to having misread the law, but nonetheless repeated his insistence that he would not allow a convent in Castlebar.
The earl’s stance was hardly surprising, given his deep-seated hostility to Catholicism and to his poverty-stricken tenantry. He it was who declared that he had no intention ‘to breed paupers to pay priests’, while his wholesale clearing of thousands of acres of tenanted land had earned him the title ‘the Great Exterminator’.
But the tables were to be turned on him before another decade was out. Four wealthy Castlebar benefactors, with the help of solicitor, Edmund MacHale, managed to purchase Rock House, in Rock Square, known locally as Lord Lucan’s bank, in 1852.
Thus was the way paved for the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy a few months later. A small school was opened to the rear of Rock House but, over time, such was the demand for education, a new school was required. In 1897, an imposing three storey St Angela’s school was formally opened by the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr McEvilly.
Meanwhile, Lord Lucan had left Castlebar to resume his military career, which would come to an ignominious stop at Balaclava, in the Crimean war, when a shared incompetence on the part of the commanding officers led to the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. Lucan was recalled to London, but eventually succeeded in restoring his reputation, and was promoted to Field Marshal.
The final twist in the Lucan school saga was to come in 1961 when a new St Angela’s was opened on the grounds of the Lawn, which the Sisters of Mercy had acquired from their old enemy’s grandson, the Firth Earl, in 1924.