Castleknock College Union

St. Vincent's College: Usher's Quay

1935 Centenary Record

May 1, 1935
St. Vincent's College: Usher's Quay -


THE CENTENARY HISTORY of the College would be incomplete without an account of the School on Usher's Quay, as far as information on the subject can be ascertained. It is, perhaps, unnecessary here to go into the state of Catholic educational facilities at the time (1833) as regards secondary schools, except to draw attention to the fact that it was but four years since Emancipation was passed, and Catholic schools in Dublin were few. It was felt especially that the opportunities for preparation for entrance to Maynooth College were very restricted. Some attempts had already been made to provide schools preparatory to Maynooth in the diocese of Dublin; but these had mostly failed owing to lack of funds, and more especially of suitably trained teachers.

During the eighteenth century Usher's Quay had been the residence of many persons of rank and distinction. It was a comparatively new portion of the city, as the houses which were large and commodious, had all been erected since the reign of George the First. It became one of the most fashionable districts during the time of the Irish Parliament following the Act of Independence; but after the Union it was gradually deserted by the class which had previously lived there. Thus we find that before 1830 many merchants—notably several woollen manufacturers—had converted a large number of the buildings into warehouses. Nos. 35, 36, 38, 39 and 28 had been opened as " academies" or boarding schools and day schools—but it is not certain whether they were for Catholics or non/Catholics, most likely the latter. We are not told who were the occupiers of No. 34 previously to 1833; but apparently it became vacant at that time, and was taken over by Father McCann at an annual rent of £95. The house—which still stands in a good state of repair—was one of the largest on the Quay, with spacious rooms, like most of the residences of the Georgian period. Its rooms could therefore be converted into suitable class halls, leaving still ample space for the accommodation of the priests and other members of the staff. It was in a good part of the city for the purposes of a school, as the city had not yet spread to any great extent on the northern side of the river.

When all preparations had been made for the receiving of pupils, advertisements placed in the newspapers of the day, and the Catholic Community canvassed for subjects, it was proposed to open on the 16th of August; but owing to several unforeseen circumstances, the actual opening did not take place until the 28th of the month. The story of the early days gives a glimpse of the trials and difficulties which had to be faced by the devoted band of young priests. We are fortunate in having this story in the actual words of one who passed through these days of suspense and anxiety. Father MacNamara has left us his account of this time, and his own simple narrative may best be given here:

All the associates were together early in the month of August: the 16th was fixed upon for the opening of the College, and the little Community, in order to draw down the divine blessing, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, on the undertaking, sought to prepare themselves for it, by a retreat of a few days, terminating on the Feast of her glorious Assumption.

In the order of divine Providence, good works have generally trials to meet in the commencement. The work of St. Vincent in Ireland was not exempt from this dispensation. The young Community had only closed their retreat when one of the members declared himself as no longer of their number, and this member was no other than their provisional Superior, Father Kenrick. The blow was a stunning one. Discouragement and dismay were pictured in every countenance. The best friends were discouraged and expected the immediate dissolution of " the little flock." Sometime later his grace—the Archbishop of Dublin—visited the College. He said little. He referred to Father Kenrick's defection, and remarked : " A bad business—a bad business!" It was, indeed, a severe trial especially at the time. However, after some time, they took courage, taking a supernatural view of the matter, observing that it was a trial in the order of God's providence to test their stability. Father Kenrick had for long being thinking of going to America to join his brother, who was then Bishop of Philadelphia, and afterwards, Archbishop of Baltimore. During the retreat he considered the time had come for a final resolution, and he decided to go to his brother. That the Almighty had guided him in this decision appeared clearly afterwards as having laboured with much fruit for some years on the mission, he was raised to the dignity of Archbishop of St. Louis, where he became a distinguished friend and patron of the Congregation of the Mission, already established in his diocese.

On the departure of Father Kenrick the little Community appointed no Superior. When asked who was their Superior, as was every day the case, they used to answer in the best good humour: " We are all superiors and subjects, at the same time. We form a kind of little republic, and there is neither first nor last amongst us."

Young minds are generally sanguine in their undertakings, and the young Community expected that their College should realise immediate success. They advertised in the newspapers of the city, and circulated the Prospectus far and wide. They, moreover, placed a large brass plate on the door, prominently setting forth the Archbishop's sanction and patronage. The opening day arrived; all were in earnest readiness ot pay attention to the parents and to reach the hand of welcome to the pupils. How dispiriting therefore was their disappointment, when as the appointed hour arrived, there was but one little boy, about ten years of age, to present himself. He was alone for several hours, when at length Father McCann went out into the city to fetch three or four others who had engaged to come on the opening day. The Community consoled themselves as well as they could, observing the wide difference between hopes and realities. Next morning brought in some more pupils, and day after day there were new accessions till the numbers in the course of a few months had reached nigh a hundred.

The Community, therefore, soon found themselves immersed in work. Their pupils were in all stages of advancement, so as to fill up the entire programme of the Prospectus, embracing a huge range of Greek and Roman classics, the French language and all the varied branches of a complete education, including Mathematics, Arithmetic, etc. After a course of ecclesiastical studies the young associates were ill prepared all at once for the work in which they found themselves engaged. Consequently, after their day's teaching they were obliged to spend their evenings in intense study to prepare for the coming day. They were all the more anxious in as much as they conceived themselves on their trial, before the public, for success or failure. Having, however, all the advantages of a good early education, they had only to revise their former knowledge, which they succeeded in doing in the course of a few months.

Christmas was now approaching, and the idea of a public examination, occurred to them. They considered that this would be the best sort of advertisement to make the College known and appreciated—Ex fructibus corum cognoscetis cos. They, how ever, little understood the nature of the task they had proposed to themselves. . . .

The Archbishop with his Vicar General and other ecclesiastical dignities of the city were to be present. There was to be a numerous attendance of the general body of the clergy and laity, especially the parents of the pupils. In presence of such an auditory they felt that the examinations, more especially as being the first, would be an ordeal, not only for the pupils, but also for the masters, in which the teaching ability of the new College would be thoroughly tested, for better or worse. All minds were therefore earnestly and anxiously enlisted, and no effort was spared to make a successful display. They drilled their classes with toilsome energy and drilled themselves at the same time. The work was absolutely exhausting, occupying not only the entire day, but encroaching largely on their hours of rest.

There is, in nervous anxiety, something that supplies strength for an occasion. So it was in the present instance. All appeared fresh and vigorous on the morning of the examination. The large attendance expected appeared by degrees. The examinations commenced. Class succeeded class, and the pupils showed to the greatest advantage. The declamations prepared by Father Burke who had charge of that department, were particularly admired. Afterwards the Archbishop spoke warmly of the " Fisherman's Sail," a piece delivered by a boy named McDermott. On the whole, the entire performance, from beginning to end, was highly creditable. The Archbishop distributed the prizes. They were elegantly prepared in a uniform binding, and stamped with the arms of the College, engraved with a view to the occasion. The programme of the prizes was formed on the model of the "Propaganda" (Rome), commencing with the well-known words: Quod bonum, felix, faustumque sit, reique literariae bene vertat.

After the dinner, which followed, the Archbishop proposed the new Institute as a " toast" to the company. He was pleased to preface the toast with other words to the following effect: " Gentlemen, the mustard seed which was sown only the other day, has already grown up, and put forth its branches. The children of the city are receiving, beneath its fostering shadow, the blessings of a literary and religious education. We are all delighted with the specimens which we witnessed in the examination, at which we had the pleasure of assisting to-day. The display was creditable, in the highest degree, both to pupils and teachers, and presents a happy augury of what we are to expect of the new Institute. You will, therefore, join with me, I am sure, in wishing success and happiness to the young Community of the Congregation of the Mission."

Father McCann replied for the Community in an appropriate little speech he had prepared for the occasion, but which he spoke with tremulous nervousness owing to the embarrassment under which he laboured in the effort.

The "toast" elicited several complimentary observations which the priests exchanged with each other. The Very Rev. Father Flanagan, parish priest of St. Nicholas, Francis Street, and Chancellor of the Archdiocese, was particularly complimentary. He spoke in warm terms of the missions and the good they were calculated to produce. He recommended the infant Community to the best considerations of the clergy.

All had passed off in the most gratifying manner, and the Community congratulated themselves on the day's proceedings, which they regarded as most encouraging for the prospects of their work. Christmas came and the holidays allowed them some repose to recruit their strength, in order to resume their labours with increased energy and renewed zeal with the opening of a new year.

Although Father MacNamara has left us this account of the first months of the new venture, it is to be regretted that the records or registers of the school are, apparently, no longer in existence. It is not known what became of them after the priests had left and the school passed into other hands. The further information, therefore, is fragmentary. Of the course of studies followed it can be said that it was based upon the classical system then common in secondary schools, more so as it was intended that students desiring to enter Maynooth College later on, should be specially provided for; though the needs of lay students were not neglected.

We find that an advertisement for the school tells us that:

The Course of Studies comprises the Greek and Roman Classics; history, ancient and modern ; geography ; the various branches of Mathematics; the Hebrew, German, French and Italian languages. While every exertion will be made by the Reverend Gentlemen of this establishment to perfect their pupils in classical literature, particular attention will be paid to the study of the English language ; and the principles of practical arithmetic will be exemplified in a useful and extensive course.

The success of the establishment can be seen from the increasing numbers, which quickly rose to two hundred. Although the registers and records of the school are not available, the names of some pupils distinguished in after life may here be mentioned. Had the complete list of the six years while under Vincentian control been kept, there can be little doubt but that we should find therein many names prominent in the annals of Dublin in later years. The first name we now select is that of John Gilbert, afterwards Sir John Gilbert, to whose immense labours in compiling the Records of Dublin his fellow citizens are so much indebted. He was but seven years old in 1836 when he entered the school in Usher's Quay, where he remained for the next four years. Even at that early age he seems to have shown an extraordinary aptitude for historical study. An essay in history written by him while in the school was marked down by his teacher as "extremely well done."

A fellow Student of John Gilbert's—though a few years older—was young Malachy O'Callaghan, whose name stands out prominently in the history of Castleknock College, and of the Irish province of the Congregation of the Mission, during the century. He left Usher's Quay in 1839 for Castleknock, where he had a distinguished course, became a member of the Congregation, was President of the College for many years, 1873-1885. He founded a branch of the Province in Australia, and having resigned his Superiorship of the Vincentian house in Cork, he died some years later in 1914. Nicholas Barlow and Denis Heyfron both went to school on Usher's Quay—both later became Vincentians. Nicholas Barlow studied for the priesthood in Rome, joined the staff in Castleknock in 1857 and—as mentioned elsewhere— was a great benefactor of the College. Denis Heyfron passed on to Castleknock in September, 1839, and having entered the novitiate, was raised to the priesthood and spent some years in missionary work.

A fellow pupil whose name in after life was to be world-wide was James Healy who died in 1895, a parish priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin, better known as "Father Healy of Little Bray." Malachy O'Callaghan, Denis Heyfron and James Healy—with many others—left Usher's Quay for Castleknock. These three entered the Vincentian novitiate, after completing their preliminary studies; but James Healy soon found that the life was not in accordance with his tastes, and he proceeded to Maynooth to join the clergy of his native diocese. Among the fellow students of James Healy we must not forget to record the names of three of his fellow citizens, well known in after years: Edward Fottrell, J. C. Kelly, and A Thomas Nedley. The last mentioned became a distinguished Dublin doctor, and was almost as remarkable as Father Healy himself as a wit and raconteur. He was also the author of a once popular Dublin ballad: The Lower Castle Yard. Two more names may be added: Devin Reilly and Martin McDermott, who with several of their fellow students are afterwards found in the ranks of the Young Irelanders. Reilly is referred to by John Mitchel in the Jail Journal; McDermott, has already been mentioned in this RECORD as the boy whose piece of declamation attracted so much attention at the first public exhibition day in the school. He later became an architect by profession, and was a contributor to the " Poets' Corner" of the Nation from 1844 to 1848; some of his poems are reproduced in Hayes's Ballad Poetry of Ireland. Among them are two which at one time were extremely popular, the ballad entitled " The Irish Exiles " and " The Coolin." In after years he edited the New Spirit of tlx Nation (1895), and in 1896 he brought out The Songs and Ballads of Young Ireland, for which he collected the best and representative work of the comrades of his early years. To this collection he contributed a long and interesting historical introduction. He died in 1905.

An extract from a letter written by McDermott in 1889, when he was resident in London, may be given here:

In Dublin the school I attended was one kept by seven priests down on Usher's Quay. Dr. McNamara, who was afterwards at the head of the Irish College, Paris, was the director. They were all learned and excellent men, devoted to their duties. When I returned to Dublin in 1846/7/8, amongst the most ardent of the Young Irelanders I was glad to find several of my school/fellows. Devin Reilly was one, a well known Dublin physician was another, and many more. But most of my youth was passed in a country house which my father had, on the high bank of the Dodder beyond Roundtown. I have always retained a loving memory of that beautiful spot. On leaving school I went to a French college for a couple of years, and on returning to Dublin I was articled to Patrick Byrne, an old '98 man, and a Fellow and Vice/President of the Society of Irish Architects.

In a notebook found among the papers of Dr. Moran, first Bishop of Dunedin, New Zealand, are the following entries:

After receiving private tuition I was sent to Dublin (1836) and went to school to the Vincentian Fathers in Usher's Quay. I had as schoolfellows Dr. Thomas Nedley, Father Harold, Manin Darcy, Father James Healy, of Bray; Martin McDermott (afterwards architect to the Khedive of Egypt) ; Father O'Donnell, S.J., and several others who attained to eminence.

I returned to the Vincentian Fathers at Castleknock, and spent with them 1839 and 1840, studying Rhetoric and Philosophy (first year). Dr. Lynch, afterwards Archbishop of Toronto, was a fellow student at Castleknock.

The names of many other students at Usher's Quay can be found among the clergy of the Dublin diocese in later years; as well as the names of many leading laymen in the city.

It must not be supposed that the work of the College was confined to the small body of priests already mentioned. Besides some lay teachers—referred to later on—there were some extern helpers, even though these had not the intention of remaining as members of the proposed Community. The Rev. James Hamilton—afterwards curate in Booterstown and later parish priest of Blessington—was engaged at a salary as confessor for the boys; but the religious instruction was confided to Father Lynch. Special stress was laid on this side of the education: Father Lynch undertook his task with great zeal and devotedness. His conferences and instructions were remarkable for genuine piety and extreme simplicity—he continued this work afterwards in Castleknock; and even when he became bishop his discourses to his people attracted much attention for the practical manner in which he brought home the truths of religion to the minds of his hearers.

Father Thomas Pope also helped the Community at the beginning. After leaving Usher's Quay he became curate in Athy, and finally Canon of the Diocese from the prebend of Castleknock. Half a century later, on the anniversary of the opening of the school, he sent his congratulations to the priests in Castleknock in the following simple but touching words:

St. Augustine's Day, 1883.


I present you and the Reverend Fathers of your Community, the expression of my felicitations on this your Golden Jubilee Day. On this day fifty years the Vincentian Fathers first opened their day school on Usher's Quay Island.

I was with them on that day. There were four priests. Amongst them were Father Burke, Father McNanura, and Dr. Lynch, as well as Father McCann. Dean Dowley had not then joined the Society. Father McCann subsequently aided them in purchasing Castleknock. He was for some time with me in Carlow, after his return from Rome.

Dean Meagher was long desirous of establishing the Vincentian Congregation in Ireland, and when it was established it was expected he would have joined. Some years afterwards the Fathers gave their first mission in Athy. I had been curate there, but left before their arrival.

In those days ye were the grain of mustard seed. Ye are now grown up to be the cedars of Lebanon planted at Castleknock.

The Prebendary of Castleknock tenders his congratulations.


Four years after the College at Castleknock was opened the school on Usher's Quay was discontinued. The work of the two establishments was altogether too difficult for the number of the staffs—so strenuous had been the labours undergone by the pioneers that several amongst them were falling into delicate health; in fact, Father Reynolds had to retire and died the year following. Father McCann was in a chronic state of illness and could give little assistance beyond looking after the temporal affairs of the house; the other members were feeling the strain of overwork. In addition to these reasons, Castleknock was now able to do much of the work expected from the day school, namely, preparation for the ecclesiastical colleges, and probably under more suitable conditions.

The house on Usher's Quay, therefore, ceased to have any connection with the Vincentians. On the retirement of the priests from the management, the school was taken over by Mr. Michael Hickey, A.B., T.C.D., who had already been an usher in the establishment. The writer of the Life of Father Healy says:

This usher had been popular with the boys, and one of the ' archest' of them told a newcomer that the quay derived its name in compliment to the pedagogue.

The priests, however, did not wholly sever their connection with the school, as one of their number continued to come every Saturday to give religious instruction. Notwithstanding the fart that Mr. Hickey had been warmly recommended to the notice of parents by both Father McNamara and the Jesuit Fathers in Dublin, the school was closed in 1841; although shortly afterwards we find Mr. Hickey conducting a seminary at 40 Lower Ormond Quay. (It may be noted that the names " seminary " or " academy " seems to have been used generally for any high class school whether for boys or young ladies.) The house 34 Usher's Quay was then taken over by the Dominican nuns at Cabra for the purpose of establishing a high class day school, and in January of the following year (1842) five nuns left Cabra to take charge of this branch house.

The state of Catholic secondary education at the time is clearly shown by the unusual arrangements made by the Archbishop, Dr. Murray, to enable the nuns in Cabra to carry on the work of this new house and still remain members of the original Community. A special Brief was obtained from Pope Gregory XVI by which the Sisters of St. Mary's, Usher's Quay, were granted permission to return to the Mother House three times every year; that is during the Christmas, Easter and Summer holidays; and the Prioress might visit the convent twice or thrice each year, if found necessary, accompanied by a sister appointed by the Council.

The need of such a school was speedily shown by the large number of pupils. The work was carried on with success till 1867, when the pressing wants of foreign missions necessitated the withdrawal of the sisters. The chaplains to the new house were among the professors of All Hallows' College ; but in 1853 a request was made to the Castleknock Community to take over the religious work of the school in addition to that already being carried out in Cabra. This request was reluctantly refused. Had it been granted, the Vincentian Community would have returned to the scene of their first labours; but the Community in Castleknock had not then sufficient numbers to undertake this extra work.

We may close this account of St. Vincent's Seminary, Usher's Quay, with the prize list for the year 1839. After the distribution of prizes on the last day of the school year, the priests withdrew from this their first undertaking. Several of the students of that year entered Castleknock in the following September; and within two or three years later a large number of the names on this prize list are found again recorded on the registers of the College.

Castleknock College Centenary Record, 1935.