When Dr. Henry Blake moved to Newry as Bishop of Dromore in 1833, he was delighted to discover that the Administrator, Fr. Patrick O'Neill, shared his enthusiasm for a new order called the Christian Brothers whom he had encountered working among the poor in Dublin. After protracted negotiations, it was agreed towards the end of December 1850 that the first foundation of the Christian Brothers in Ulster should be at Mount St. Patrick's in Chapel Street, Newry. Dr. Blake and Bro. M.P. O'Riordan, the Superior-General, were named co-trustees, and on February 2nd 1851, the first community, comprising a mere two Brothers, moved into Mount St. Patrick's, which was an existing parochial school and teachers', residence built some fifty years before in 1801. So began the felicitous link between the Brothers and the local area which has endured one hundred and forty years to this day.
Those first two brothers were Bro. Peter Scannel, the Superior, and his assistant, Bro. Vincent McDonald, a native of Liverpool, who had the misfortune to die of fever two years later on 18th March 1853. Though now left entirely on his own, Bro. Scannel soldiered on, and the Chapel Street School thrived to such a degree that his successor, Bro. Francis Clifford, was obliged to expand facilities to cope with an ever-increasing enrolment. He received generous assistance in his efforts from a flourishing cereal merchant, Mr. Felix O'Hagan, who donated a site in Margaret Street for the construction of a new school. Completed in 1865, St. Margaret's the "Red School" or the "Carstands", as it was better known by generations of Newry boys, was a beautiful, two storey, red brick building, and it enabled part of the Chapel Street premises to be converted into proper living accommodation for the now greatly expanded community of brothers.
As the years passed the number of students continued to increase and classrooms were leased in the old St. Colman's or "Home Rule" hall in Castle Street. Later two further schools were opened; one in the former Wesleyan Chapel in Kilmorey Street in 1883, and another in Water Street, behind the Cathedral, three years later. A third floor featuring a magnificent new Science Laboratory was added to St. Margaret's in 1891. In April 1903, the Brothers moved into the Abbey in Castle Street, which had been acquired from Mrs Annie Boden, a local business woman, the previous month. The first Brothers to live in the Abbey were Bro. Dempsey the inspirational Superior St. Margaret's "the Red School" or "Carstands" -1917 Bro. Matthew O'Donnell; Bro. Austin Reilly; Bro. Sebastian O'Neill and Bro. Godfrey Neilan. Bro. Dempsey was to spend the remaining few years of his life in the Abbey. Terrible pain in his declining weeks may have stopped him from teaching in the "Carstands", but incredibly did not prevent him from conducting classes around his deathbed! Such heroic fortitude combined with an illustrious career explain why his passing was the subject of a newspaper editorial. Thousands of mourners filed past his body laid-in-state before the High Altar in Newry Cathedral on Ash Wednesday 1909.
In many respects his death marked the end of an era, but a new, and equally glorious one was ushered in just a few years later with the opening of a school within hallowed precincts of the celebrated Cistercian Abbey founded by St. Malachy in 1144. This decision was taken by the Superior, Bro. Hegarty in 1918. Later on, between the years of 1932 -1938 St. Colman's Primary School was erected.
In 1959 Bro. Newell, returning to Newry after a lapse of 10 years, was entrusted with the specific mission to build our present Grammar School. Negotiations on the subject with the Ministry of Education had started in 1956, but little progress was recorded until Bro. Newell's arrival, when the site was finally acquired in 1962 and building permission granted. Excavation commenced in March, 1963, exactly three years later the building was completed at a cost of £260,000
During the construction period Bro. Newell virtually lived on the site, which did not exactly endear him to the contractors and workers. Indeed, Mr. Gene McAteer, who worked on the project from start to finish has vivid memories of impromptu "briefing" sessions with the Headmaster, which frequently kept him and his colleagues, Mr. Ted O'Hare, the foreman, and Mr. Joe Marshall, the clerk of works on the site until 7 or 8 o'clock in the evening, discussing the minutiae of the day's developments! Those with even a nodding acquaintance of Bro. Newell would not be surprised at this as it was characteristic of him to examine and plan everything in meticulous detail. In this instance, his natural pursuit of perfection was heightened by the awareness of the historic nature of the enterprise -the new Abbey was the first grammar school ever built from the ground by the Order in Ulster, and so Bro. Newell was naturally resolved that the edifice should be worthy of that outstanding honour. If he had harboured any doubts about the success of the venture, these would have been dispelled by the Superior-General, Bro. Austin Loftus, who commented at the opening ceremonies :
"I have visited all our schools in this country and I can say that this is the best in Ireland, and is on a par with anything in the United States".
Although the transfer of pupils from the old school took place on the 11 th May 1966, the official opening was deferred until Wednesday, 28th September of the new academic year. And, orchestrated, as it was, down to the last impressive detail by the indefatiable Bro. Newell, what a colourful and memorable occasion it proved to be! The ceremonies began at 10.00 a.m. with the solemn blessing of the school by the Bishop of Dromore, Dr. Eugene O'Doherty. Then the entire - student-body of over 600 pupils marched through the town from the new school to the Cathedral, where his Lordship presided at Solemn High Mass, celebrated by Fr. Seamus Moore, assisted by Fr. Cathal Jordan, deacon, Fr. Edward Hamill, sub-deacon, and Fr. John Lynch, as Master of Ceremonies. The sanctuary contained members of the Cathedral Chapter and senior clergy from the Dromore Diocese. Bro. A.A. Loftus was accompanied by the Assistant-General, Bro. P .C. Curran, the Irish Provincial, Bro. D. Creed, and by former Newry Superiors, Bro. M.L. Rice, Bro. P.C. McGoldrick and Bro. T.L. Magee.
Civic dignitaries in the general congregation included Mr. J.M. Benn, Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Education at Stormont; Mr. Thomas Markey, Chairman of Newry Urban District Council; Mr. Gerald Cronin, Town Clerk; and Mr. Joseph Connellan, M.P. Correspondence between the latter and the Headmaster interestingly reveals Bro. Newell's hope that the Minister, himself, would attend, but the rather timid Mr. William Fitzsimmons declined on the grounds that his presence might be exploited by the Paisleyite faction, who as long ago as 1966, were capable of embarrassing orthodox Unionism.
After the Cathedral ceremonies the pupils paraded back to school with their banners and flags to form a guard of honour for the Bishop, who formally opened the building by cutting the tape across the main entrance door. He was then presented with a silver key as a momento of the occasion, and after signing the distinguished visitors' book in the foyer, he entered a packed Hall, where he addressed an audience of dignitaries, parents and staff. In the course of his speech, Dr. O'Doherty remarked that the new school left the Parish of Newry further indebted to the Christian Brothers, who had taught and trained the young manhood of the area during times when:
"those who laboured in the classroom had few privileges and much less remuneration".
Other speakers were Bro. Loftus and Mr. Benn. Later that day a sumptuous banquet was served in the Ardmore Hotel, where Bro. Newell thanked his guest of honour, Dr. O'Doherty for his numerous acts of generosity towards the Brothers. He also thanked Mr. Benn and the Ministry of Education for their indispensable help and encouragement. Congratulations were extended to the principal contractors, Felix O'Hare & Co., the architects, McLean & Forte & Co., and the entire workforce, who were represented at the meal by Leo Smith, Hugh Rooney and Gene McAteer, The latter, incidentally, so impressed Bro. Newell by his industry and intimate knowledge of the site and buildings that he became the school's first caretaker at the Headmaster's personal invitation.
Wednesday, September 28th 1966 thus marked the beginning of a new chapter in the bountiful history of the Christian Brothers in Newry. Things, of course, have not stood still in the intervening quarter century. Student enrolment has risen to well in excess of almost 900, and staffing has kept pace, practically doubling in size to the 1991 figure of 60 employees. The full staff of 32 who attended the opening ceremonies were: Bro. P.W. Newell, (Headmaster), Bro. F.R. Connolly, (Deputy Headmaster), Bro. T. L. Magee, Bro. E.F. Ryan, Bro. H.C. O'Hara, Bro. C.I. Gallagher, Bro. D.B. McCrohan, Bro. T.C. McDonnell, Mr. P.A. Sweeney, Mr. P.A. Crinion, Mr. J.J. Fitzpatrick, Mr. J. Devlin, Mr. J. Haffey, Mr. M.F. Sweeney, Mr. F. G. Brown, Mr. B.V. Cassidy, Mr. R.A. Spallen, Mr. J.K. Markham, Mr. B.S. Bradley, Mr. P.J. Rice, Mr. H.A. Murphy, Mr. O.F. Cahill, Mr. L. O'Carra, Mr. K.J. Higgins, Mr. T.B. Keane, Miss E. Magennis, (Assistant Teachers), Mr. M.E. Toner, (Secretary/Bursar), Mr. G. Rocks, (Assistant Secretary), Miss A. O'Neill, Miss M. Morgan (Catering) and Mr. E. McAteer, (Caretaker).
Three teaching legends in their own time, the late Paddy Sweeney, Paddy Crinion, and John Fitzpatrick had between them taught for an almost unbelievable 105 years in the Abbey by opening day 1966. The tradition of loyal and devoted service continued into the new school in the persons of Gerry Brown, Jimmy Haffey, Mick Sweeney and Ray Spallen, all four recently retired, but not before giving a combined total of nearly 150 years of their professional lives to the Abbey. Naturally, it is not the lot of all staff to remain so long in the same place, and of the 34 people listed, only 1 remain, Mr. Higgins. This statistic reveals a surprising but, nonetheless, healthy degree of staffing mobility and renewal during a relatively short period of time.
Other changes down the years have been mainly structural. One year after the departure of Bro. Newell for Omagh in August 1967, his successor, Bro. C.I. Gallagher, was obliged to erect the Magowan Extension in order to accommodate the hectic growth of the school at that time. Very crammed and inadequate living conditions in the Abbey Yard forced him to build the imposing, new monastery, which was officially dedicated by Bishop O'Doherty on 2nd August, 1972. Bro. J.C. McDermott who became headmaster in 1976, oversaw the addition of an administration wing, music room and careers suite in 1980, and a further major classroom extension in 1984. Since Bro. C.V. Kelly replaced him in 1987, extra science, computer and information technology laboratories have been added.
These developments have been induced by the inexorable march of time, which has rendered ever so slightly obsolete what was once the proud flagship of the Christian Brothers; Schools in Ireland. Nevertheless, the projected modernisation of the Abbey should ensure that the great scholastic adventure, launched in the last century, will sail into the next in accommodation appropriate to the third millennium. And how fitting ! For "nothing but the best" would be an apt motto for the inspiring story of the educational endeavours of the Christian Brothers and their dedicated staff during their century and a half sojourn in our town.
Written By Mr. Thomas Keane on the occasion of the Abbey's Silver Jubliee in 1991