Mercy Sisters

fr eugene o'reilly


In 1853 a group of nuns from Kells arrived in Navan and settled in a house in Academy Street which Father Eugene O'Reilly (left) had given to them.

The Sisters of Mercy opened a sewing school in Bakery Lane - between Trimgate Street and the Fair Green -with funds provided by the Duke of Bedford.

The Mercy National School was taken under the Board of Education on 1st June 1856. In 1857 the order took over Leighsbrook House in Leighsbrook (below), now Health Services Executive offices.

st joseph's convent of mercy

They raised the roof and constructed a school there.  The first superior was Mother Catherine.  In 1861 the Sisters opened a House of Mercy to train girls as domestic servants for which there was a great demand at that time.

When the House of Mercy was relocated in St. Mary's, Athlumney in 1879, the skills of dairying, poultry rearing, baking and laundering were taught.  It is now a retirement home.

mercy nuns 1919
















(above) The Mercy Sisters in 1919

Back row: Srs. Teresa McEntee, Gerard Conroy, Gabriel Daly. Columba McEvoy, Agnes Gilsenan. Middle Row: Srs. Bridgid Duffy, Josephine Sheridan, Alphonsus McDonagh, de Sales Scully, and Augustine Duignan. Front row: Srs. Clare Nelson, Patrick O'Keefe, Magdalen Nelson, Francis Behan and Joseph Dudgeon

The Mercy nuns took over the running of the Workhouse Navan in 1891. This  became the County Hospital, later Our Lady's Hospital. The Mercy Nuns continued to run this hospital until the 1970s.

orphanage mercy



Also in 1879 an Orphanage, (pictured above) was opened at Leighsbrook by the Mercy nuns, which lasted until the 1950s.

Music has always played an inportant role in St. Joseph's.  Pictured below is the school's orchestra. The photo was taken in the school grounds and dates from 1948.

mercy orchestra


Photo courtesy Evelyn Devereux (née Curtis)

Back Row (l-r): ---------; Aoife O'Connell, (Navan); Gertie O'Brien, (Navan); Patsy Ennis; Phyllis McCabe (Navan).

Middle Row: Alphonsus Doherty, (Navan); P.Hynes; P. Kennedy (Navan); Margot Henry, (Navan);  -----------; Paddy O'Donohoe, (Navan).

Front: ----------; Sally Devine, (Navan); Evelyn Curtis, (Navan); Mary Kearney; Breda McEvoy, (Navan) Mary Hoey, (Drogheda); Mary McCabe, (Navan); Maeve Giles, (Navan); Gertie Keenan (Tutor)

Mercy Sisters Retirement Home (Athlumney)

In 2013 the nuns proposed that the historic 1790 two storey house be retained as a protected structure along with a two bay two storey extension dating to 1820 and the 1840s gateway.  The 1790 building has a double pitched natural slate roof with original variegated marble chimneypiece, carved cornices and timber quarter turn staircase.  The thickness of some of the walls suggests that the building incorporates part of an earlier structure, which is likely given the very close proximity of Athlumney Castle.


Irish Times, 4 May 2010 - St. Joseph's Mercy Convent

Irish Social History lives on in the building of Ireland's country towns, particularly the schools.  President Mary McAleese was in Navan on 4th May 2010 to dedicate a library in St. Joseph's Mercy Convent, to the memory of Sister Mary Berchmans Lawlor, one of the legion of unsung heroes of Irish education.  Sister Berchmans believed in the power of reading and encouraged girls to experience the ultimate adventure, literature.  She sourced books on all subjects for the school.  It is a welcoming, living library and remains open throughout the school day.

Before the President arrived in the library for the dedication, she celebrated the centenary of St. Joseph's Primary School.  The students have compiled a book, edited by a former principal, Sister Marie Louise, which was presented to Mrs. McAleese.  Among the many articles and photographs charting the story of the school, particularly its mission work in Zambia and the increasingly international dimension represented by pupils from Eastern Europe and Africa, is a copy of the school register from June 1910.

Nell Jones has contributed her own story which begins with the words."My memories of starting school in St. Josephs in 1928 are vague" yet she recalls her maths teacher Sister Malachy.  "We learned our tables until we could recite them in our sleep."

St. Joseph's Mercy Convent was founded on December 3rd 1853 by Sister Mary Catherine Atkinson and Sister Mary Joseph Morgan in an attempt to improve the literacy levels in the town which was becoming very labour concentrated with a predominately working class population.  The much needed school had been the dream of Father Eugene O'Reilly, the then parish priest of Navan.  His memory is honoured by a bust of him in the local catholic church, St. Mary's, near the Market Square.  He died before the sisters arrived from their convent in Kells to begin work.

Mid 1800s Navan was a typical provincial Irish small town of harsh contrasts.  The children of the wealthy were privately taught, but for the ordinary people there was little to hope of even learning to read.

The first St. Joseph's was established in Bakery Lane off Trimgate Street.  The building was funded by the Duke of Bedford.  Nowadays the school has impressive computer and graphic design facilities, as well as three science labs, but for the 1800s working class Irish girls the emphasis was on practical skills such as cookery and the immensely marketable needlework, a trade for girls who were expected to help support their siblings.  Reading, writing and arithmetic were quickly added to the curriculum.

Within four years of opening her school, Sister, by then Mother Mary Atkinson had secured possession of Leighsbrook House, a gentleman's residence, previously owned by James Lee, whose family would emigrate to America.  The original house became a convent and was extended to include a church.  This building is now a health centre, the nuns having closed the church and moved in 1994 to a smaller building on the same site.  The present day secondary school is adjacent to it.

By the late 1800s, St. Joseph's had acquired a strong reputation for music.  French and elocution were also being taught, and the beginnings of its present day academic tradition were being established.  From the 1880s until 1955 an orphanage operated at the school.  There could be between 25 or 30 children resident and they attended class with the day students.  At the same time boarding facilities were introduced.  In 1910 the original primary school and the building which now houses the library with its high arched window, flanked by side panels, were built by the Delaney Brothers who are pictured in the book, dressed in their smart Edwardian suits.

A short distance from the primary school is the secondary school.  The former dormitory building has seen many changes over the years.  The window which was repaired in situ last year, dominates the gable end.  The library once contained 65 beds.  It is a wonderful, atmospheric space with exposed roof beams and a wooden floor.  After the boarding closed in 1981, the room was left vacant for a while before being used as a games room.

The present principal, Vincent Donovan, recalls the first time he saw the old dorm.  "It was housing three table tennis tables and I thought it was a shame and could be used for so much more.  It has a wonderful history."  He points to a fascinating photograph dating from another time in which rows of beds are positioned neatly along the walls.

The same room is now filled with computers, graphic design screens and book cases.  Sister Mary Berchmans Lawlor, to whom the library is being dedicated, was a local woman who had attended St. Josephs as a student.   She was born into a farming family near Navan in 1920 and entered the convent on completing her Leaving Cert.  She took the name Berchmans in honour of Saint John Berchmans (1599 - 1621), the Belgian seminarian who is the patron saint of altar servers.  Sister Berchmans was academic by nature and took a degree in English and Latin at the then national University, in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin.  While completing her higher diploma in education she did her teaching hours in St. Josephs and commuted to Dublin for lectures.  She was to spend her entire teaching career at her old school.  In 1959 she was appointed principal.  After retiring from that post in 1973, she devoted herself to the library.

sr peter with her class













(Above ) Sr. Peter Daly with her class in the 1960s

Both schools were modernised in 1966.  Sister Berchmans worked closely with the architects and spent hours examining the plans.  She lived for the project.  Always frail, she became terminally ill and died at the age of 61 in 1981, leaving a legacy that has not been forgotten.

President McAleese visited the school oratory in which the wooden altar she donated to St. Josephs now stands.  The wooden altar previously served at Aras an Uachtarain.  Many presidents including Eamon deValera have prayed before it.

Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, 4 May 1910

See also: Sisters of Mercy St. Joseph's Navan, by Sr. Enda Donovan in the Journal of the N&DHS,  Navan - Its People and Its Past, Vol. 2, (2013) pps. 95-104.