Education in Navan in post Penal Times

Rev. Gerard Rice

With the relaxation of the Penal Laws at the end of the 1700s, the Catholic Church was no longer concerned only with the survival of the faith.  Now the Navan clergy was able to use its position of leadership in the community to work to better improve the circumstances of their parishioners.

A major priority was the provision of a good system of education in the parish.  Until 1782 the only Catholic school in the Navan area was the hedge school at Donaghmore. By 1799, there were three or four Catholic schools in existence.

One of these, the Navan Free School for Boys, (whose income derived from an annual charity sermon preached in the chapel, and in which students sat, ten to each desk, while others "who cannot be accomodated sit on the floor," merged into the National School for boys, located in the Banba Hall.  This school lasted until 1917.

When Bishop Gaughran introduced the De La Salle Brothers to Navan they took over the site the old Militia Barracks (formerly the site of Navan Abbey, and now a clothing factory), which had been renovated to serve as a residence and school.  This building was demolished in the 1990s.  The Brothers withdrew from Navan in 1976 because of the fall in numbers joining their order.  New primary schools set up under Catholic Church management were St. Oliver Plunkett's in 1975 and St. Paul's in 1981.  Cannistown had a new school with a stone foundation and superstructure of mud in 1833.  The present school was built in 1989 replacing on older one built in 1890.

Father Eugene O'Reilly was responsible for introducing the Sisters of Mercy to Navan.  In 1853 they took up residence in a house in Academy Street which he has bequeated to them.  The first school, financed by the Duke of Bedford, was opened in Bakery Lane in 1854 to teach sewing. In 1857 the Mercy sisters took over Leighsbrook House  "and build splendid schools in the vicinity."

St. Finian's Academy and Seminary, the first diocesan school in the northern part of the country, was founded in 1802 at the back of Academy Street to which it gave its name, by Dr. Plunkett, Bishop of Meath with Father Eugene O'Reilly as its first President (1802 - 1827).  Its purpose was to provide secondary education for boys and in particular to supply students for the priesthood.  The Academy closed in 1908 and reopened in Mullingar.

In 1930, part of the old seminary buildings was bought back by Bishop Mulvany and St. Patrick's Classical  School was set up. St. Pats moved to its present site opposite the County Hospital in 1970.

There were other areas of social involvement for the Catholic Church in Navan.  Father Eugene O'Reilly formed a branch of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the parish.

Under his guidance, cooperative workshops were organised in 1850 to employ poor girls in the town.  Parish clergy were involved in efforts to establish an industrial school in Navan in 1850 and to set up a Meath Industrial Society in 1854 to "promote the culture of flax, the establishment of scutching mills and in general, to foster and enter the woollen and other manufactures in the county of Meath."