On Wednesday May, 18th 1814, in a country devoid of mechanised forms of transport, young Master James McLornan from the Glens of Antrim made the long journey south to the plains of Kildare and the newly established Jesuit school, just north of Clane. There he was met and welcomed by Fr Peter Kenney SJ, Rector of the fledgling Jesuit community, who escorted him through the doors of the castle and into the pages of history as the first student to enrol in the newly founded Clongowes Wood College.
Last Sunday, exactly two hundred years later, a host of students, parents, staff, members of the Jesuit Community, past pupils and guests – many in period dress – assembled before the castle to witness and participate in a pageant to commemorate the arrival of the first Jesuits and pupils as well as many other events in the development of Clongowes over the past 200 years. We were particularly privileged to welcome descendants of the McLornan family, whose journey south was considerably easier and swifter than that of their famous antecedent and we were also visited by the shades of others of our illustrious past pupils down through the ages.
Portraits of the Past
The first of these, Thomas Francis Meagher (of the Sword) was remembered by one of our more illustrious history teachers, Mr. Tony Pierce, while Joycean scholar and erstwhile Headmaster, Fr Bruce Bradley sj, paid tribute to our most famous past pupil James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. Joyce wrote of his time here in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and is today honoured in the school with the library named for him and by the portrait of the artist as a not-so-young-man, which hangs in the Serpentine Gallery. By far the most famous Old Clongownian in 1914 was John Redmond, when it appeared that he was about to become the first Prime Minister of Home Rule Ireland. Redmond gave the keynote speech on Union Day of that year and Old Clongownian Arthur Lappin gave us a flavour of what he said on that sunny day just a century ago.
The most traumatic event in the early history of the school occurred in September of 1886, when the Jesuit Boarding School at Tullabeg (near Tullamore) was amalgamated with Clongowes. The large band of surprised (more or less unwilling) conscripts from Tullabeg who arrived that autumn were unkindly referred to by the Clongownians in residence as ‘Tullabeggars’. They numbered as many as 150 and their arrival had the effect of doubling the size of Clongowes at a stroke. After the passage of 127 years bygones were let go and their ‘virtual’ successors were more warmly welcomed by the present Rhetoric in very convincing costumes.
Amongst the ‘extras’ which appeared on the bills in the nineteenth century was a charge for fencing lessons, which came as no surprise in 1814, when Napoleon was still at large and many students would opt for military careers after leaving Clongowes. The names of past pupils are to be found in the accounts and rolls of honour of many conflicts both at home and abroad since then. These range from the Crimea to the Second World War by way of the Boer and Great Wars and include no less than four winners of the prestigious Victoria Cross. These men and their peers saw themselves as fighting for Ireland as did the Clongownians who took part in the Young Ireland Rising, the Irish revolution and the ensuing tragic Civil War. These men and their various sacrifices were remembered by an honour guard and a minute’s silence, after which the National Anthem was played.
To commemorate the arrival of the first pupil one of his many successors and first among equals, School Captain Peter Stapleton presented a specially commissioned painting of the college to Mr Tony McLornan on behalf of his family. This was followed by the unveiling of a plaque by the Rector, Fr Michael Sheil and Headmaster, Fr Leonard Moloney to commemorate the first rector, Fr Peter Kenney, and the first pupil James McLornan. The pageant concluded with a Celebration of the Eucharist in the Boys’ Chapel followed by a slap up lunch in the refectory just as the rains arrived.
Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.
The Clongowes of today is different in many ways from the school that welcomed James McLornan two hundred years ago. There are more than ten times as many pupils; they are no longer taught logic, metaphysics, philosophy, dancing and fencing and they are not required to bring six pocket-handkerchiefs with them at the start of the year. The school buildings continue to expand and improve and the facilities available are as far removed from those of 1814 as the school of that year must have seemed to James McLornan to be from his home in Antrim.
But Clongowes is more than bricks and mortar and would be set at naught were it not pursuing its prime educational objective of forming men-for-others; men who will live not for themselves but for God. In addition to the bread and butter of classes and exams the school is rightly proud of the many initiatives that have been introduced over the years designed to foster a faith that does justice. Thus is the physical development of the school mirrored in the spiritual development of its pupils and past pupils so that (in the words of the Headmaster, Fr Leonard Moloney) they ‘will leave the world a better place for having lived amongst us.’
Clongowes has changed much over two centuries and will continue to do so and thereby to grow and prosper, but it is the continuity and fidelity to Christian teaching, and the visions of St Ignatius for the Jesuit mission, and of Fr Peter Kenney for the school he founded in 1814, that will stand to us in the straitened times we live in and the challenges, which lie ahead.
Mr Declan O’Keeffe, Head of Communications