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Roots and Fruits…..


E. Woodward in her book, “Poets, Prophets and Pragmatists” states:


The founding story has to be constantly revisited and retold in ways that continue to sustain, illumine and germinate meanings.  In the return to where we began we find new knowing.

Negotiations for a Salesian Sisters’ foundation in Ireland were ongoing from 1918 until their arrival in 1920.  Numerous letters between Bishop Denis Hallinan, Fr. Aloysius Sutherland S.D.B. and Mother Chiarina Giustinani (Provincial in England) provide a graphic description of the gestation period of the Salesian Sisters in Ireland.

As a student for the priesthood Denis Hallinan was interested in becoming a Salesian.  He met Don Bosco in Turin but the latter advised him to “go home to your diocese and when you’re ordained you’ll do more for the Salesians than you would by entering”.  On returning to Ireland Fr. Hallinan tried to persuade his bishop Dr. O’ Dwyer to provide an opening for a Salesian foundation in the Limerick diocese.  However, the bishop felt “there were enough foreigners in the country without bringing in more”.  On January 10th, 1918 Fr. Hallinan was appointed bishop of Limerick.  He was now in a position to provide an opening for Salesian works in Ireland.  He wished to have an agricultural college in his diocese under the direction of religious.  Negotiations were opened for the purchase of Copsewood College in Pallaskenry and the deeds were signed in September 1919.  Fr. Aloysius Sutherland was a member of the new Copsewood Community and without his interest and dedication and that of his brother John, a solicitor, it would have been an arduous task for the Sisters to extend their province from England across the Irish Sea.  Official permission from Rome to go ahead with the Irish foundation was issued on March 10th 1919.  During that same month Bishop Hallinan wrote to the English Provincial proposing to hand over St. Ita’s House, Thomas Street (now Áras Íde, Conradh na Gaeilge) to the order. (Appendix 1)

Srs. Giovanina Martinoni, Mary Gotto, Luigi Gotto and Kathleen Kearns (Appendix 2) arrived in Ireland and on November 8th, 1920 began an evening class for 250 girls who worked mainly in factories.  Reading, writing, maths, cookery, laundry work and religious instruction were the main areas covered in the classes.  Mr. Doody was the local inspector at that time and visited the school on a number of occasions.  His written remarks upon inspection of the school (Appendices 3-8) were always very encouraging.  A small government grant was paid for these classes.

On January 10th, 1921 a small private day school was started so that the sisters would be self supporting and able to continue evening classes for the factory girls.  There was much opposition to the opening of the private day school and the bishop was severely criticised by some of the religious orders in the city.

Eventually, four other Italian sisters who arrived on “Bloody Sunday” joined the pioneers.  Some of the sisters went to live in Richmond House, Summerville Avenue that had been purchased in November 1920.  This house had a brief history and was closed in October 1922.  It was not all plain sailing at St. Ita’s.  Interruptions were many as those were troubled times.  Snipers used the roof of St. Ita’s to fire at British soldiers on O’Mara’s roof.  One night St. Ita’s was mistaken for the Gaelic League and was raided by the Auxiliaries.  As there was curfew as well as danger the night classes had to be cancelled.   Fr. Sutherland, fearing for the Sisters’ safety, took them to Dromore Castle about 12 miles from Limerick City and nearer to Pallaskenry.  When the fighting quieted down the Sisters returned to St Ita’s and resumed the evening classes and clubs.  They also prepared groups of illiterate adults for Confirmation.



On September 1st, 1924 Fernbank House was purchased from the Cleeve family, and the first mass was offered on December 8th of that year.  The following April, the private school was transferred from St. Ita’s to Fernbank.  At that time Fernbank was a solitary house with a beautiful lawn and a question mark flowerbed.  The city had still to grow in that direction – Westfields, Clanmorris Avenue and the whole North Circular Road had yet to come. (Appendix 9)

In 1924 the sisters continued their evening classes in St. Ita’s.  The Compulsory School Attendance Act was passed in 1926.  The then Bishop of Limerick Dr. David Keane sent the Sisters regulations regarding the day school at Fernbank, from the summer of 1926 girls up to the age of 12 could be registered as pupils. (Appendix 10)  As a consequence of the above Act the evening classes in St. Ita’s were discontinued after 1928.  The Sisters missed the government grant they got for the evening classes but were glad to be free of the hardships of cold, late nights.  The school in Fernbank continued to cause concern as the Department of Education felt that St. Mary’s and St. Munchin’s adequately met the needs of the area. (Appendix 11)  Although the school activity was restricted the Sisters found a ministry with young people from various parts of the city who came in hundreds every Sunday to enjoy games, singing and amateur drama.  Time for prayer and religious instruction was an integral part of the programme.

In the early forties the number of pupils increased and the need for extra classrooms became a priority.  With great courage and really limited funds the Fernbank Sisters decided to build 5 classrooms (Rooms 1-5 on the bottom corridor).  A further development came when the Parish Priest, Mons. Moloney wanted a Primary School in his parish and wanted to make Fernbank the centre of his project.  At this time many houses were being built in the vicinity of Fernbank.  Simultaneously with the building project, the process for the recognition of a National School was proceeding at Departmental and parochial level.  In 1947 the approval of Fernbank as a National School was received.  On July 19th, 1947 the private school was closed.  Although Hegarty builders did not have the classrooms completed for September 1st, school went ahead for the pupils as every room in the house as well as the garage and sheds at the back were utilised!  The 5 teachers on the Staff were Sr. Margaret Lynch, Miss Kitty McCarthy, Miss Kathleen Dignam, Sr. Mary Brosnan and Mrs. Mary Walsh.

A “Secondary Top” was introduced in 1952.  In that school year thirteen girls prepared and sat for the Intermediate Examination.  All thirteen got honours.  Finally a Secondary School was opened in 1955.

With increasing numbers in the Primary School it was decided to establish a separate infant school.  The new school Croí Ró Naofa Íosa began on July 1st , 1965 with 534 pupils on the roll.  By spring 1968 there were 738 on roll with no prospects of another extension.

The suggestion that an Infant School for boys be built was not supported by the parish priest Canon O’Grady.  He suggested the erection of two prefabs in Caherdavin, a developing housing estate.  Sr. Mary Gillen, the Principal, supported him in this and travelled between the two schools until 1970 when the Bishop of Limerick established a new parish there.

In 1971 at a time when it was a relatively untried and untested form of education a section of Croí Ró Naofa Íosa was opened for the children of the travelling community.

Fernbank Primary is one of the 17 schools in Ireland which acted as a host school to the Panel of Supply Teachers.  This was established as a pilot project in 1993 and in September 1997 the 5 teachers on the Panel were appointed as Permanent teachers on the staff.  These probated teachers provided cover for teachers’ certified absences to 14 schools in Limerick.

The success of the Panel in Fernbank was recognised by the “receiving schools” for its efficient administration and the calibre of teacher on it.

The Panel of Supply Teachers was disbanded nationally by the DES in 2010.

Thousands of people have passed through Fernbank’s gates since 1924.  Each one has played a part in building up a tradition and spirit which is associated with Fernbank.  Bishop Murray in his homily for the golden jubilee of the Primary School in 1997 applauded this “Vision in Education” (Appendix 12)

Fernbank has experienced many challenges and changes since 1924.  However, one thing which has not changed is the commitment and emphasis that is placed on the value of relationships.  For Don Bosco, “Relationship is at the heart of education” and Mary Mazzarello advised, “It is necessary to study the individual character and to know each one so as to succeed well and inspire confidence”.

Perhaps our roots are the sources with creativity for the future.

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