St Kevin's Reformatory School, Glencree, near Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

St Kevin's Reformatory School for Roman Catholic Boys was established in 1859 at Glencree, in the Wicklow mountains near Enniskerry in County Wicklow. The School, which was Ireland's first such institution for boys, was instigated by the Dublin Catholic Reformatory Committee. The site at Glencree, which included an abandoned army barracks together with 100 acres of land, was leased for then purpose from Lord Powerscourt.

The Committee then approached a religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, to run the School. The Oblates had been founded in France in 1826, then in 1854 had established a mission in Ireland. Although the Oblates were known to be concerned for the poor, they had no experience of running a Reformatory. However, they visited the penal settlement at Mettray in France, where the boys lived in 'families' under the charge of a house-father. There was a regime of hard work and severe punishment for misconduct. Unfortunately, the nature of the large barrack blocks at Glencree did not lend itself to the small-unit style of organisation. On April 12th, 1859, St Kevin's was officially certified to receive up to 290 boys, aged from 11 to 13, who had been committed by the courts to a period of detention.

At the outset, the buildings at Glencree were found to be in a very unsound state and required considerable expenditure to repair and extend them in order to make them suitable for use. The accompanying land was described as 'far from being of a productive nature' and in need of 'much toil' to make it at all productive. In October, 1861, 173 of the School's 239 inmates were engaged in reclamation work on the land. In 1871, the average number of inmates was 324. The staff at this date comprised the Superintendent, the Very Reverend Matthew Shinnors, nineteen Oblate Brothers, a chaplain, band master, tailor, carpenter, and four farm servants.

Glencree Reformatory entrance, c,1872. © Peter Higginbotham

Glencree Reformatory entrance, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

The original barracks comprised a central house running north-south which housed the School staff, a parallel boys' accommodation block at the west (now derelict), and a third block at the south-west (now a café and exhibition centre) which originally contained the barracks' armoury and other facilities. Most of the new buildings (refectory, laundry, lavatory, school-rooms, kitchen, bake-house, workshops etc.) were placed along the south and east creating a quadrangle. Additions to the premises in 1881-82 included a play-hall, band room, and showroom for manufactured articles, with part of the central house being converted to an infirmary. The School had its own reservoir on the hillside at the north-west of the site. It also operated a gas manufacturing plant to provide lighting. The layout of the buildings in around 1910 is shown on the map below.

St Kevin's Reformatory School site, Glencree, c.1910.

Glencree Reformatory central house from the east, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Glencree Reformatory central house from the north-west, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Glencree Reformatory western range from the north-east, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Glencree Reformatory dormitory, date unknown. © Peter Higginbotham

Glencree Reformatory armoury block from the north-east, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

The School originally had a wooden chapel. This was replaced in 1872 by a stone building.

Glencree Reformatory chapel from the south-east, Glencree, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Glencree Reformatory chapel interior, Glencree, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Education at the School was under the management of a former National School teacher and the boys were taught reading, writing, ciphering and geography. Their industrial training included tailoring, carpentry, cabinet making, wood turning, quarrying, gas making, and agriculture. The shoes and clothing of the staff and inmates were entirely made by the boys. A fife and drum band was also formed with the purchase of instruments funded by charitable donations.

Glencree Reformatory band, date unknown. © Peter Higginbotham

In 1871, the School suffered a serious outbreak of smallpox which was introduced by a boy who had made a visit to his home in Dublin prior to his being released. Eventually, 61 boys contracted the disease, with two dying at the School and two others plus a night watchman dying at the Dublin smallpox hospital. To tend to the afflicted, a doctor, two trained nurses and two assistant nurses were brought in to provide round-the-clock care. Afterwards, clothing was destroyed and the buildings disinfected.

In 1881, arrangements were made with the Canadian Government to send a number of boys from the School over to Canada. The Archbishop of Toronto had promised that accommodation would be available for the boys until employment was found for them, and that local priests made it their business to look after young emigrants.

During the First World War, Glencree is said to have been used to house German prisoners of war.

By 1939, the accommodation and amenities at Glencree Reformatory were proving increasingly inadequate. There were only two dormitories for the 190 boys in residence and only four indoor lavatories. In winter, they had to dig their way through four feet of snow on occasions to get to the outdoor lavatories. There was no laundry, so that clothes could not be washed. The cost of rectifying these problems was such that in 1940 the institution was closed and the boys transferred to the Daingean Reformatory. The Oblates also departed from Glencree at this time.

During the Second World War, Glencree is said to have accommodated German military prisoners, including German air force pilots who had crashed in Ireland. In 1946, the premises were taken over as part of the Red Cross 'Operation Shamrock' scheme. The buildings were used as a reception centre for children from Germany who had been orphaned or displaced during the Second World War. After a period at Glencree, the children were found foster homes across Ireland though by 1949 most of the thousand or so children dealt with by the scheme had been returned to Germany.

Since 1975, the site has been home to the Glencree Reconciliation Centre. The former School chapel, now St Kevin's Church, has been taken over by the local parish.

Records

Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals.

  • Barnardo's Origins Tracing Service — for people (and their families) who spent all or part of their childhood in an Irish Industrial School and are interested in tracing information about their parents, siblings or other relatives.
  • Irish Petty Sessions Court Registers 1828-1912 (available online to subscribers of findmypast.co.uk) include details of committals to Irish Reformatories and Industrial Schools.

Bibliography