St John's Industrial School, Birr (formerly Parsonstown), Offaly, Republic of Ireland

The St John's Industrial School for Roman Catholic Boys and Girls occupied premises at Wilmer Road, Parsonstown (now known as Birr). It was formally certified to begin operation on 5 July 1870 with accommodation for 70 girls and 20 boys. The girls were accommodated in part of a large convent building which also housed the town's National Schools. The boys occupied a separate building next to the Infant National School at the north side of the site. As well as inmates under detention, the institution admitted voluntary cases.

An inspection report in 1871 noted that the girls were instructed in various branches of needle and machine work in its different branches and also carried out housework, cooking, washing, dairy and farmyard management, and did some work in the garden. The boys were too young to do much work, but each had some part of the house under his care which had to be kept orderly and tidy. They ere taught some knitting, netting, mat-making, sewing and a little shoemaking. They washed their clothes, cleaned the house and did work in the garden. It was proposed to instruct some in wood carving, but as they would be transferred to a school for older boys on reaching the age of nine or ten, little more could be done than to teach them habits of industry. The staff at that date comprised Mrs M.A. Becket, plus a staff of 26 Sisters of Mercy who taught in the National Schools belonging to the institution and also took care of the inmates. There were also two paid matrons, one of whom had special care of the boys and the other attending the girls.

During 1874 the school-rooms were divided by glass partitions to assist supervision, the infirmary was fitted up, a new dairy built, exercise poles placed in the playground, and fowl-houses. Inn the same year, the superintendent engaged the services of an artist who held the highest class certificate from South Kensington. She came each week from Dublin to teach drawing and lithography in the school, and was paid twenty shillings a visit together with her travelling expenses to and from Dublin.

At the beginning of 1876, the boys then in residence were removed to the House of Charity Industrial School at Drogheda. The Parsonstown School then became a girls-only institution and the Drogheda School, also previously a mixed establishment, became boys-only. The former boys' accommodation at Parsonstown was then fitted up for those younger inmates requiring special care. In the same year it was noted that a room had been fitted up in which the girls worked at sewing machines, and a constant supply of work was obtained from outside customers and shops. The girls were taught household duties, as well as outdoor employments. As well as housework and laundry work, they cooked, baked bread, made confectionery, cured bacon, milked cows, made butter, and fed pigs and poultry. Girls of 'superior ability' were trained to be teachers.

In 1877, following the erection of a new National School building at the south side of the convent, the Industrial School took over its former wing at the north side. The School site is shown on the 1879 map below.

St John's Industrial School site, Birr (formerly Parsonstown), 1879.

Former St John's Industrial School from the north, Birr (formerly Parsonstown), 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Former St John's Industrial School from the north-east, Birr (formerly Parsonstown), 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Former St John's Industrial School from the north, Birr (formerly Parsonstown), 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Former St John's Industrial School from the west, Birr (formerly Parsonstown), 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Former St John's Industrial School from the south-west, Birr (formerly Parsonstown), 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

In 1880-81, a large addition made to the Industrial School accommodation which included a kitchen-storeroom, workroom, large hall, and principal staircase leading to a new well-ventilated and commodious dormitory and other apartments of the establishment. Demand for the girls' sewing skills continued to grow and included numerous orders from shops and private families. Their work included dresses, shirts, ladies' underclothing, vestments for the celebration of Roman Catholic services, Irish point and pillow lace, Honiton and Brussels lace, and embroidery on silk and leather.

In 1881, the small building previously occupied by the younger was converted for use as a residence for girls whose periods of detention had expired but who remained as voluntary inmates until obtained a suitable situation outside. A laundry was set up in connection with the building in which washing for private families could be received with the aim of making this department self-supporting. In 1883, A new garden was added to those already laid out, and a vinery and garden house erected. Four additional acres of land were obtained, and the dairy increased. The staff now comprised Mrs Becket with eight Sisters of Mercy, assisted by six paid officers who were former inmates of the School.

In 1906, after more than 35 years at the School, Mrs Becket was succeeded as manger by Mrs Mary C. Cassidy.

An inspection in 1911 recorded 86 committed inmates, 2 voluntary inmates, and 2 out on licence. In addition to Mrs Cassidy, the staff comprised seven Sisters of Mercy, two lay teachers, laundress, dressmaker, and Domestic Science instructress. In the classroom, performance in singing, recitation and composition was rated as 'very good', and in drawing, geography and grammar as 'good' to 'very good' in the different classes. Mental arithmetic was judged as being 'fair'. Physical training included drill exercises with dumb-bells, barbells and clubs. As well as the School's very good recreation grounds, the girls had frequent country walks. The conduct of the girls had been very good, with very few punishments inflicted. A mark system was in use whereby good behaviour was rewarded with privileges.

The School continued in operation until 1963. The building is now home to a community mental health centre.

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