The Village Schoolmaster
John Conwill (1802 -1880)
By Myles Kavanagh
IN May, 1832 the Rev. P. Kehoe, P.P., made the initial
application to the Chief Secretary of Education in Dublin
Castle for permission to build a National School in
Ballinabranna, Co. Carlow. Several other communications
took place between Fr. Kehoe and the Chief Secretary until
the school in Ballinabranna was opened in the Autumn of
1833. Fr. Kehoe then succeeded in establishing a Female
National School in Ballinabranna and it was opened on the
27th April, 1835.
The site for the first National School in Ballinabranna
was in a corner of half an acre of land attached to the
Chapel of Ballinabranna and the landlord, Mr. John
Alexander, had given this free of all rent. The chapel
ground had been vested in the following trustees: Right
Rev. Dr. Doyle, deceased; Rev. A. Coss, deceased; Pat
Kehoe, Craan; Garret Cullen, Andrew Slavin, Ballinabranna;
Pat Neil, Ballinabranna.
Two thirds of the cost of building the school, £81-6-8,
was provided by the Commissioners of National Education
and the remaining third, £40-13-4, was contributed by the
people who also gave their labour and that of their horses
The school was built of lime and stone and the roof was
slated. The dimensions were 40 ft. by 20 ft. and 11 ft.
clear of the floor in height. The room contained 10 desks
and seats to accommodate 100 children. The source for the
annual income was to be the weekly contributions of the
children which was expected to amount to about £14.
Saturday was set apart for religious instruction and
children were not compelled to attend. Religious
instruction was from 9.00 a.m. to 10.00 a.m. each other
week day. The school day ended at 4.00 p.m.
Aid towards paying the Master his salary and towards the
following requisites was also sought from the
Commissioners of National Education 1 Set of spelling,
reading and arithmetic tablets; 12 doz. of lesson books in
parts viz. 3 doz. of each part; 10 doz. of slates 9" x 6";
6 arithmetic; 18 class lists; 5 sets of copy lines; 500
cutters; 3 reams of ruled copy paper.
The average attendance for the first three months was 100
males and 30 females. Further examples of attendances:
29/4/1836 - 148. 28/10/1836 175.1837 -142.1837 175.1838
178. 1838 196. 1840 236. 1841 261.
The school was under a committee: Treasurer, Pat Kehoe,
Craan, and Secretary Rev. P. Kehoe, Leighlinbridge.
The first teacher in this school was John Conwill and he
was appointed by Rev. P. Kehoe. In one of his letters to
the Commissioners of National Education Fr. Kehoe stated
this about John Conwill "About five years ago he was
trained in the Bagenalstown School which was conducted on
the Lancasterean System. I enclose you a copy of a
certificate of the teacher of said school. He is the son
of an excellent teacher and has been teaching for the last
eleven years. The Master has been promised twenty pounds
this sum is expected to be derived principally from the
payments of the children".
John Conwill was born in 1802 to Edward and Catherine
Conwill of Rathornan and received his education in his
father's hedge school in Rathornan. In Brenan's book
"Schools of Kildare and Leighlin" (1775 - 1835) the
following is recorded "Ballyknockin, Leighlinbridge.
John Conwill, Roman Catholic. Pay School Income £18.
Schoolhouse of lime and stone; he pays £2-10-0 a year for
it. Average attendance: Summer 1824 males 30, females
20. Established Church 4, Roman Catholics 46. Not
connected with any society. Scriptures not read".
The next official record to be found is from the
certificate forwarded to the Commissioners of National
Education by Rev. P. Kehoe
Copy of Certificate
"I certify that Mr. John Conwill has been trained at the
Bagenalstown Parochial school in the system recommended by
the Kildare Street Society for providing the education of
the poor of Ireland and I consider him fully competent to
conduct a school upon the principles founded by the above
September 28th, 1829.
In the Autumn of 1833 John Conwill was appointed teacher
to the first National School in Ballinabranna, Co. Carlow.
During his time as principal teacher in Ballinabranna from
1833 to the 30th September, 1847 his reputation as a
teacher grew and as can be seen from the examples of pupil
attendances given already, numbers increased dramatically
and pupils travelled from outside the area to receive
their education from John Conwill. Sergt. Tyndall of
Leighlinbridge sent his son John and his daughter Emma to
Ballinabranna to continue their education under Master
Conwill. The Sergeant was as loyal a subject to the
British Government of his time as any other member of the
Police Force, had a reason in sending his children from
Leighlinbridge to Ballinabranna each school day; the
reason is explained in the following the Protestant
clergyman became suspicious, when he learned that two of
his flock were attending a Catholic school, so, he sought
out the Sergeant and asked him the reason, to which the
Sergeant replied "There is not a teacher in County Carlow,
more qualified to teach my children than Master Conwill,
and it is to him John and Emma will go even if it is from
the altar he teaches".
This John Tyndall went on to be the great Professor
Tyndall, Scientist, Mathematician, Educationalist and
Mountaineer of whom much has been written. Tyndall states
that Master Conwill was an expert in Geometry and that he
would teach Land Surveying and Geometric Calculus to the
boys of the higher classes.
Master and pupil would walk home together discussing
Geometry. Both of them had the ability to visualise lines
in different planes, without diagrams or sketches but when
they got around to the problem questions and cuts that
they had invented for themselves, they were wont to draw
their diagrams in the gravel, dirt, mud or snow. This was
happening almost daily during the years 1837 - 1839. It is
not generally known whether they were considered idiots or
maniacs or if Emma was forced to wait as master and pupil
made their halting way homeward through Ballygowan, Tomard
Pension of £50 a year
Professor Tyndall never forget the debt he owed to John
Conwill and kept up correspondence with him while he
lived, he sent him a copy of each of his books as soon as
it was published, and took a wrap on the knuckles with a
good grace when the dominie disagreed with his views. He
also showed his gratitude in a practical manner by giving
him a pension o££50 a year.
Conwill was a man of parts. An able mathematician, he
taught the rudiments of algebra, the elements of plane and
solid geometry, trigonometry and conic sections. He gave
practical lessons on surveying and would send the boys out
two at a time to measure intricate places. On the return
of a first pair, two others would be despatched to the
same place and the results of both sets compared.
On the 22nd January, 1840 John Conwill was married to Mary
Carty of Craan. Mary was the sister of Owen Carty from
Park, Tinryland, who had purchased an 83 acre farm in
Craan. Owen then lived in Craan but all his eight children
were christened in Tinryland. Kathleen Carty, age 80
years, of St. Lazerians House, Bagenalstown is a
grandaughter of Owen. The witnesses at the wedding were
Jas. Darcy and Peggy Crow.
John taught in Ballinabranna until the end of September,
1847 and during that time while living in Rathornan, his
father died on the 6th July 1836 aged 64 years, Mary his
wife gave birth to 3 children Catherine 27th December,
1840; Mary 7th October, 1844 and Edward 11th October,
In 1841 John Tyndall was working with the Ordinance Survey
in Youghal and Kinsale and the following are just a couple
of examples of Conwills correspondence with him.
"In youth my scholar, and in age my friend,
"Our love, dear Tyndall, but with life shall end;
"Tho' sever'd now by intervening space,
"Our souls and wishes join in sweet embrace."
January 18th, 1841.
"My dear Tyndall"'
I possess an unbounded predilection for mottoes, and
therefore I have selected one, which in my humble
judgment, conveys in the fullest terms my good wishes
toward you; though some of the Munster sentence makers
might have the audacity to construe this motto into an
effeminate harangue made by some unfortunate paramour to
the fair portion of his fondest wishes, but I shall leave
you to maintain the contrary. For the manly exposure of
Hennessy's ingratitude and lying conduct, I do sincerely
thank you. It is what I anticipated from the pen of him
whom I shall ever revere.
Beautiful sheet of snow
The other evening when Sol had nearly completed his course
o'er heaven's blue arch, I was crossing Frenchhorn-hill.
It was covered with a beautiful sheet of snow, which was
rendered delicately white by the declining rays of the sun
as he was sinking in the west: Here, said I in my
soliloquy, Tyndall and I delineated some mathemetical
diagrams when all nature wore its mantle of grey. Well,
when I exclaimed in my enthusiastic reveries, I must
commemorate the scenes of other days, so I commenced on my
favourite spot to draw out geometrical schemes and
eventually discovered the following beautiful theorems,
which as an addenda to my apostles I sent you;
In the trapezium ABCD, if
L rts, to prove
the L ABC
L ADB, within
the limits of the 1st B of Euclid, and without introducing
the property of the circle.
Having established the preceding theorem, you can by means
of it and one of my geometrical apostles, demonstrate
proposition B, Prop C, and Prop D of the VI B, of Euclid
within the limits of his 1st book.
I have nothing of a local character to inform you of save
a melancholy accident that lately befell myself.
I was reposing the other night, whilst my thoughts were
wandering about Youghal in pursuit of my Tyndall; Mary my
wife, told me to begone: I was obliged to fly, though I am
not an aliped my wonder at such conduct ceased not during
the night; in the morning what news did I receive? I was
told that Mary had given birth to a young daughter, she is
I request that you may not raise your sarcastic pen to
lash me for my inconsistency, if I have erred it is
through love of you.
I remain Your sincere teacher
Happy the man who far from strife
In shades paternal leads his life
Stranger to ills that fortune brings,
From bed at early twilight springs
Before the cock salutes the morn
Or hunters sound the echoing horn
Ere thro' the canvas shuttles play
Or lark salutes the rising day
By health and vigour taught to toil
To drive the team or turn the soil
Or by his task yon towering oak
Bows its tall head beneath his stroke
And thus employed with double force
Time urges on his rapid course
Till sol has lost his mighty power.
Of gilding o'er the cloud top'd tower
Then without guide he measures o'er
The path so often trod before
By fire or candle light made gay
He sits and chats the night away
Like Joseph faithful to his trust
Honest himself thinks all men just
From bribes and fell corruption free
No gold charms him to infamy
Tho' boys well versed in lettered lore
Despise the rustic and the poor
Say blessings may be found in schools
And weak as water pen down rules
He wisely has the truest wealth
Possessing competence and health.
June 27th, 1841.
"My dear Tyndall"
When I read your poetical effusion I felt at a loss for a
topic on which I might compose some lines in verse, till
the present state of our ever-to-be-distracted and
ill-fated country presented itself to my views. Alas! I
said, are the natives of old Erin to be eternally pitted
against each other by the crafty wiles and cunning tricks
of those political knaves, who are enjoying the loaves and
fishes, whilst the peasantry are labouring under the most
heart-felt privations in many parts of the Island. I shall
never broach this subject again, as I hold in abhorrence
all notions of politics. The reason that compelled me to
mention the subject in this letter is, that you may
understand the motives which induced me to compose a few
paltry lines on the contented villager.
I am a very bad poet and were it not that there was
something of magic in your splendid lines, I would not
presume to write one word in meter; I deem myself no adept
in prose, much less in rhyme. Pardon any thing incongruous
in the poetical prelude to my letter.
I informed you in my last letter that Ford and Whealan
were determined to be present in Professor Murphy's school
whenever the pubic examination would take place. The
examination has passed over and my boys were spectators.
But observe, Murphy thought to keep Ford out. The Revd.
Mr. Murphy, who is my friend, linked Ford to the
Professor's desk and suggested to the doctor not to
presume to preclude any person from appearing in a school
instituted by the public and the government.
Sheehan went through his usual routine of business; so
much so that he pronounced the whole clique a set of
dan-dra-heads. And why not? read the following
Sheehan asked the grammar class was the following sentence
correct English: "I intended to have come last week" The
lads proved to be very idiots on the occasion and surely
so they ought, for their learned and plumbean professor
insinuated to them when they failed that conjunctions
connect the same moods and tenses of verbs. Now by what
kind of insertion Murphy could introduce a conjunction
into the sentence I leave you to judge. I must now wish
you farewell for some time.
Your ever faithful teacher
On the 1st October, 1847 John Conwill had moved to
Leighlinbridge Boys N.S. and presided over Michael Holmes,
a paid Monitor and John Lawlor.
The school building in Leighlinbridge was first built in
1729, repaired in 1863 and the gallery erected in 1875.
The dimensions were: (1) length 55 ft., breadth 18 ft.,
height 18 ft. (2) length 20 ft., breadth 18 ft. height 7
ft. 8 ins.
The building was opened as a school in 1826 and then in
1833 as a National School.
From 1847 until he retired in 1877 John Conwill taught in
Leighlinbridge N.S. John and Mary still lived in Rathornan
and they had seven more children. Bridget 7th January,
1849; Ellen 30th July, 1850 (died young); John 9th April,
1852; Ellen 10th February, 1854; Patrick 29th July 1855;
Margaret 19th January, 1858; James 23rd April 1861.
All the children went to school in Leighlinbridge either
to their father's school or to the Female N.S. and at
sometime may have taught there as well. A selective
research in this area shows the following as teaching:
1-2-1856, Catherine Conwill;
1-4-1867, Bridget Conwill.
Edward Conwill 1869 - 1877;
John (Junior) Conwill 1-4-1868;
Patrick Conwill 1-4-1870.
On St. Patrick's Day 1862 at the age of 88 years John's
mother died and was buried with her husband in the
graveyard in Ballinabranna.
150 little urchins
On 8th July, 1854 Tom Hurst describes in his diaries,
after he had visited the home of John Tyndall in
Leighlinbridge his visit with John Conwill as follows "I
set off to find this old schoolmaster. I crossed over the
old bridge guarded by the old castle and traversed the
village now almostin ruins, until at last a little girl
led me to the village school. I entered to the
astonishment of 150 little urchins who stared open-mouthed
at me; and at the far end of the room I met the little man
a cadaverous-looking, thin-faced man, with a felt hat on
and a green shade over his left eye. 'I am a friend of Mr.
Tyndalls said I, 'and having learned that his old
schoolmaster was here, I came to look at him'. The little
man was mightily pleased with what he pleased to call my
condescension; asked my name, which he repeated to himself
several times as if to imprint it on his memory. He spoke
of John with great pride, and told me how once when he was
in poor circumstances John had nobly offered him
assistance. He was a thorough schoolmaster, full of
quotations which he delivered mouthily, and looked
importance itself. He reminded me very much of Goldsmith's
From folklore too, come stories relating to Conwill e.g.
when: John Tyndall was at the height; of his fame he
revisited his old; school. The teacher asked him to
question the class. He proceeded to do so, and presented a
half sovereign to each boy who was familiar when
Pythagoras' Theorem. It was no surprise to discover that
one of the boys to receive this unexpected wealth; was a
son of Tyndall's former; teacher John Conwill.
Another story relates to the Lyons children of Moanduff
who attended Conwill's school in Leighlinbridge between
1848 and 1853. One of the boys had gone off to join the
army and one day the Master was speaking this verse to the
"My son John to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you will find him".
Lyon's brother still in class took exception to this
verse and retorted
"Conwill John with one eye gone,
Under a green patch you will find it".
The register in Leighlinbridge N.S. shows that pupils come
quite a distance to attend Conwill's school. In the years
1848 -1855 pupils from Tomard, Ballinabranna, Clochristic,
Garryhundon, Nurney, Cloneen, Fonthill, Augha, Dunleckney,
Bagenalstown, Royal Oak, Shankill, Tinegarney, Cool-cullen
and Old Leighlin attended the school in Leighlinbridge.
In the Examiners Book of 1876 and 1877 in Leighlinbridge
N.S. it is interesting to note that the examining was
carried out by District Inspector A. Conwell.
The following is a sample of Conwill's salary during his
1824 Ballyknockin Pay School. ..£18
1835 Ballinabranna N.S. ... £12
1840 Ballinabranna N.S. ... £20
1847 Ballinabranna N.S. ... £20
1848 Leighlinbridge N.S. ... £25
1853 Leighlinbridge N.S. ... £36
1856 Leighlinbridge N.S. ... £46
1869 Leighlinbridge N.S. ...£52
1876 Leighlinbridge N.S. ...£52
The National Education Board graded all its teachers
according to the reports it received from its inspectors,
who examined the pupils in the schools twice a year. John
Conwill despised all these inspectors and this is made
quite clear in a number of his letters to John Tyndall.
Yet, all inspectors' reports on Conwill are excellent. The
Board graded teachers as follows: Class 1 Grade 1, Grade,
2, Grade 3, i.e. 11, 12, 13.
Class 2, Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, i.e. 21, 22,
23. Class 3, Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, i.e. 31,
32, 33. John Conwill received the
highest grading 11.
John Conwill retired from teaching in Leighlinbridge N.S.
in 1877 after spending 56 years of his life teaching. He
died on the 23rd June, 1880 at the age of 78 years and he
is buried in the family grave in Ballinabranna. His wife
Mary died the 31st May, 1900 age 80 years and is also
buried in the family grave in Ballinabranna.
Conwill's teaching in Leighlin Parish began with Edward in
his home at Rathornan in the second half of 18 century and
reached its peak with Edward's gifted son John in
Ballinabranna and Leighlinbridge from 1832 to 1877.
Conwill's teaching continued in Rathornan until the close
of the 19th Century.
Famous Conwill pupils
Some distinguished and famous Conwill pupils. Professor
John Tyndall (1820-1893) attended school in Ballinabranna.
Myles Kehoe (1840-1876) Captain in the 7th U.S. Cavalry
and slain at the Battle of The Little Big Horn, attended
school in Leighlinbridge.
Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran (1830-1911). First Cardinal
of Australia, attended school in Ballinabranna.
Bishop Patrick Foley (1850-1926), Kildare and Leighlin,
attended school in Leighlinbridge.
Fr. John Foley (Bishop's brother) and former President of
St. Patrick's College, attended school in Leighlinbridge.
Dr. Michael Maher, S.J. (1860-1918), Psychologist and
Philosopher, attended school in Leighlinbridge.
Dr. William Delaney S.J. (1835-1920), twice President of
University College, Dublin, attended school in
Professor Robert Donovan held the chair of English
Literature in U.C.D. and was first Editor of the "Irish
Catholic," attended school in Leighlinbridge.
National Archives, Four Courts, Dublin 7.
Martin Nevin, Leighlin bridge.
Rev. Fr. J. Aughney, P.P., Leighlin.
School of Kildare and Leighlin, Brenan.
Mrs. Margaret Doyle, N.T., Carlow.
Mrs. Anne Larkin, Leighlinbridge N.S.
Alan and Angela Doran, Leighlin bridge.
Andy O'Keefe, Leighlinbridge.
Tom Hurst Diaries.
Rev. Fr. M. Kelly, P.P., Ballinakill, Co. Laois.
Mr. Christy O'Shea, Ballinakill, Co. Laois.
Mr. Jim Kehoe, Rathvindon. Royal Institution of
Mrs. Fender, Craan, Leighlinbridge.