Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)
Brother Paul James O'Connor
By Brother Kevin M. Ruane
Source: Carloviana 1992/1993 Edition p. 20-22.
TWO generations have grown up about him since he came among us... He has devoted a long life and a highly cultivated intellect to the instruction and moral wellbeing of the youth of Galway... That Brother O'Connor has earned the gratitude of his fellow citizens everyone who knows anything of Galway must be aware; and probably there is no living teacher in whom is concentrated a more widespread and sincere affection. Thousands in other lands who have never seen him here have been taught to mention his name with gratitude."
(The Galway Vindicator - December 31,1864).
JAMES O'Connor was born in Rathornan, Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, in 1796. In 1823 when he was 27 years of age, James O'Connor joined the Brothers of St. Patrick at Tullow, where they had been founded just 15 years previously. He was professed in 1825 and the following year he was chosen by Bishop Doyle (of Kildare and Leighlin) to go to' Galway and establish a community of Patrician Brothers there. His journey, of course, was on foot and he arrived there in December, 1826. He was to spend the remainder of his long life in that city. A few months later he was joined by his colleague, and close friend for many years to come, Brother Anthony Mogue Redmond from Camolin, Co. Wexford.
The Galway Paul O'Connor came to was a poverty-stricken city with a teeming, bursting population. Just then efforts were being made by the clergy and some businessmen to get some schools, open to all children, established. Paul's job was to get as many as possible of poor, hungry children off the streets and into the school and give them at least the rudiments of an education. Recently the Presentation Sisters had begun this work for the girls and Paul undertook the running of the Boys' Free School in a partly newly-built, partly reconstructed former military barracks at Lombard Street. Also part of this former military' structure was the accommodation for the teachers, destined for more than a century to be the home of Brothers' community in Galway. In that 'monastery' Paul lived for the rest of his life.
Entered monastery on January 15,1827
Paul, with one companion, entered the monastery on January 15,1827, having in his own words "recited the Te Deum in thanksgiving to the Almighty." Whatever he was thankful for, it was hardly for anything that might be called the luxuries of life — one can imagine the cold sparsely-furnished quarters on that January day. On that day he began his Day-Book after putting Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam at the top; he ended that first day's entry with a financial statement: "Cash on hands on entering the monastery £0.1d."
The school consisted of two large classrooms, each 100 ft. long with high ceilings and totally undivided by wall or partition. In each of these chambers the teacher and his monitors might have up to 400 or 500 boys to teach. However, the numbers in the beginning were not so great, possibly 300 in the whole school. But they were to grow, and in the mid-1840s were to reach over 1,100. The Great Famine was to reduce this huge number and for the remainder of Paul's time the numbers seem to have evened out between 600 and 700. Of course attendances were nowhere as regular in those times as would be expected today.
School was operated as a charity
The school was operated as a charity and run by a committee who had to raise the funds annually to cover all costs, including pay for teachers. Paul operated the teaching of the school by organising it in the Lancastrian System whereby a small number of teachers could instruct a large number of pupils by the use of monitors. Monitors were just the older leading pupils in the school. Years later, one visitor to the school was to refer to Paul's "small army" of monitors.
After just three years Paul O'Connor came to realise that the destitution and wretchedness of so many of the school population were just too painful to be ignored. How could so many hungry, half-naked children be expected to come to school with any kind of regularity, if they came at all; or, in school, how could they learn anything when they might, at any moment, faint with hunger? Paul established another charity and began feeding some of the orphan boys attending the school. Depending on public benevolence, he canvassed, and continued to do so for the rest of his days, for donations to his Orphans,' or later, Poor Boys' Breakfast Institute. This began in May, 1830, and continued seven days a week and 365 days a year until long after Paul's own time.
Breakfast rather than a later meal was decided on for a number of reasons: to entice recipients to come to school more regularly; to stay in school after the meal; to be able to concentrate better at lessons. The breakfast consisted of oatmeal stirabout, seasoned with some molasses. Later, the menu would include Indian meal and, sometimes, rice. Paul always kept down expenses on everything else so as to be able to buy as much food as possible. Obtaining the food was never a problem, not even during the Great Famine, as long as he had money to pay for it.
On the first morning Paul fed 16 orphan-boys; by the end of that month there were 40 each morning; within a matter of months the number was in hundreds rather than dozens. The economic situation in Galway in the pre-Famine years was abysmal and unemployment on a really horrific scale as it was to continue thus right through all the 1800s. As the Famine conditions hardened in the mid-1840s, Paul found himself feeding an ever-increasing army of hungry boys each morning. The highest point was reached on a morning in March, 1848, when he fed exactly 1,005. Always meticulous in keeping his Day-Book and recording facts and figures, Paul seemed to have baulked when it came to mentioning deaths of his school children. Only once did such a fact slip through; that was in his Annual Report in May, 1848: "Died during the year: 51."
Whenever Paul had any funds to spare in later years when things had eased somewhat, — though even in the best of years the number for breakfast rarely fell below 200 — he spent it on clothing for the desperately needy. And as the years went on he devoted a lot of effort to obtaining jobs for boys on finishing school whom he had fed all through their school-life.
Promoted a self-help for boys
Also back in the year 1830, Paul tackled another problem. Because of the lack of opportunity, many of his pupils, even very capable boys, would be doomed to a semi-nomadic existence on the city streets after finishing their school career. To provide a self-help outlet for a few of these boys, he promoted a club for them, with a strong religious bent to it, that he called the Aloysian Society (after the patron of youth, St. Aloysius Gonzaga). Its members were taken from the senior boys in the school and they were to continue as members all through their teen years. They were expected to aim at a really high standard of excellence, thus continuing the spiritual formation begun at school. High ideals were set before them in the practice of genuine Christianity for the sake of God and other people. While he left control of the Society's affairs as far as possible in the hands of the boys themselves, Paul established himself as Guardian of the Society; his role was to offer inspiration and provide personal guidance and counselling to the members.
Brother Paul's life in Galway was thus, from early on, filled with activity — he ran a big school, where the number to help him was never more than three or four; he operated the Breakfast Institute and he was Guardian to the Aloysian Society. All those roles he continued to the very end of his life. He was also for most of his life head of the community he established in Lombard Street. There the number of Brothers remained small, taking a long time to reach five or six. When things improved a little, however, and there were seven in community in the early 1860s, Paul launched another foundation.
With the encouragement and support of the local bishop, he founded St. Joseph's Catholic Seminary. This was to be different from Paul's own monastery school in Lombard Street which was a free school aimed at the least well-off section of the population. St. Joseph's in Nuns' Island was to be fee-paying and aimed at the middle classes of the city. It was to be developed into a secondary school with a "Mercantile and Science Department" and eventually a "Classical Department." It opened in January, 1863 with around 200 pupils. Paul, however, did not go to teach there; he remained at his post in Lombard Street, satisfying himself with a supervisory role as director of the new school.
Once every four or five years during the summer break from school, Paul would journey back to Tullow for a month with, one feels certain, visits to his native Leighlin. In the early decades all these trips would be made on foot.
During his own formative years in Co. Carlow, Paul must have heard many eye-witness accounts of the events in Leinster in 1798. That, it has been said, may explain a note of patriotic fervour in his teaching. One of his pupils, the famous Dominican preacher, Father Tom Burke, OP, has written of Paul: "He taught me that next to God who made me, I should love the land of my birth." When Paul was drawing up the curriculum of the new St.
Joseph's Seminary one thing he included was that "the language and history of our beloved fatherland will be encouraged and cultivated."
Paul's two schools, although both are on sites slightly removed from the originals, are still in operation today — the first one, in Lombard Street, a primary school (St. Patrick's School), the other, in Nuns' Island, a secondary school (St. Joseph's College). The community founded by Paul lived on in the monastery in the old barracks until 1955. Then it moved to a new dwelling in Nuns' Island and in 1990 we moved to Kingston which is where Paul is buried.
Having lived to see the community purchase Kingston House, then
on the outskirts of the city, in 1877 with the intention of
establishing a novitiate for the Brothers in Ireland, Bro. Paul
died on April 17, 1878. He was buried in a newly-prepared
cemetery at Kingston House. A great many, or as one source put
it, "nearly all" the poor of Galway followed Paul's funeral
procession the two-mile trek to his final resting place.
Immediately, donations came from former pupils to put a proper
monument over his grave. Today that monument still reads:
"This cross was
erected by the people of Galway and by his affectionate pupils in
America, Australia and other distant lands as a memorial of their
love for one who devoted his life to the glory of God in the work of
education and in the service of the Poor".
Source: Carloviana 1992/1993 Edition p. 20-22.