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
(The Galway Vindicator
- December 31,1864).
Brother Paul James O'Connor
By Brother Kevin M. Ruane
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
— 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
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
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,
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
Brother Paul's life in Galway was thus, from early on, filled
— 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
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
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:
Inscription on front of monument reads: Pray for the soul of
Brother Paul O'Connor a member of the A Religious Institute of
the Brothers of Saint Patrick who departed this life on the 17th
of April A.D. 1878 in
the 84th year of his age and 53rd of his Religious Profession.
Photo courtesy: Bill Scanlan, Galway City Museum.
"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.
- The information
contained in these pages is provided solely for the purpose of
sharing with others researching their ancestors in Ireland.
© 2001 Ireland Genealogy Projects, IGP