Free access to secondary education courtesy of Callan CBS

Brother Jim Dunne on left watching President Hillery sign the visitor’s book in Westcourt

Coláiste Éamann Rís have just launched a book to celebrate 154 years in Callan County Kilkenny.

It is a book chockablock with information, stories and photos that is a must for any former student or indeed those with an interest in the history of Callan. Many former students were asked to contribute an article to cover the different decades of the school. One such contributor is Dr Joe Kearney.
Below, The Kilkenny Observer reproduces Joes article.

Imagine her propping the bicycle against Mrs Nolan’s side gate, adjusting the knot on her headscarf

and walking through the narrow entrance into the school yard. It would be evening time, after her day’s work had finished and more than likely she was weary. The light would be low in the sky at that time of year. I imagine her walking through the concrete yard past the toilet block, the handball alley silent, no crows or gulls squabbling over discarded bread crusts, the bicycle shed empty. The oppressive loneliness of a vacant school. She would have been uncertain of where to go. I see her looking about for direction, finally deciding to climb the stone steps, flanking her progress the severely pruned rose bushes not yet in leaf. She would have been impressed with the shine on the door brasses when she eventually stood outside the monastery. Before raising her hand towards the door did she pause to take stock of her surroundings? She was still a young woman and very much on unfamiliar ground. This was not the place for femininity. Here was a zone of brutal cement architecture, straight lines and silence. I believe her heart hammered louder than the knocker when she rapped on that big door. I do not know how long she had to wait before it swung open. She’d have held the letter in her hand when she asked to see Brother Bourke. The letter that I was instructed to pass to her and that requested her presence to meet with the brother superior of the Christian Brothers in Callan.

Maybe he saw how nervous she was, how she sat forward on the chair afraid to make an inappropriate move. Perhaps he offered her tea and a thin biscuit? I don’t know the words they spoke with one another but I do know that the exchange they made changed my life forever.


This was 1964, I was preparing to complete my Primary Certificate and that should have represented the end of the line for my formal education. There was no free second level education at that time and my mother did not have the resources to pay the required fees. I was destined for the labour market, more than likely destined for the boat to England. But this is where destiny intervened. Like a pointing finger from the Heavens in a Renaissance painting I was singled out. To this day it still astonishes me how and why that was the case. I was a very unlikely candidate for special attention, the child of an unmarried mother should have fallen through the education cracks and be allowed to cope with whatever chances life offered. However that evening in the Callan monastery changed all that. Brother Bourke explained that he thought I would benefit from secondary school education and that I would not be asked for fees. No one would be the wiser and I would be treated equally with my fellow students. And that was the case during the years that followed.


Donogh O’Malley, the then education minister, announced plans for free second level education in 1966 even though his proposal had not been sanctioned by the Department of Finance. It was a brave move for any politician. The scheme was finally introduced in September of 1967. But in the years prior to the implementation of that plan I was privileged to receive free access to secondary education courtesy of Callan CBS and in particular the superior Brother Bourke.

I can see him clearly in my mind’s eye. A tall man with a great shock of swept-back steely grey hair. Bespectacled and severe in outlook, he was a no-nonsense Christian Brother. When it came to corporal punishment he was a believer, to quote himself, in the ‘board’ of education. This was a time when Ireland viewed the offerings of Telefis Eireann in black and white. Most of all we loved cowboy films and Western TV programmes. There was one cowboy character called Stoney Bourke and naturally Brother Bourke became nicknamed ‘Stoney’. Well out of earshot of course. This unassuming teacher somewhere, at some time, thought and considered and concluded that one particular ragged-assed urchin should receive the blessing of free education on what he believed was merit alone.

`Brother Bourke was transferred to another educational establishment some years into my time in Callan secondary school. Even in his absence, the special arrangement he put in place for me continued seamlessly.


The Greek philosopher Heraclitus claims that you can never step into the same water twice. Life is a continual change. No balls sail over the side wall of that concrete handball alley into Mrs Nolans back garden. No one sneaks across the road to Micko Molloy’s stone-yard to drag on a cigarette butt amongst the tombstones. No one litters the ghost yard with chestnut halves after spirited conker fights. There are no crusts for the crows to fight over and yet that place has never left me. If the river of education that I have bathed in for the remainder of my life has a source, a wellspring, it is surely that early Spring evening when my mother adjusted her headscarf and raised the knocker on the monastery door in West Street Callan.

Dr. Joe Kearney is originally from Callan and his work has appeared in various publications over the years.

Copies of Coláiste Éamann Rís is available from the school and many outlets in Callan.


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