Another wonderful offering from Margot Gearty.
In November 1908 four young Granard sisters were called to the parlour in the Loreto Boarding School, Bray, Co. Wicklow. They were informed by the Mother Superior that they were to return home immediately as their mother had died. “But it’s our father who was ill!” exclaimed Chrys, the eldest. Three months later their father also was dead. The loss of their parents was a devastating blow for the girls and their only brother Larry. The previous year, their nineteen year old twin sisters had died of tuberculosis, Lily at home in Granard and Rose a lonely death in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, where she had been sent in the hope of being cured. Now the remaining five teenagers had only each other.
They were placed in the charge of their uncle, Andrew Cusack, a draper in Granard. He took Larry, who was sixteen, out of St Mel’s College, Longford in order to run the family hotel, grocery and hardware business. Chrys was also kept at home to help. The three younger girls, Kathleen, Helen and Maud returned to the Loreto Convent in Bray.
But after the summer holidays of 1910 there was to be another change for the younger girls. Their guardian, an autocratic and
unconventional man, had decided to send them, together with his own daughter, Mary Cusack, to a new experimental school for girls at Cullenswood House, Ranelagh in Dublin. The school was called St Ita’s. The director was Padraig H. Pearse, B.A., Barrister-at-Law, a gentle idealistic visionary. His objective was to attempt for Irish girls what had been so successfully achieved for Irish boys at St Enda’s College in Rathfarnham.
From the prospectus I quote:
The primary aim of St Ita’s will be to foster the elements of character. It will endeavour to ground its pupils in sound moral and religious principles; to train them in practical Christianity and to awaken in them a spirit of patriotism and a sense of duty and obligation to their country.
The house-mistress was Mrs Bloomer, a Cambridge graduate. Others on the staff included Louise Gavan Duffy and the writter and critic Mary Maguire who would later marry Longford poet Padraig Colum. Willy Pearse was the Art Master. There were three teachers of music – for Irish Harp, strings, piano and singing. A wide variety of subjects appear on the school curriculum, including the sciences, classics, English, French and German while retaining an Irish tone to the school which would be bilingual.
Again from the prospectus I quote:
The grounds, which command a delightful view of the Dublin mountains, include a tennis lawn, a beautiful flower garden with vinery and conservatories, a well stocked orchard, a playing-field and an open-air gymnasium. The house is large and the rooms spacious and airy. The school will maintain that private and homelike character which has made St Enda’s so beloved of it’s pupils.
Small wonder that the three young Granard orphans and their cousin settled in quickly and happily to their new environment. Kathleen was appointed school captain while her cousin Mary Cusack became school secretary and co-editor of the Annals. In this booklet a photograph of Kathleen shows her wearing spectacles, looking studious and serious. She wears a high-necked broderie-anglaise dress and has quite an elaborate hairstyle. From the Annals also, one discovers that the school opened with only forty pupils – small in numbers perhaps but rich in experience. There were visits to the Municipal Art Gallery, to the Botanic Gardens and to the Abbey Theatre. The students had visiting lecturers, among them Sir Shane Leslie and a Miss Laird of London who spoke on Botany. They were addressed regularly every fortnight by Mr Pearse himself.
Visits were exchanged with the boys of St Enda’s for ceilidhes, debates and discussions. All Saints’ Day 1910 was celebrated by a fancy dress ball of major proportions with the girls making all their own imaginative costumes. Among the guests for the evening were the Pearses, Thomas McDonagh and Longford Poet Padraig Colum.
An entry in the school Annals dated the 6th of December records:
Five of our older girls went to a debate at St Mary’s University College, Eccles Street. The paper was read by Miss Askins on the topic ‘Self Government for Ireland’. We are all invited to a debate in University College on Wednesday the 14th of December which we hope to attend in a body. We also intend going to the Aonach to buy our Christmas presents.
St Ita’s closed it’s doors after only two years and with it ended this extraordinary experience for our young Granard friends. They went on to receive some business training before returning home to help their sister and brother in running their family business. They took their work seriously, stayed close as a family and started their own musical ensemble with which to entertain their many friends. They loved country life and went on long walks absorbing the beauties of their surroundings. They often took their visitors to climb the Granard Moat, just as we do today. St Ita’s had greatly enhanced their lives and instilled in them a love of nature their home and their country.
The story of Padraig Pearse would play a central role in the evolving Irish nation, while our little friend Kathleen, later known as Kitty, would become legendary simply because of Michael Collins, the man she fell so heart-breakingly in love with and who was to die at Beal na Blath on 22nd of August, 1922.