ST. BRENDAN’S COLLEGE, KILLARNEY – A GLIMPSE OF THE PAST…
A document in the College records states that when St. Brendan’s Diocesan Seminary was founded in 1860 it“…replaced and in part absorbed the old Killarney Seminary (Theo.) [i.e. Bishop Sugrues’s 1804-1822 College Street seminary] the Ardfert Classical School and other relics of pre-Emancipation days.”
It should not be forgotten that the seventy pupils who entered the new Seminary in 1860 were not just post- Catholic Emancipation children: most were born just before or during the Great Famine. They were fortunate to be children of the middle classes: shopkeepers, farmers and teachers, and so escaped the worst effects of the hunger, disease and emigration that caused such havoc all around them.
The emergence of diocesan seminaries like St. Brendan’s was partly a consequence of the Famine. Death and emigration had taken away so many of the old classical schools that a more enduring form of second-level Catholic education was needed, not only to serve the needs of Church and people at home but to help provide missionary priests for the ever-increasing number of Irish emigrants scattered around the world. Seminaries like St. Brendan’s were intended to satisfy these varying needs.
The school was founded as a boarding and day-school for boys. Day-pupils were called ‘Externs’. The school functioned for well over a century as a junior seminary with mainly priest teachers providing a grammar-school type education in an atmosphere that prepared aspirants to the priesthood for the disciplined spiritual life of the major seminaries: early rising, daily mass in the college chapel, evening study and night prayers in the chapel. Students, however, did not wear clerical dress and did not commit themselves to the religious life on entering the college but were free to make their decision at a more mature age when leaving the Seminary. The regime was strict but not monastic.
Bishop Denis Moynihan summed up the aims of the College founder in his address to the inaugural meeting of the St. Brendan’s Past-pupils Union in August 1959:
“Dr. Moriarty, the then Bishop Of Kerry, founded the Seminary to provide priests for the diocese, to provide priests to follow the Irish emigrants into every country in the world and also to provide men for the learned professions.”
The first principal or ‘Director’ of St. Brendan’s was Fr. Michael Barry, a renowned Professor of Rhetoric at All Hallows College, where Bishop Moriarty had once been president. Ill- health soon forced Fr. Barry to return to Dublin and Fr. Thomas Lalor, at that time just 25 years of age, replaced him as Director with Killarney man, Fr. John O’Doherty as co-Director. The first principal to have the title ‘President’ was Fr. Lalor’s successor in 1865, Fr. John Coffey (later Bishop Coffey) .
Teaching began in the autumn of 1860 in College House, a large private house in Lower New Street. When the present-day Bishop’s House was almost completed in February 1861 the school moved into to a large room on the ground floor. Boarders were accommodated in approved houses in the town. By 1865 some students were lodged in the newly-built Presentation Monastery. Because the Kerry Diocese extends into parts of Co. Cork, many students came from areas such as Millstreet, Glengarrif and Castletownbeare. It’s being a cathedral-town, the coming of the railway and it’s central location in the diocese made Killarney a natural home for a diocesan seminary.
The land for the college was leased from the Kenmare Estate at a ‘peppercorn’ rent.
Gradually new classrooms and dormitories were built: the Tower wing was added to Bishop’s House in 1870, thus becoming the first purpose-built college building. The President’s building which houses the administrative offices and the school canteen acquired it’s present form as a result of extensive rebuilding in the 1890s. The old College Chapel, with professors’ rooms and dormitory accommodation overhead, was added to the Tower building in 1914. Further major extensions followed in the 1930s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Adaptation of former boarding accomodation and the modernisation of educational and recreational facilities in accordance with present-day school needs has been carried out in recent years and is, necessarily, an ongoing process.
Sport has played an important part in the history of St. Brendan’s and its great contribution to the development of the GAA is widely recognised. Today a wide variety of sports and recreational activities are supported and encouraged with the assistance of volunteers from staff, parents, past-pupils and local clubs.
The first mention of a St. Brendan’s team was in a newspaper report of the college cricket-team’s victory over a Killarney XI in 1874. An 1890 newspaper report records a football match between a Seminary team and a “ Dr. Crokes 2nd. XXI” – with twenty-one players it was a bit easier to get on the team in those days . Account books record the repair of a cricket ball in 1865 and the purchase of a football from a shoemaker named Brosnan in 1867.
Until the late 1960’s the college was mainly staffed by diocesan clergy with a priest acting as President and school-principal. Gradually the number of lay-teachers increased and now all the teaching-staff are lay-people.
By the mid-1970’s the designation ‘seminary’ had ceased to be used and the school’s official title became ‘St. Brendan’s College’. However the college is still known locally as ‘The Sem.’
In 1971 Dr. Tadhg McCurtin became the first lay vice- principal. In 1997 the first lay-principal, Mr. Tony Behan, was appointed and a board of management was set up to manage the school. Fr. Larry Kelly was appointed Rector of the boarding school and continued in this role until boarding ceased in 1999.
From the first Director in 1860 to Fr. Kelly’s time as Rector a succession of 20 priests played leading roles in the administration of St. Brendan’s.
In 1996 the college opened its doors to girls who wished to repeat the Leaving Cert.
The succession of College Directors/ Presidents/Rectors/ Principals from 1860 to the present date is as follows:
Rev. Ml. Barry, Director, 1860; Rev. Thomas Lalor/ Rev. John O’Doherty, Joint Directors 1861-2; Rev. Thomas Lalor, Director 1862-5.
Rev. John Coffey, 1865-82; Rev. David O’Leary, 1882-98; Rev. Ml. Dowling, 1898 1900; Rev. Morgan O’Flaherty, 1900-04; Rev. Ml. Scanlan, 1904-06; Rev. Denis Brosnan, 1906-1914; Rev. Patrick Marshall, 1914-18; Rev. John Breen, 1918-28; Rev. Denis Brosnan, 1928-44; Rev. Christopher O’Neill, 1944-57; Rev. John Moynihan, 1957-67; Rev. Ml. O’Flaherty,1967-71; Rev. Donagh O’Donovan, 1971-81; Rev. James Linnane, 1981-85; Rev. Daniel O’Riordan 1985-95; Rev. Seamus McKenna, 1995-97. *
Rector of Boarding School:
Rev. Lawrence Kelly 1997-1999
Mr. Tony Behan 1997-2001; Mr. Ed O’Neill 2001- 2011; Mr. Sean Coffey 2011 to present.
Modern-day St. Brendan’s College is no longer a seminary, it is now a Catholic Diocesan College with a lay-principal and vice-principal, a board of management, a parents’ council, a students’ council and the Catholic bishop of the diocese as Trustee. It is open to students of all beliefs and so St. Brendan’s today is like Ireland itself: the great majority of the students are Irish but many come from other nations and cultures. The school provides secondary education in a wide range of subjects for students of all levels of ability who may aspire to the religious life in their own faith, to employment in the professions, in trades, in tourism, in agriculture, and in all aspects of the business world.
* Principals of the school usually took office at the beginning of the school year rather than the calendar year, hence the overlapping in the years of succession given above.