The Carmelites in Moate - A New Era

The Carmelites arrived in Ireland in 1271 and established their first foundations at Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, and at Whitefriar Street in Dublin. By 1500 there were twenty-five friaries in Ireland including Ardnacranny, Co. Westmeath. The Order was greatly weakened in Ireland by the Reformation but it did not disappear completely from the country. Some members continued to serve the people in the ministry of word and sacrament. Around 1770 the site of the present church and priory in Moate, Co Westmeath, was secured for the Carmelites by a Mr. Potts from the Clibborn family. Catholic Emancipation was granted in 1829 and the Carmelites responded to the need for Catholic educators by establishing schools wherever they had friaries.

In 1845 the Prior of Moate, Fr John Flynn, established, under the direction of the National Education Board, a boys’ school and a girls’ school. Later the Carmelites set up St. Kyran’s Academy for second level pupils, which lasted until 1880. The Carmelite Boys’ School closed in 1974 with the retirement of the then Principal, Mr. Griffin.

Carmelite College (Secondary School) began with the enrolment of thirty pupils in 1949. Fr Oswald McGrath was the first Principal and he guided the fledgling school in its early years. As the College flourished it became necessary to provide new accommodation. No State grants were available and funding had to be raised by the Order with the support of the people of Moate and adjoining areas. In 1955 a new building was erected and the surrounding tract of land provided for four football pitches, handball alleys and tennis courts. In 1956 the College accepted its first boarders and in 1962 a larger extension was added.

Football, athletics, tennis, basketball and badminton made a major contribution to the extra curricular activities of the College. Fr Michael Cremin trained the senior football teams, winning the All Ireland Colleges Final in 1976 and repeating this feat in 1980 and 1981. Those were red letter years for sport in the College.

Fr Gerry Hipwell, who died in a drowning accident in May 2004, was an excellent teacher and sports coach. He had an enormous influence on young people, boys and girls, starting the Spartan and Zeus Clubs. Those clubs helped many young people to acquire exceptional self-development and fitness. Fr Gerry was also responsible for founding the Photographic Club which was a training ground for creative approaches to photography.

It is sad to recall the deaths of other young Carmelites, besides Fr Gerry, associated with Moate over the years. Fr Stan O’Toole, fluent Irish speaker from Connemara, died in 1972 at the age of thirty-five. Father Liam Buckley, from the town, a fine commerce teacher and Principal of the College, died in 1980, aged thirty-eight years. Fr David Conaghan, a former Prior, artist and musician, died in 1994 at the age of forty. At the time of his death he was Secretary General at the Carmelite Generalate in Rome. Fr David left behind him an utterly beautiful collection of Moate scenes in watercolours, now a collector’s item.

Carmelite College closed its doors to education in June 1996 when it was amalgamated with the Convent of Mercy and Moate Vocational School to form Moate Community School. Such rationalization and amalgamation of schools had been taking place in smaller towns all over Ireland. Frs Jimmy Murray and Gerry Hipwell transferred as teachers to the Community School which the Department of Education located in the grounds of the former Convent of Mercy School.

Fr Gerry was still a valued teacher at the Community School at the time of his death. He also gave of his sporting, outdoor, debating and photographic skills to the new school. In fact, he was leading an expedition of pupils from the school on the Shannon when the accident occurred.

A new day
A new day has dawned. The friary has been extensively renovated. A repository for religious goods and books is proving to be very popular. The newly built Carmelite Pastoral Centre provides a venue for events connected with the church and priory, for pastoral services and for community groups. It is capable of holding up to 200 people. A Director is being appointed to run the Centre. The Bantile Hall has been transformed into a dance and drama training Centre catering for three hundred young people.

Another significant development is the collaboration of the Order with the Sophia Housing Trust Association in providing supportive accommodation and social development for people in need of housing from the local area. This project involves the Newtown buildings, the farmyard and garden. Facilities within the scheme such as the crèche will be open to the wider community. The project will be developed with public/state funding.