A drone shot of part of Summerhill. Photo: Corin Bishop

Street Wise Athlone – Summerhill

This series of articles for the Westmeath Independent is run in conjunction with the Street Wise Athlone series on Athlone Community Radio which is broadcast on Wednesdays during Athlone Today at 2.30pm and repeated on Thursday mornings at 10am on The Brekkie Show.

Athlone Miscellany by Gearoid O'Brien

Summerhill is a placename in the townland of Crannagh, in the civil parish of Drum, county Roscommon. Its fame has eclipsed that of Crannagh mainly because in more recent years it has become a very desirable place to live and also because it has two schools, Summerhill N.S. and St. Ciaran’s College which was the result of the amalgamation of St. Joseph’s College, Summerhill and St. Aloysius College, Athlone in 2017.

St Ciaran’s College is built in the grounds of Summerhill House which in the early 1840s was the residence of a local landlord, Mr Edward Murphy. In June 1843 the grounds of Summerhill House were used as a venue for a Repeal demonstration attended by Daniel O’Connell who address the assembled multitude, estimated at 150,00 to 200,000 people, from the shade of a beech tree to the left of the avenue approaching the house. Contemporary newspaper accounts of that meeting survive but by far the best account is that of a German gentleman Herr J. Venedy which was translated an publish in Dublin in 1844 as ‘Ireland and the Irish in the Repeal Year, 1843’.

Summerhill House

By the following year the house and grounds had become diocesan property. In 1844 Bishop George Browne of Galway was translated to the see of Elphin. He was a priest of that diocese and had served as Administrator of St. Peter’s parish prior to his appointment as Bishop of Galway. It was not surprising, therefore, that he chose to live in Athlone initially. Bishop Browne had a special relationship with the Ursuline sisters and had invited them to establish a boarding-school in Galway but before he left Galway, he persuaded them to follow him to Athlone to establish a school and orphanage at Summerhill. This they did in 1845. Bishop Browne later moved to Roscommon where he died in December 1858.

When Summerhill was vacated by the Ursuline sisters Bishop Browne established a Diocesan College at Summerhill in 1857. The College thrived in Athlone until it was transferred to a new purpose-built premises in Sligo in 1880. The move to Sligo included the retention of the name ‘Summerhill College’, which, of course, refers to Summerhill in Crannagh townland.

Among the famous alumni of Summerhill College Athlone were the politician and journalist T.P O’Connor and two future Bishops of Elphin, Bishop John Clancy (1895-1912) and his successor Dr Bernard Coyne, a native of Knockcroghery who was bishop from 1913 to 1926.

T.P. O’Connor wrote about going out to Summerhill from Athlone and he was obviously going via the Springwell Road. Another literary past pupil was the Irish-Australian Jesuit, Fr Michael J. Watson, who remembered the joy of the College Library cum Study-Hall: “where some seventy pupils (boarders) were engaged in the preparation of lessons for the morrow’s classes. A few days previously carpenters had been engaged in constructing book-cases, which they set up along one side of the hall, and the shelves had been stocked with a selection of English literary works. The silence which prevailed during the hour of study was broken by the entrance of the president and the masters. From the prefect’s pulpit the president spoke of the new school library, and announced the rules that were to be observed with respect to the books. The distribution of the volumes at once began, and each boy returned to his place with a story, a biography or a book of poems”.

Bishop Laurence Gillooly, Browne’s successor was ordained as a Vincentian priest but was appointed as Browne’s Coadjutor bishop in 1856. On Browne’s death he became Bishop of Elphin, he lived in Roscommon initially before establishing his episcopal residence in Sligo. In the Spring of 1880, the De La Salle Brothers came to Summerhill, at the invitation of Bishop Gillooly to establish an industrial school for boys at Summerhill but their stay in Summerhill was short-lived, and they pulled out in January 1882. The Sisters of Mercy took over the running of the orphanage in 1882 and in remained under their control until it closed in 1965. Bishop Gillooly was responsible for the building of both Summerhill College Sligo and the Cathedral in Sligo.

The Sisters of Mercy had provided second-level education at Summerhill from 1957. However, in 1965 the boarding-school element of ‘Scoil Pheadair’ in Athlone was transferred to Summerhill and by the mid-1970s St Peter’s Girls Secondary School had closed its doors and the last pupils transferred to St. Joseph’s College, Summerhill.

Crannagh Mills

The parish of Drum was very fortunate to have the late Edward Egan as their local historian. The books he wrote (or edited) including – Drum & its Hinterland, Bygone Times; A Near Forgotten History and Milling on the Crannagh Cross River are a wonderful contribution to the history of South Roscommon. Apart from his own research in local and national repositories Edward Egan was very conscious of the value of oral history and being of a gregarious nature he spent many hours interviewing older residents and recording their stories for posterity.

‘Milling on the Crannagh Cross River’ is a fascinating book in which he explored the history of several mills on the river. As one of the last people in this area who had the skill to dress a mill-stone he was well placed to write this history. One of the many valuable things he did was to clarify the fact that there were two mills called ‘Crannagh Mills’ – one in Crannagh and the other in Monksland.

The mill in Crannagh had a chequered history -it was run by Daniel Daly in the 1820s. Daly was a printer and newspaper proprietor in High Street, Athlone. During Daly’s time the house and mill in Crannagh were subjected to various agrarian attacks. Having lived in the house for a few years Daniel Daly moved back to the town where he died in 1825. In the early 1830s, Joseph Bigley had the mills but by 1835 they were under the control of John Tully. However, when the mill was being let again in 1840 applications had to be made to Mr Bigley – indicating that he either owned or was an agent for the owner of the mills. By the time Griffith’s Valuations for the area was compiled c1855 the flour-mill was described as ‘dilapidated’ and the property and land was owned by Richard P. Lloyd. The next miller at Crannagh, Patrick Watson, was bankrupt in 1861. He was succeeded by James Doyle a merchant in Connaught Street who later took over Millbrook Mill. By 1867 the mill was owned by Nicholas Daly who was the last man to operate the mill.

Edward Egan tells us that during the First World War the British military authorities rented the mill for use as a laundry. Subsequently the house attached to the mill was used as a meeting hall by local Republican volunteers attached to the Summerhill branch of Sinn Fein and it was burned down during a raid by the Black and Tans.

Griffith’s Valuations for Crannagh

In the volume of Griffith’s Valuations for the Barony of Athlone, Co. Roscommon the following land-holders were listed as living in Crannagh (which included Newtownflood): William Begley; Michael Connolly; John Connolly; Patrick Connolly; Richard Dolan; John Geoghegan; Philip Hayes; Peter Kilduff; Edward Tierney; Matthew Tully and James Watson. Much of the townland was part of the Potts Estate and it seems that James Watson lived in the Herd’s House, Ricard P. Lloyd another big landlord owned 45 acres of land in Crannagh in the mid-1850s.

Next week: Drum

See here for previous articles in this series.