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News > General > The Development of Catholic Education in Lurgan

The Development of Catholic Education in Lurgan

The influx of workers into Lurgan during the period 1750-1800 attracted a considerable number of poorer people. This situation saw William Brownlow and some of the town’s gentry set about establishing a school that would cater for the educational needs of their children.

Thus saw the setting up of Lurgan Free School in 1786 which in its first year enrolled a total of 239 pupils; 142 boys and 97 girls. The breakdown in religion was 47% Church of Ireland, 45% Catholic and 8% Presbyterian. The first Free School started its life at the top of North Street. Although named as ‘free’ schools, those pupils who could, were asked to pay a penny a week! 

Brownlow, MP for the area was at the forefront of this initiative and it is interesting to note that under his father’s employment was one Peadar O’Doirnin, from South Armagh, well known in those days as an Irish Language poet and school teacher. His task was to act as tutor to the Brownlow children, one of which of course was William Brownlow.

Before the National system of Education in 1831, there were 25 schools providing education for 1,050 children in the north east of County Armagh. They were referred to as pay schools, having originated from ‘hedge schools’ which had in the past been illegal Catholic schools. Parish schools sprung up, with a school in Derryadd joining that of Lurgan. Soon to follow in 1830 was Tannaghmore and other schools at Aghacommon and Tullygally.

Before the National system of Education in 1831, there were 25 schools providing education for 1,050 children in the north east of County Armagh. They were referred to as pay schools, having originated from ‘hedge schools’ which had in the past been illegal Catholic schools. 

However, the National system of education did not prove to be popular with the main churches with the Presbyterian Church being initially against it, while the Catholic Church was totally in favour, as at the beginning, Catholic priests were able to go into all of the schools and offer Religious education. This was contested by the Presbyterian churches and COI with some schools being burnt down in protest. This abated eventually and by 1840 education continued unmolested.

Charles Brownlow proved to be a major benefactor for education of the Catholic children of Lurgan. His liberal ways did not endear himself to his co-religionists but this did not deter him. Many years prior to 1829, he had granted the use of his outbuildings in the Dougher to the Catholic Church for use as a chapel and later his Brother Charles would give the land for the St Peters Church.

The site of the first Catholic church in the Dougher cemetery is commemorated today by a cross, which is sited above the altar of the original building. On the building of St Peter’s Church in 1833 in North Street, these buildings in the Dougher then became St Peter’s School for Boys and it remained as a school until the pupils moved into the ‘new’ St. Peter’s school alongside St Peter’s Church. This arrangement saw pupils receive their education there for the next 130 years.

Fittingly, also in the Dougher is a small memorial to one of the first teachers.

“Eugene McKenna. For many years the beloved teacher of the Male Catholic School of this town, who taught in the first Catholic school. Date of death: 13/3/1868.”

Brownlow was also instrumental in setting up Tannaghmore School in 1833 as he fought its case to be given school status. Aghacommon School was not so fortunate as it took a long campaign by the Parish Priest, Fr Morgan, before it and a school at Derryadd, was given similar status. It was eventually admitted to the National system in 1834, with an extension built in 1843 to accommodate ‘females’ 

One significant event took place in Lurgan in 1866, when the Sisters of Mercy opened two schools inside their new building, built alongside their convent. One school for girls was named St Mary’s while the other for boys, was named St Joseph’s.  They also opened night classes for adults, mainly for those wishing to learn to read and write. Due to continuing numbers, a new school was built in Edward Street in 1875 at a cost of £1,000. A Girls’ industrial school was then built by the Mercy Order in 1888, while in 1892, a building and property known as ‘Irishtown Hill House’ was built at Cornakinegar, on the outskirts of the town. This was a Boys’ Industrial school, and was known as St Michael’s.

Due to falling numbers in the early 20’s, both schools were forced to close. However, St Michael’s Industrial School reopened as a boarding school for girls in 1924 before changing its name in 1947 to Our Lady’s Grammar School.

Sacred Heart School 1912
Sacred Heart School 1912

Education did not become compulsory until the setting up of the state of Northern Ireland in 1921, which saw school attendance raised from 12 to 14 years of age. Following this, a plethora of primary schools came into being to cater for the growing population of young people. 

Photo of St Peters Primary School 1920
St Peters Primary School 1920

Tannaghmore and St Peter’s had been joined by Silverwood P.S, , St Patrick’s, Aghacommon and St Mary’s, Derrytrasna while to the North of the town, Halftown School (later to evolve into St Teresa’s) was one of many schools to serve the Lough shore. St Patrick’s, Aghagallon, St Mary’s Derrymore, Ballymacrickett and Feumore were also added to the list. In County Down, Lurganville, St Patrick’s, Magheralin and St Colman’s, Kilwarlin, came into being and as the years evolved, all of these primary schools became the feeder schools for the new Secondary schools which were built in Lurgan. St Mary’s Secondary School opened its doors in 1958, while St Paul’s Secondary School came into being.

St Mary's Secondary School 1963

The building of new housing estates in Shankill, Kilwilkie and latterly Teghnavan , saw an increase in the school population and surrounding areas, with Tannaghmore School and the schools in the town in particular, increase in numbers. All of the primary schools in the area were co-educational, except in Lurgan itself, where boys and girls initially attended the Convent of Mercy, in Edward Street, until they made their First Holy Communion. At that stage, the girls went on to attend the Sacred Heart School with the Sisters of Mercy, while the boys moved to St Peter’s School in North Street.

St Paul's Secondary School

Two other significant events also took place in that period,, in 1945 and 1947. In 1945, St Mary’s Training College, until then the preserve of women teachers, accepted male students for the first time. Before this, male teachers had gained their qualifications at St Patrick’s Training College, in Drumcondra, Dublin or at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill in London. The other event in 1947, saw the new Education Act have a massive effect on the school population of Lurgan and beyond. The introduction of the 11 plus examination saw grammar school education, for long the preserve of a small number of the population, now available for all. 

St Michael's Grammar School
St Michael's Grammar School 1956

The main effect of this was to see a sizeable number of boys leaving Lurgan and heading to colleges in Newry, Armagh and Belfast while girls, in the main, stayed to be educated in St Michael’s. The consequences of this could be seen in the years ahead and indeed, continues to the present day, where pupils educated in Lurgan, were able to move on to Third Level education. Many of those who chose to follow a path in Education, returned to their home town as teachers and in many cases, as Principals of these schools.

1971 was the next major date in terms of education within the new city of Craigavon, when the Dickson Plan was adopted for second-level education. The Dickson Plan, named after W.J. Dickson, Director of Education for Armagh, was a two- tier system of education where it was proposed that pupils would move from their primary schools into the new Junior High Schools as the former Secondary schools were now known. After three years of education, some would move on to the Grammar schools in the area, Lurgan College, Portadown College and St Michael’s Girls’ School which in 1971 became co-ed for the first time.

1971 also saw the introduction of ROSLA (Raising of the School Leaving age) from 14-16 which introduced problems for the Maintained Schools in Lurgan. While the pupils of the Controlled sector in Lurgan, Portadown, Tandragee and Markethill transferred after Year 10 to either the Colleges in Lurgan and Portadown, the remainder were enrolled in the local Technical Colleges (now S.R.C.) The same was not true for the Lurgan Schools of St Paul’s and St Mary’s. The Ministry of Education disallowed the building of a senior secondary school in the voluntary maintained sector in Lurgan. This had a baleful influence on the two voluntary maintained J.H. schools in Lurgan.  While a sizeable percentage of pupils transferred to St Michael’s, these two schools retained the 14-16 non selected pupils and this process continued until the amalgamation of all three schools.

Changes also took place over the years in the Primary School sector. The Convent School in Edward Street and St Peter’s in North Street closed their doors and moved to a new site on Francis Street in the early seventies, where two schools were built. They were named St Peter’s and St Joseph’s. These two schools amalgamated in 2001 to now become St Francis’ and later, the BunScoil, Scoil Naoimh Pronsias, on the same site.

In 2015, St Michael’s College, St Mary’s J.H. School and St Paul’s J.H. School amalgamated to form the new St Ronan’s College and the plans have been passed to build the new College, which on completion will be the largest school in Northern Ireland. The site chosen for the new school is the old site of Irishtown Hill House, home to Lurgan pupils over 120 years ago.

Jimmy Smyth

Former Head of PE @ St Pauls Junior High School



Francis Xavier McCorry 1993

“Lurgan: An Irish Provincial Town” 

Jerome McAreavey 

“The Development of the National System of Education in the North East of County Armagh 1831-1850”

In the journal of Dromore Diocesan Historical Society, 1981

Brendan McStravick

“The Development of Non-Selective Education in Northern Ireland with special reference to the Dickson Plan.”

In the journal of Dromore Diocesan Historical Society, 2012 

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