In the 1781/82 Parliamentary session an Act was passed permitting Catholic teachers to teach in local schools. However, the inevitable sting in the tail provided that Catholics could not teach their co religionists unless they were licensed by clergy of the Established Church. Understandably Catholics were reluctant to seek the necessary permission while the Established Church clergy were equally reluctant to accede to such requests when made. This restriction was finally removed about 10 years later, thereby paving the way for the introduction of Catholic Schools for the first time since the Reformation.
Depositions taken in May 1798 during the rebellion of that year included references to James Delahunty, Schoolmaster, Athy and James Robinson, Schoolmaster, Foxhill. Their Irish names and their involvement with the United Irishmen suggest Catholic backgrounds. If this is correct then it possibly indicates that Athy had a Catholic School at that time, whether a free or a fee paying school we cannot now say.
In 1791 the town had a boarding school for boys provided by Mr. Ashe. One of the pupils that year was Thomas Lefroy, a future Local Chief Justice of Ireland. Another pupil was his brother Ben, born in 1782 who married a Miss La Nouse from County Cavan and settled at Cardenton House, Athy, which remained in the Lefroy family until 1956. In 1793 Anthologica Hibernica referred to the existence in Athy of a public school for the classics with a teaching salary of £40 a year paid by the Duke of Leinster, Athy Borough Council and representatives of the Weldon family. The Select Committee of the House of Commons on Foundation Schools set up in 1857 investigated the alleged endowment of this school. It reported:-
“no such school exists or as far as the Assistant Commissioner could learn, ever did exist.”
In the Minute Book of the Athy Borough Corporation for June 24th 1779, there appears the following entry :-
“That it was agreed to give £15 a year to a schoolmaster, for the said Borough, which is to be ratified by an act of assembly of the said Borough.”
The Corporation’s Minute Book does not indicate if the necessary ratification was granted or if payment was ever made on foot of the earlier decision. In Rawson’s Statistical Survey of County Kildare, published in 1807, Athy is credited with having a Classical School and two female boarding schools. No evidence has been found to support Rawson’s claim for the two boarding schools, but since he was an Athy resident it may be assumed that this information was accurate.
In 1817 the local Church of Ireland clergy established a Parish School in Athy. In its first year of operation the Parish School had 22 pupils, 14 of whom paid £1 a year each, the remaining pupils being free scholars. The numbers in attendance increased year by year so that by 1823 the Parish School had 127 pupils on its roll. The Schoolmaster retained the yearly subscriptions paid by each pupil which in 1823 amounted to £40. In addition he was paid £10 a year by the Church of Ireland.
In 1811 the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor of Ireland, commonly called the Kildare Place Society, was founded. Its stated purpose was to afford the same facilities for education to all classes of professing Christians without any attempt to interfere with their religious beliefs. The Society was funded by the Government and it gave assistance to the various local schools by way of grants for teacher’s salaries, books and teaching requisites. The first grant to a Catholic school in Athy was made for the year ended 5 January 1823 when £11.4.4½ was paid to John Goold for the Catholic Free School. In the same year the Society paid £1 towards the expenses of P. O’Rourke while undergoing training as a schoolmaster for the Athy Poor School as the Catholic Free School was called. The Church of Ireland curate, Charles Bristow, received a grant of £3.1.9 in 1823 for running a school in the Athy Gaol. This school was a short lived venture, whether due to insufficient pupils or inadequate accommodation is not known. The jail school closed in 1824.