Early Years Memories of Celbridge Sisters of the Holy Faith St. Brigid's Primary School St. Patrick's Convent

Sisters of the Holy Faith Celbridge: 1878 – 1978


Sisters of the Holy Faith Celbridge 1878 – 1978
St. Patrick’s Convent
St. Brigid’S Primary School







The following is transcribed from the Sisters of the Holy Faith centenary booklet published in 1978. Courtesy of the Sisters of the Holy Faith.



The centenary of the coming of the Sisters of the Holy Faith to Celbridge is an occasion for joy in the parish in which they have served with such dedication for the past one hundred years.  Coming at the invitation of Cardinal Cullen in 1878, their arrival heralded the beginning of a new era – an era of spiritual and educational development in Celbridge.


Due praise and appreciation must go to the role played by the many sisters who served in our community down the years.  The spirit of co-operation which has always existed between the Sisters of the Holy Faith and the people has assisted them in their endeavours to provide for the generation of boys and girls who passed through their hands.


For one hundred years they have lived among us – they are part of Celbridge life. By their work and example they have shown that what is essential for life in not knowledge alone but character, integrity, wisdom and courage.  They will help us in the future, as in the past, to meet the challenge of Christian living.


On behalf of all whom they serve and have served with such generosity, I am privileged to offer the Sisters of the Holy Faith in Celbridge or congratulations on their centenary, and our best wishes for the future years,

Mairead Byrne,

Chairman, Centenary Committee


Centenary Committee

Chairman: Miss Mairead Byrne

Hon. Secretary: Ms Bridie Maughan

Asst. Hon. Secretary: Miss Angela Tansey

Joint Hon. Treasurers: Mr. Gay Boylan, Mr. John McCormack

Committee: Father E. Kennedy, Mrs. E. Stanley, Mrs. U. Heffernan, Mrs. K. Walsh, Mrs, M. Coyle, Miss K. Boylan, Messrs. T. Molloy, M. Dunphy, P. Abbott, J. McGarry, D. O’Duffy, J. Murphy


Editor: Louise Darlington

Asst. Editor: Mairead Byrne



The Centenary Committee is indebted to all those who helped in the production of this magazine.  We are especially grateful to those who sent articles for publications; to our photographers; to those who lent photographs; and to our team of distributors.  A special word of thanks is extended to our advertisers who by their support have made this magazine possible.


The Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Faith – In the Beginning

By Sister M. Ailbe

The establishment of the religious congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Faith took place in the oratory of Glasnevin Convent.  The centenary of its canonical erection was celebrated in 1967, and this convent remains the mother house to the present day.

Sister Margaret Alyward, Foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Faith, 1810 – 1889.

Let the mind of Christ be in you

By your faith His will Discern,

Let His love inspire your actions

And His poor be your concern.

Margaret’s message in His name,

Spoken once remains the same.

However, today’s affluence is far removed from the poverty of that time – the second half of the nineteenth century – when the Irish people were poor, uneducated, and in danger of loosing the Catholic faith.  The need for such a congregation was very evident and a Waterford woman named Margaret Alyward, and a Vicentian priest – Father John Gowan – were the instruments God chose for the task.  Margaret’s heart was stirred to pity when she saw that the streets of Dublin were cluttered with orphans of the famine, with hapless widows, with the evicted and the destitute.


In 1851 she introduced the Ladies of Charity Association into Dublin, they helped to counteract “souperism” and proselytism.  Then in 1856 she formed St. Brigid’s Orphan Association to combat the sinister activities of other societies and this led to the foundation of St. Brigid’s Orphanage, which is still exclusively administered by the Sisters.  It was Margaret’s conviction that an orphan should grow up in the love of a family circle, so consequently they were not housed in a huge building but were placed, under inspection, in approved Catholic families. She was the pioneer of the boarded–out system which was later adopted, not only in Ireland, but also in England and elsewhere.


Meetings at the orphanage were used as a platform to plead for social reforms, and at that time it was quite astonishing to find a woman addressing a public meeting. Margaret’s sound knowledge of social principles, and her fearless application of them to the problems of poverty and unemployment, set a pattern for our modern welfare departments.  She opened a pawn-shop for the poor and a factory in Dublin, and her group of ladies helped her to supervise the work.  “We must help them to help themselves” was her slogan.


Ecumenism and the religious tolerance of today were non-existent in Margaret’s time, and it was through personal sufferings that she reached her goal.  An example of her concern and tenacity can be seen in just one case history:  A Catholic tradesman named Matthews went to London seeking employment, taking his wife and three children with him.  There his wife reverted to Protestantism and left her husband, taking with her the youngest child.  As he was in ill-health, Matthews brought the two eldest, Henry and Mary, back to Ireland, placing Henry in a boy’s home and Mary in St. Brigid’s Orphanage.  Mary was sent to the care of a nurse in the country.  Mrs. Matthews returned, kept watch and succeeded in snatching the boy, placing him in a Protestant orphanage.  A Catholic friend of the father, fearing for Mary’s safety, moved her with haste without consulting Miss Aylward.  Eventually, she was placed in a convent in Belgium, where she grew up and later became a sister.


Unfortunately, there was not such a happy ending to the case for Margaret Ayward.  Over the next two years she was summoned again and again to the Queen’s Bench (1858-1860) and ordered to produce the child, which she could not do, she was condemned to six months in a criminal prison, where her health suffered from the inhuman conditions and ill-treatment.  On St. Bridgid’s Day 1861, the Primate of Armagh, Dr. Dixon, called to see her I prison.  He presented her with a gift from his Holiness Pope Pius 1X who also sent his blessing on her efforts to help the poor and protect Catholic orphans.


The foundress realized that a priest must be commissioned to take over the work of shaping and training her religious community.  At the request of Cardinal Cullen and Archbishop Dixon, Father Gowan was appointed to the task.  Born in Skerries and ordained in Maynooth in 1840, his first curacy was in Glendalough where he witnessed the distress of his starving parishioners during the famine.  From Glendalough he entered the Congregation of the Missions – the Vincentians.  He travelled most of Ireland as a missionary, and had many opportunities of seeing children lost to the faith in the disorganisation that follow the failure of the potato crop.


In 1856 he met Mary Aylward and discovered in her “a lady of deep spirituality, a strong will, great prudence and an extraordinary power of doing good among the poor”.  He was her spiritual advisor and guide and later looked after her new congregation which was expanding rapidly, until his death in 1897.


The first St. Brigid’s School was opened in 1861 at No. 10 Crowe Street, off Dame Street, Dublin, and was followed by more school – primary, private, secondary and boarding.  It should be noted that no pecuniary aid was received until 1917for “national” (primary) schools.  In October 1878 the community at Celbridge was founded.  The Sisters of the Holy Faith maintain the apostolic spirit of their founders and carry on their work.


Margaret Aylward   adapted her methods to the circumstances of her age, first as a lay pioneer and then as a concentrated religious.  Her spiritual daughters adapt themselves to the requirements of the present day, both in their care of orphans and in accommodating themselves to the demands of modern education.  The congregation also has houses outside Ireland, in Trinidad, California, New Orleans, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.

Sister M. Sennan with St. Patrick’s Church Choir, 1958.
“A place unsuitable for any good purpose”                                                                                                      

By Lena Boylan  

The following is a brief history of the properties and lands involved in the foundation of the Holy Faith Convent, Celbridge, from its earliest days to the present structures.


Elinor Sadleir or Elinor the Sadler of Celbridge dies in 1718, and for 150 years after her death the house ad garden which she occupied beside the old Mass House in the town of Celbridge was described in deed of sale or letting as Elinor Sadleir’s tenement and garden.  Her name, together with that of Robert Costelloe and Martin Lacy, was eventually lost in the general substitution of “The Brewery Yard” which included part of the holding called Costelloes, the dwelling house offices, forge and garden of Martin Lacy and Elinor Sadleir’s tenement and garden.


Elinor Sadleir’s garden was estimated to contain one acre. It adjoined the grounds of the R.C. church on one side and Martin Lacy’s holding on the other.  Robert Costelloe’s was south of and adjoining Martin Lacy’s and contained two acres Irish Plantation Measure, with certain buildings erected thereon.  The Holy Faith Convent grounds include the greater part of Robert Costelloe’s.   


The entrance to the combined areas which formed The Brewery Yard was through an archway under Elinor Sadleir’s house.  Early maps of Celbridge show the archway to have been under the house now occupied by Mr. Edward Coyle.  The gateway and avenue to the convent was not erected until after 1876, when premises then occupied by James McDermott, a brewer, were demolished.


The brewery in Celbridge was set up in 1794 by George Coyle (his family were old Celbridge residents), who had taken a lease of Elinor Sadleir’s and Martin Lacy’s holdings and erected on “the several lands and premises, a dwelling house, malt house, malt stores, malt kilns, stables, cow houses and bullock houses, sheds, coach houses and distillery”.  A garden at the rere of the premises and an adjoining field were also held by George Coyle, who subsequently sold to Edward Dunne.


Mr. Howard R. Guinness, who visited Celbridge in 1898, has recorded that an old lady named Simpson, who was born in 1823, informed him that when he was a child “a man named Dunne lived in Finey’s house (the house opposite the R.C. church, which was occupied by Richard Guinness in the 1750’s) and worked the brewery yard, making not porter but table beer.”


Mr. Dunne worked the brewery form 1813 until 1825, which establishes that the brewery yard, as set up by George Coyle in 1794, was in some state of production for thirty-one years.  In 1808, when a Michael McDermott was brewer his goods and chattels included 3 troughs, a turning pump, a fan float, 40 hogs and 30 half barrels.


In 1825 Edward Dunne sold out to Jeremiah Haughton of Celbridge Woolens Mills for £1,200 “The Field at the back of the town formerly owned by Widow Duff, together with that piece of ground next the street containing two acres (Costelloe’s),  Elinor Sadleir’s tenement and garden, Martin Lacy’s house, afterwards in the possession of George Coyle, together with the forge, offices, house and garden, then in the actual occupation of said Edward Dunne, and then meared and bounded on the north by Matt Dignam’s land (recently Kings’s Geraghty’s) ad on the east by Laughlin Dignam’s and Lumley’s land (Cotters) and the Rev. Mr. Cllanan’s land 9church grounds) and on the south west by Matt Dignam’s and John Broe’s lands and William Kenny’s holding (Martins and McKenna’s).”


From 1825 onwards the stables, cowhouses, sheds and coach houses were converted into offices and dwellings for Mr. Haughton’s mill workers, which a Valuation Officer described in 1840, as “A Place Unsuitable for Any Good Purpose.”


Into this place in 1878 came the Sisters of The Holy Faith Convent, Glasnevin.  This convent was built on Robert Costelloe’s two acres, which was purchased by John Rourke of Beatty Park in 1860 from Anastatia Kenny.  On the land towards the street were two dwelling houses, then occupied by Laurence Mullen and Patrick Walsh, Mullen’s house was described in 1840 as “A dwelling house with a room over a gateway, a stable not lofted, a cowhouse in ruins, a good front, but bad rere, good yard, with liberty of passage thro’ gateway) Martin’s).” Patrick Walsh’s house also had a room over the gateway, a coach house, not lofted, also a good yard and garden, (McKenna’s).  Those two houses were later to be used by the Sisters of The Holy Faith at school rooms.  The house now occupied by Mr. Terr Boylan was also purchased by John Rourke at this period.  Perhaps it was considered as a temporary convent.


In 1868 all tis property was granted in Fee Farm to John Rourke and his heirs for ever. Obviously, John Rourke was acting for the Rev. Robert Wheeler, who conveyed Robert Costelloe’s and the house built by Arthur Baillie (T. Boylan’s) to His Eminence Cardinal Cullen, the Very Rev. Myles Canon McManus and James Rourke and their heirs for ever in 1873.


In 1872 the Rev, Wheller purchased part of the Elinor Sadleir’s tenement and garden containing 2 roods, 28 perches and measuring 25 feet to the street of Celbridge, also part of the garden at the rere of Martin’s Lacy’s former dwelling house containing 19 perches for £400.  The seller was Charles Wolfe Shaw of Belfast, who had inherited the property of Mr. Giles Shaw, Mr. John Haughton’s co-partner in the Celbridge Mills.


In 1878 these latter premises were granted to Alice Keenan of the Sisters of Mercy, Baggot Street Convent, Dublin, by the Rev. Michael Gibney and Mr. James Rourke.  But the Valuation Books recorded that a convent recently completed by not yet occupied.   Later in 1878, Margaret Aylward and Ada Allingham of the Holy Faith Convent, Glasnevin, accepted a transfer of all the various properties.  Further acres were subsequently granted to the Holy Faith Sisters.  Mary Frances Kenny, widow of William Kenny, the butcher who was tenant of Robert Costelloe’s holding in 1825, transferred her interest to Michael Rourke, who granted same to the convent.  One acre previously held by Mr. James Broe was also added to Michael Rourke.


Today, the three tenement areas which comprised the Brewery Yard can be easily identified by the different height of the buildings fronting the street.  The lower houses next to the convent gates represent Elinor Sadleir’s, south of these on a different level the houses stand on Martin Lacey’s and further south Martin’s and McKenna’s mark the street frontage or Robert Costelloe’s holding.


Who’s Who? 1968
The Foundation – Arrival in Celbridge

by Sister M. Ailbe

 On 30 June 1873, the Sisters of the Holy Faith opened a house in Kilcullen, Co Kildare.  They did splendid work for he poor of the district for the next five years and then disaster struck …… they were forced to leave as the landlord refused to renew their lease, With permission from Cardinal Cullen, Margaret Aylward purchases houses in Celbridge belonging to Elinor Sadleir, for the purpose of providing schools for the Catholic children of the district.  The sisters taught for some time in the small house in Main street.


The present convent was originally built by the Sisters of Mercy, but they never came to reside there.  Cardinal Cullen gladly offered it to the Sisters of the Holy Faith, as he was very appreciative of the work they had done in Kilcullen and elsewhere, and he wanted them to stay in Co. Kildare. The convent was opened in 23 October 1878.


In 1882 some houses on Main Street together with an area to the rear of those houses, which was once a brewery and had later been converted into stables and dwellings, were acquired by the sisters.   Later those premises were re-conditioned and became St. Brigid’s School. For some years the sisters taught French, English, Music as well as the other subjects.  Painting, crochet and embroidery were also part of the curriculum.  It was only in 1917 that aid from the Stare were receive and so the school adopted the then current curriculum.

Main Street Celbridge today

Many past pupils are living in the district, while others have travelled father afield.  Some have dedicated their lives to God, at and abroad.   All are continuing by the Christian lives, to bear witness to the excellent teachings of the Holy Faith.  On this happy occasion of our centenary, the past pupils have a big share in our prayers and good wishes.

Celbridge before the motorcar.
70 Years Ago – Return to Yesterday

By Martin J. Kelly

The children who presently attend St. Brigid’s Convent School, with its spacious classrooms, grounds and modern amenities, would find it hard to believe that there are some ex-pupils in the district who attended there seventy years ago in vastly different circumstances. One, still blessed with good health, has a clear mental picture of Celbridge village around 1910 when poverty was a fact of life.  “Industry was almost non-existent and while there was considerable employment around the great house of Castletown, Oakley Park, Killadoon and Lyons, wages for men amounted to only nine shillings per week, with working hours far longer than at present.  Those who drew such wages were considered lucky, however, as there was no relief or dole for those out of work. “


In such circumstances the standard of living was low for the vast majority of the people.  Meat was a rare dish in many of the houses.  People made their own clothes and did without many of the things we now consider necessities of life.


The town itself presented a dilapidated appearance – the street was a bed of broken stones leveled by a steam roller, while traffic consisted of horses and carts and occasionally one of the few motor cars in the district.


Prior to the first World War the classrooms were situate in the old buildings acquired by the Sisters when they first came to Celbridge in 1878.  The largest block was at right angles to the street.  One storey high, it was divided into classrooms heated by open fires which often seemed very far away from those at the back room.  Most of the general school work was done on slates while copy book, which then could be bought for a halfpenny each, were available for writing.  A feature of the Convent School in the early part of the century was a kitchen where a cook prepared soup which was served with bread to the pupils on payment of a penny a day.  There was a separate High School where the daughters of the more affluent people of he locality were admitted and taught on payment of a fee. This High School was situated in a small building on the Convent side of the ordinary School.


Pupils of the pre 1914 period were not subject to visits from Inspectors of the Department of Education.  However, Cathecism examinations were conducted by Fr. Dunne, the local Parish Priest.


Soon after the uprising of 1916 and the setting up of a native Irish government, the High School in the Convent was abolished, and great emphasis was placed on the teaching of the Irish language as a separate subject.  There was little change until the 1950’s when an improved economy and the availability of second level education brought about conditions with which we are now familiar.  Those factors also led to the demolition of the Old Convent School buildings in the early 1970’s and their replacement by the present impressive structures.

At Work and Play – St. Brigid’s Today

By Elizabeth Stanley

The first eight classrooms in our modern 16-room complex came into being in 1970, followed seven years later by a further eight.  This Extension was officially opened on 12th May 1978, by the Minister for Education, Mr. J. Wilson, and blessed by his Grace the Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev. Dr. D. Ryan.


Spiritual Needs Catered For

Solid education standards and the spiritual formation of the children is the aim of the school.  Father E. Kennedy, C.C., is chaplain to the school and in liaison with the teachers he organizes class Masses each term.  Three confessors are in attendance on a monthly basis and this affords the children an opportunity of making their Confession to a priest of their choice.  For the past three years the School has facilitated the Maynooth deacons who also take classes once a week and help generally with parochial work.


Each school day begins and ends with a prayer and the children are encouraged to pray for their own special intentions. Preparation for the reception of the Sacraments is also part of their spiritual upbringing; and the school choir sings at the 10A.M. Mass each Sunday.  The Children participate in the Offertory procession in rotation.


More Educational Involvement

Throughout the past decade, since the introduction of the new curriculum, children now play a much more active role in their own education.  The basic skills are still taught, not so much through class-teaching as through individual and group activity.  Thus, each student progresses at his own or her own rate.  The child is given full scope to express his personality and experience the joy of discovery.  They measure objects and estimate areas both in the classroom and outside. They record their findings which are then discussed and later displayed in pictorial or chart form.  Emphasis is laid on the visual as well as the written form of presentation.

In the Infant School the toddlers act out their personal experiences as well as the much-lover nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The infant classroom may appear to be “at play” but in theory they are discovering through “practical play”.  This new thinking in education has resulted in a broader, more flexible programme and the teacher is free to choose topics or situations best suited to the pupils of today.


Civic Pride

During their years in St. Brigid’s the students are encouraged to play a responsible role in society. They are taught to respect property; to observe standards of tidiness in their appearance, in their belongings and in the classrooms and school grounds where they work and play; to appreciate the beauties of nature and to take price in the locality.


The children are encouraged at all times to help the less fortunate.  They participate in the scheme for the distribution of comfort to the aged and infirm at Christmas and Easter, and support the Hold Childhood Missions, while the older children take part in the Post Office Savings Scheme for which they won an award in 1977.


Contented Staff

The school has an excellent head in Sister M. Ailbe, principle since 1973.  She works tirelessly for the benefit of all and is able supported by the other members of the community – Sisters M. Stephanie, Mechtilde, Frances Therese and Gerarda.  Lay staff number seven – Mrs. Elizaveth Stanley, Mrs.  Mary Sheerin, Mrs. Una Heffernan, Miss Angela Tansey, Mrs. Anne Corry, Miss Mairead Gilligan and Mrs, Moya O’ Donoghue.  In addition, two visiting teachers attend each week – Miss Joan Cuthbert who specializes in speech and drama training, and Mrs. Maire Crean who teaches Irish and folk dances. Every pupil takes part in the annual display at the end of the summer term – an event not to be missed!

Presently the school caters for approximately 340 pupils, almost 50%of whom are in the Infant Department.  Consequently, the many facilities – attractive classrooms, library, general purpose room, fully equipped cookery room and spacious playground – are fully utilized and contribute to make teaching in St. Brigid’s Convent School a very pleasant task.




The Future – Whither Celbridge

By Father E. Kennedy, C.C.

Reading the history of Celbridge and looking at some of the older photographs available, it is quite clear that the village has changed radically.  However, the changes which will take place during the coming decades will be even more profound, I have been asked to play the prophet and predict the development of Celbridge in the years to come, particularly in the areas of school and parochial expansion.


House Numbers

There are today 600 “older” houses in Celbridge.  By 1981 an additional 1,000 “new “ houses (300 already sold and occupied) will have been completed and occupied. That implies that Celbridge (without any further development of potential building land in the area) may have 1,550 – 1,650 houses by 1980-1981.  Add to that Straffan, a Chapel of Ease, with 160 – 180 houses in the same period (160 today) and then Celbridge/Straffan parish will have a total of 1,700 – 1,750 houses by 1980 – 1981.





18th and 19th century Celbridge Early Years Napier Family

A Description of Celbridge 1785: the Napiers, Mr. Bagnal’s School, Molly Dunne, and life as a young officer

A Description of Celbridge 1785: the Napiers, Mr. Bagnal’s School, Molly Dunne, and life as a young officer


Extract taken from Sir Charles Napier, by Colonel Sir William F. Butler (Macmillan & Co, London: 1890)

Lieutenant General Sir William Francis Butler GCB, PC (31 October 1838 – 7 June 1910), from Ballyslatteen, Golden, County Tipperary. He was one of the great 19th century adventure officers. Image: Lieutenant Colonel W. F. Butler. C.B. Taken in 1883 as Queen’s A.D.C. From William Butler an autobiography (London, 1911), p. 250.
The Home at Celbridge
Oakleigh House, Celbridge, County Kildare


TEN miles west of Dublin, on the north bank of the Liffey, stands a village of a single street,”* called Celbridge. In times so remote that their record only survives in a name, some Christian hermit built here himself a cell for house, church, and tomb; a human settlement took root around the spot; deer -tracks widened into pathways; pathways broadened into roads; and at last a ‘bridge spanned the neighbouring stream. The church and the bridge, two prominent land-marks on the road of civilisation, jointly named the place, and Kildrohid or “the church by the bridge” became hence- forth a local habitation and a name, twelve hundred years later to be anglicised into Celbridge. To this village of Celbridge in the year 1785 came a family which had already made some stir in the world, and was destined to make more.


Colonel the Hon. George Napier and his wife Lady Sarah Lennox were two remarkable personages. The one a tall and majestic soldier, probably the finest specimen of military manhood then in the service of King George the Third; the other a lady of such beauty, wit, and grace that her fascination had induced the same King George to offer her all his heart and half his throne. Fate and politics marred this proposed romantic royal union, and the lovely Lady Sarah, after a most unhappy first marriage, became in 1777 the wife of Colonel George Napier, and in the following dozen years the mother of a large family, in whose veins ran the blood of a list of knights and kings and nobles sufficient to fill a peerage all to itself; for on one side the pedigree went back to the best of the old Scottish cavaliers to Montrose, and the Napiers of Merchiston, and the Scotts of Thirlestane; and on the other it touched Bourbon, Stuart, and Medici, and half a dozen other famous sources. It would have been strange if from such parents and with such stock the nest which was built in Celbridge in 1785 did not send forth far- flying birds.


The house in which the Napiers took up their resi-dence in this year stood a short distance from the* western end of the village. It was a solid, square build-ing of blue-gray limestone, three-storied and basemented, with many tall narrow windows in front and rear, and a hall door that looked north and was approached by arched steps spanning a wide stone area surround-ing the basement; green level fields, with fences upon Avhich grew trees and large bushes, spread around the house to north and west, and over the tops of oak and beeches to the south a long line of blue hills lay upon the horizon. Looking south towards these hills the eye saw first a terrace and garden, then a roadway partly screened by trees, and beyond the road the grounds of Marley Abbey sloping to the Liffey, holding within them still the flower-beds and laurel hedges amid which Vanessa spent the last sorrow -clouded years of her life. But to the boys up in the third-story nursery, looking out in the winter evenings to snowy Kippure or purple Sleve-rhue, the loves and wrongs of poor Vanessa mattered little. What did matter to them, however and mattered so much that through a thousand scenes of future death and danger they never forgot it was, that there stood a certain old larch tree in the corner of the pleasure-ground where the peacocks fluttered up to roost as the sun went down beyond the westmost Wicklow hill-top, and that there was a thick clump of Portugal laurels and old hollies where stares, or starlings as they call them in England, came in flocks at nightfall, and sundry other trees and clumps in which blackbirds with very yellow winter beaks flew in the dusk, sounding the weirdest and wildest cries, and cocked their fan-spread tails when they lighted on the sward where the holly and arbutus berries lay so thick.


Colonel George Napier by Walker & Cockerell aquatint photogravure, late 19th century. D31909; Portrait – National Portrait Gallery, London.
Lady Sarah Napier (née Lennox, formerly Bunbury) by Walker & Cockerell aquatint photogravure, late 19th century. D31910 National Portraits Gallery, London.
Colonel George Napier

When Colonel Napier settled at Celbridge he was still in his prime, a man formed both in mind and body to conquer and direct in camp, court, or council; and yet, for all that, a failure as the world counts its prizes and blanks in the lottery of life. He had recently returned from the American War, where he had served with distinction. He had filled important offices abroad and at home, and by right of intellect and connection might look forward almost with certainty to high military command, but he had one fatal bar against success in the career of arms, as that noble profession was practised in the reign of George the Third and for a good many years after he was in political opinion intensely liberal and intensely outspoken. The phrase “political opinion ” is perhaps misleading. Colonel Napier’s liberalism was neither a party cry nor a prejudice. It sprang from a profound love of justice, an equally fixed hatred of oppression, and a wide -reaching sympathy with human suffering that knew no distinction of caste or creed. The selection of Celbridge as the Napiers’ family residence at this period was chiefly decided by the proximity of the village to the homes of Lady Sarah’s two sisters the Duchess of Leinster at Carton, and Lady Louisa Conolly at Castletown indeed only the length of the village street separated the beautiful park of Castletown from the Napiers’ home, and Castletown woods and waters were as free to the children’s boyish sports and rambles as its saloons were open to them later on when the quick-running years of boyhood carried them into larger life. Whatever was beautiful and brilliant in Irish society and there was much of both then met in the Castletown drawing-rooms. They were to outward seeming pleasant years, those seventeen hundred and eighties and early nineties in Ireland. The society that met at Castletown formed a brilliant circle of orators, soldiers, wits, and statesmen, many of whose names still shine brightly through the intervening century. Grattan, Curran, Flood, Charlemont, the Ponsonbys, Parnell, the Matthews, and younger but not less interesting spirits were in the group too; the ill-fated Lord Edward Fitzgerald (first cousin to the Napier boys); young Robert Stewart, still an advanced Liberal, not yet seeing that his road to fortune lay behind instead of before him; and there was another frequent guest at Castletown a raw-boned, youthful ensign, generally disliked, much in debt to his Dublin tailor, but nevertheless regarded by Colonel Napier, at least, as a young man of promise, who, if fate gave him opportunity, would some day win fame as a soldier one Ensign Wellesley, or, as he then wrote his name, Arthur Wesley.


Early Years

When the Napier coach drove into Celbridge with the newly-arriving family in 1785, there was in it a very small boy, Charles by name, the eldest son of the hand-some colonel and his beautiful wife a small, delicate-looking child, who had been born at the Richmond residence in Whitehall just three years earlier. Two other children younger than Charles made up, with the due complement of nurses and boxes, an imposing cavalcade, and for days after the arrival baggage and books these last not the least important items in the family future continued to trundle through the village.


Twelve years go by; 1797 has come. Long ago what an age in childhood seem these few flying years! little Charles has made himself at home in a circle ever widening around the Celbridge nest. He has a fishing- rod, and the river east and west has been explored each year a longer distance. He has a pony, and the mountains to the south have given up their wonders to himself and his four-footed friend. And finally, grandest step of all in the boy’s ladder, he has a gun, and the wood-pigeons of Castletown and the rabbits out in big fences to the west know him as one more enemy added to the long list of their foes.


And how about the more generally recognised factors of boy-training school and schoolmaster 1 Well, in these matters we get a curious picture of army-training in that good old time when George the Third was King. At the age of twelve little Charlie Napier had been nominated to a pair of colours in His Majesty’s Thirty-Third Regiment of Foot. War had broken out with France. Mr. Pitt was borrowing some fifty millions every year, and commissions in Horse, Foot, and Dragoons, in Hessian and Hanoverian Corps, in Scotch Fencibles and Irish Yeomanry and English Militia, were plentiful as black- berries in the Celbridge fields. But though Charles had on many occasions shown himself a little lad of big heart and steady courage in sundry encounters with fish, flesh, and fowl, he was still too young to fight a Frenchman; and besides, it was even then a canon of war that before you are fit to kill an enemy in the field you must be able to write a nice letter to him, and perchance to talk to him in his own language, and to draw little lines and tracings of the various emplacements and scarps and counter-scarps by which you propose to knock his cities about his ears, and otherwise blow him and his off the face of the earth.


Mr. Bagnel’s School

So, instead of proceeding with the Duke of York’s army to Flanders, Charles was sent to Mr. Bagnel’s school in Celbridge village. A very humble and unpretending scholastic institution was Mr. Bagnel’s academy, not much further removed from the hedge-school of the time than the single street of Celbridge was distant from the green hedges around it; and of a very mixed description were the numerous boys who gathered there to receive from Mr. Bagnel’s mind, and frequently also from his hand, the instruction mental and physical which he deemed essential for their future guidance. The boys were chiefly the sons of Dublin merchants or local better-class farmers, and were, with the exception of the Napiers, all Roman Catholics. That Charles and his brothers George and William should soon become the leaders of the school, and the child-champions of its youthful democracy, was not to be wondered at. They represented to the other boys the three most taking and entrancing things of boy life genius, courage, and strength. All three boys were plucky as eagles, but Charles was captain by reason of his superior intelligence ; George was lieutenant on account of reckless daring; William was ensign because of immense strength; and all were beloved because they, the grandsons of a duke, were ever ready to uphold with the weapons of boyhood the rights and freedom of their Catholic comrades against the over-bearing usurpations and tyrannies of a large neighbouring seminary, where the more favoured sons of Protestant ascendancy were being booked and birched.


At ten o’clock every morning the Napier boys pro-ceeded up the village to school, and at three they came down the single street for home. Great was the com- motion when this hour of breaking-up arrived; it was the event of the day for the villagers, and no wonder, for then a strange sight was often to be seen. There were pigs in Celbridge in these days, tall gaunt animals with wide flapping ears that hung over their eyes, and long legs that could gallop over the ground; and it is said that, mounted on the backs of those lean and agile hogs, the Napier boys were wont to career homeward with scholars and pig-owners following in wild pursuit.


“What a terrible training!” I think I hear some worthy parent or pedagogue exclaim, reading this deplorable incident. And yet it is not all so clear this matter of boy-training. Would not the guiding lights of Eton and Harrow and Rugby stand aghast at such companionship, such a scene as this hog race down the village  “Still, somehow or other, when I walk round Trafalgar Square or down Waterloo Place, I seem to miss these great centres of training in the statues of Nelson, Havelock, Franklin, Clyde, Gordon, Lawrence, Napier; and I see beyond the bronze or the marble the boy -hero at his village school one at Foyle, another at Taunton, a third at Celbridge, a fourth at St. Ives, a fifth at Swanscombe until I come to think it is not quite so certain that we know all about the matter. So too, when my mind turns to the subject of military teaching, and I compare the course of school training Charles and William Napier received at the hands of Mr. Bagnel with our modern system of competitive cramming, I am forced to the conclusion that both these brilliant soldiers would have been ignominiously “plucked ” for entrance to Sandhurst or Woolwich; nor does the outside and casual training which these boys underwent show with less disadvantage beside our modern system. How a professor of military history, for instance, would have scorned the tuition in the practice of war conveyed to Ensign Charles Napier by old Molly Dunne as she sat in her cottage porch of a summer evening telling the listen- ing boys about her battles and sieges. She was the Celbridge carpenter’s great -grandmother, and of pro- digious age. She could tell her listeners how she had seen the last real lord of Celbridge ride forth to fight for his king, their own great-great-great-granduncle, at the Boyne, just one hundred years earlier, and how she had seen his body brought back to be laid in the old graveyard of Kildrohid, close to their own gateway. That was a long look back, but Molly’s memory went further off still, for she could tell of wilder times of war and havoc; of how as a little child she had heard people speak of the red days at Drogheda and Wexford, when Cromwell imagined that he had found a final method of dealing with the Irish question. This wonderful old woman, who had seen more of actual war than had many of the generals by whose military knowledge and experience Mr. Pitt just at this moment fondly hoped he was going to stop the French Revolution, was said to be about one hundred and thirty years of age.


The Best Schoolmaster

But Charles Napier and his brothers had the benefit of one outside teacher, the value of whose teaching to them it would not be easy to exaggerate; out of doors and indoors, on the river and the mountain, their father was their best school-master. From him Charles Napier learned a thousand lessons of truth and justice, of honour in arms, of simplicity in life, of steady purpose, of hatred for pomp and show and empty-headed pride, of pity for the poor, of sympathy with the oppressed, of fearless independence of character, which those who care to follow us through these pages will find growing in profusion along the pathway of his life, plants none of which ever withered from the moment they were planted in these youthful days, but many of which were only to blossom into full luxuriance in the autumn of existence. When full fifty years have passed by, we shall find the lessons sown along the Liffey, and amid the Wicklow hills, bearing their rich harvest in distant scenes by the shores of mighty Eastern rivers and under the shadows of Himalayan mountains. It has been said that the house at Celbridge held large store of books, and it may be that in the library a copy of old Massinger was to be found, wherein, if the boys were not allowed promiscuously to read, they had read to them that wonderful picture of the real soldier which the dramatist drew so uselessly for the Cavaliers of his time, so terribly useful for their Roundhead enemies.


If e’er my son

Follow the war, tell him it is a school

Where all the principles tending to honour

Are taught, if truly follow’d ; but for such

As repair thither as a place in which

They do presume they may with license practise

Their lusts and riots, they shall never merit

The noble name of soldiers. To dare boldly

In a fair cause, and for their country’s safety

To run upon the cannon’s mouth undaunted ;

To obey their leaders, and shun mutinies ;

To bear with patience the winter’s cold

And summer’s scorching heat, and not to faint,

When plenty of provision fails, with hunger,

Are the essential parts make up a soldier

Not swearing, dice, or drinking.

Sir Charles James Napier by Richard James Lane, after Comte Hippolyte Caïs de Pierlas
lithograph, 1849 (1843). D22260, National Portraits Gallery, London.
Ensign Charles Napier

At last the time came for Charles to quit home and go out by himself into the world. He had been an officer on that wonderful institution called the Irish Establishment since he was twelve years old, and now he must join the army; so, in the last year of the century, he takes his first flight on the Limerick coach, and arriving in that old city is installed as extra aide-de-camp to the general officer there commanding. He remains at Limerick for a year, where the usual subaltern officer’s drill is duly passed through. He is very often in love; he rides, shoots, breaks his leg jumping a ditch, and altogether feels quite sure that he has thoroughly mastered the military art. Still among these inevitable incidents of a young soldier’s existence we get a glimpse of the nature of the future man coming out clear and distinct. He and his brother George are out shooting; a snipe gets up, Charles fires and the bird drops, but a deep wide ditch intervenes, and in springing across this obstacle the boy falls and breaks his leg. It is a very bad fracture, and the bone is sticking out above the boot. His gun (a gift from his father) has fallen one way, he is lying another. First he draws himself near enough to recover the weapon, then he crawls on to where the snipe is lying, and then when his brother George has come up and is looking deadly pale at the protruding bone, the fallen sportsman cries cheerily out, “Yes, George, I’ve broken my leg, but I’ve got the snipe.” They carry him home on a door, and for two months he is laid up with this shattered leg; but at eighteen a broken heart or leg is soon set right, and early in 1800 we find him impatient to be off to wider scenes of soldiering. He has been run very low by this accident, and his general fearful for his aide- de-camp’s life has written to Colonel Napier, advising leave of absence and rest for the boy. Charles hears of this letter shortly after, and is highly indignant at his general’s action. “I am sure,” he writes to his father, “you will never consent to do anything of the sort” (to apply to the Commander-in-Chief for leave of absence), “which you must think, and which you may be certain I think, would be disgraceful and unbecoming the character of a British soldier. The general would not have done such a thing for himself, and could not have considered much when he proposed it for me.” Just fifty years later we shall see the war-worn old veteran taking leave of the officers of India in words of advice and farewell couched in the same lofty spirit of military duty which is expressed in this boy’s letter. And now the scene changes.


Early in 1801 Charles Napier mounts his little Irish cob and rides away from Limerick to begin the career which was to be carried through such stirring and varied scenes. He rode in a single day from Limerick to Celbridge, more than one hundred miles, on the same horse. We know nothing of that long day’s ride, save the bare fact of its accomplishment; but it requires no effort of imagination to picture this ardent, impetuous boy pushing forward mile by mile, intent upon proving by the distance he would cover that despite what generals might write or doctors might say, he was fit for any fatigue or duty; and as the Irish hill-tops rose before him in fresh horizons we can fancy the horseman’s mind cast far ahead of the most remote distance, fixed upon some scene of European or Egyptian battle, where the great deeds of war then startling all men by their splendid novelty were being enacted before a wondering world. For only a few months prior to the date of this long ride a great battle had been fought at Marengo in Italy, and the air was still ringing with its echoes; then had come the news of Hohenlinden, that terrible midnight struggle in the snow of the Black Forest. Never had the world witnessed such desperate valour; never had such marches been made, such daring combinations conceived, such colossal results achieved. A new world seemed to be opening before the soldier; and France, victorious for a second time over the vast forces of the European coalition, appeared to have given birth to conquerors before whose genius all bygone glory grew pale and doubtful.


And already, amid the constellation of command which the seven years’ aggression of Europe against France had called forth from the great Revolution, one name shone with surpassing lustre. Beyond the Alps, amid scenes whose names seemed to concentrate and combine the traditions of Roman dominion with the most desperate struggles of medieval history, there had arisen a leader in the first flush of youthful manhood, before whom courage had been unavailing, discipline had become a reed, numbers had been brought to ruin, combination had been scattered, the strength of fortress had been pulled down, until the great empire whose name had been accepted as the symbol of military power in Europe, and whose history went back through one thousand years of martial glory, lay prostrate and vanquished at his feet.