The rise and fall of Navan’s old school and seminary... Preserving a precious piece of Navan's past

The collapse of the roof at the old St Patrick’s Classical School and former St Finian’s Diocesan Seminary (study hall) underlined the need to find a new use for the historic building if it is to survive at all. There have been many plans mooted but sadly the site off Academy Street remains one of neglect and decay. VINCENT MULVANY of Navan & District Historical Society (NADHS) charts the history of iconic structure

Over the last days of May, Monday 31st and Tuesday, 1st June 2021 the roof finally collapsed on what was once the study hall of St Finian’s Diocesan Seminary (1802-1908) Academy St and the former old St Patrick’s Classical School. (1930 -1970), St Finian’s Terrace Navan.

The study hall formed the nucleus of seminary buildings founded by Bishop Patrick Plunkett in 1802 which fronted onto Academy St (two of which are still in existence) from which the street takes its name. His inspiration came from the passing of the Catholic Relief Bill in 1793 and the opening of Maynooth Collage in 1796. St Finian’s became one of the first catholic schools opened in the Province of Armagh from the enactment of the Penal Laws in 1704.

The first president of St Finian’s was Rev. Eugene O’Reilly 1802-1827 when he was appointed parish priest of Navan of Navan where he went on to build St Mary’s Catholic Church opened in 1839. According to the Census of 1821 the Academy had sixty boarders ranging in age from five to 22, a staff of three including the president, four house servants and a resident tailor and shoemaker. The Education Report of 1826 records the school was attended by 65 pupils.

Students were taught the classics Latin, Greek, French History, Geography and Mathematics.

In 1830 Rev. Mr. Nicholas Power became the fourth president of St Finian’s until 1867 a position he would hold for many years. He was born in Kilcock, Co Kildare in 1804 and educated in St Finian’s and ordained at Maynooth Collage in 1827. In 1867 Bishop Nulty had him removed and appointed parish priest of Oristown outside Navan where he resigned after a few days. In 1868 he was appointed PP of Donore near Drogheda where he died on the 24th November 1874. According to diocesan histories ‘he rests in the church at Donore’ where no memorial marking his resting place is visible in the church.

Disrepair... The 1842 building is in a poor state currently

In c. 1842 Rev. Nicholas Power built the Study Hall which replaced an earlier building constructed in 1814 probably located in the buildings fronting Academy St which were beginning to deteriorate owing to age with little room for expansion on the present site. The building became known as ‘Power’s Duck Egg’ after its builder and inspirer due to its elliptical plan or oval shape.

Nicholas Power’s vision for the study hall was a place originally composed of three first floor rooms, two small ones at the east and west ends which may have been used to monitor pupils and one quite large one at its centre which accommodated the student body at evening study. The building was held up by 16 tapering buttresses decorated with two round-headed niches. The ground floor is supported by four tapering buttresses on each side by a series of four open arches in between (later closed in with long curving window at top of arch) leaving the whole ground floor as open space where students could congregate in wet weather or discuss their studies in good weather also. The curved ends with four buttresses and four curved headed niches in-between one of which on each end served as a separate stairway doorway to the Study Hall on the first floor.

Former Glory... The only photo of the Study Hall, St.Finian's when in use as a seminary building in 1904 before moving to Mullingar in 1908. Note central arches mentioned in text closed up, with window at top. The statue of the Blessed Virgin by Navan Sculptor Thomas Curry commissioned by Nicholas Power stood outside the Study Hall in its original tranquil location high on a hill surrounded by trees overlooking Academy St. was moved in 1908 to the Mercy Convent Athlumney until 2006 when erected in the grounds of St.Mary's RC Church, Trimgate St. Navan where it stands today. ( photoThe O'Growney Memorial Volume, Agnes O'Farrelly. MA 1904).

As the buildings in Academy Street were deteriorating and unsuited to their requirements in the 1880s and 1890s Bishop Nulty began buying up leases in Athlumney townland just across the river Boyne where he planned a new seminary campus would be built. However, his plan never came to fruition as Bishop Nulty died in 1899 and his successor Dr. Gaffney moved the Diocesan Seminary to Mullingar Co. Westmeath where St Finian’s Collage was opened in 1908.

For the next 20 years the old seminary study hall was leased by its owners Mr. James Sheridan, Michael Sheridan, Mrs. Maria Sheridan and Mrs. Mary Spicer to the representatives of Sir Nugent T. Everard, Randalstown as a tobacco drying hall. In 1930 the former study hall was bought back from the above lessees by the newly appointed Bishop Mulvany to redeem a promise by his predecessor Bishop Gaughran in 1908 along with prominent local representations to provide a secondary school for Navan.

In September 1930 the refitted, decorated and equipped building was opened by Dr. Mulvany, named St Patrick’s Classical School with 20 pupils on its roll book. Over the years it averaged 50 students a year.

In 1965 Donagh O’Malley announced free secondary education for all which St Patrick’s joined in 1968 which would sound the death knell for the building by doubling its school population to 96.

The ground floor was converted and fitted out temporarily for classrooms which were poorly ventilated and heated for winter days.

In 1970 the old St Pat’s Study Hall was closed and moved to a new purpose-built school at Mount Rivers Moatlands, Navan bringing to an end its long association with education and learning.

From 1970 to 2005 the site was used for light industry. The building was leased in 1970 to John Orr & Co. Ltd a firm who produced textiles for aircraft for export to the United States market.

During this period the first floor was strengthened with iron RSJs to take industrial loadings. As the business expanded, they moved to a purpose-built premise in the new industrial estate.

The building was then sold to Mr. Patrick Reilly for furniture making until 2005 when he sold it to Navan Town Council. During this period (c.1980) the roof ceiling space in the Old study hall was converted into an additional floor.

In 2006 Navan Town Council received a grant towards stabilisation and repair works on the building of approx. 310sqm a protected structure rated of national importance. Temporary repairs were carried out to weather proof and secure the building and arrest its decay into the future. These works were recorded by Con Kehely in 'A Study of Former St Patrick’s Classical School Navan' as part of his course work for Masters in Urban & Building Conservation submitted to UCD in May 2006.

Con Kehely also mentions in his masters (2006) “A new use needs to be found for the building if it is to survive into the future” which appears to have been not very clear from its inception. In 2000 prior to its sale in 2005 Navan Civic Trust envisaged its use as an Arts and Theatre Centre.

When acquired by Navan UDC, after restoration the building would become Meath county museum. In 2007 a feasibility study on its future use was proposed under the County Meath Heritage Plan.

In 2008 the now derelict building with part of the roof open to the elements with Meath County Council having no funds available for restoration. In 2012 building to be structurally surveyed, with calls made for it to be used as Music Collage or County Museum.

In 2014 Navan Municipal District Council sought funds from the European Regional Regeneration Fund for the buildings renovation and use as a county museum which was turned down in 2015. In December 2018 as part of the Urban Generation and Development Fund funding was earmarked for the Railway Street & County Archive Regeneration to commission a technical report into the future use of the vacant county hall site along with the Old St Patrick’s Classical School Former Study Hall as Meath County Archive. The overall plan is to regenerate the Railway St area as a cultural quarter for the town of Navan. In 2019 a draft Navan Railway Lands, Urban Design & Conservation Management Plan was displayed in the County Library. One of its objectives is ‘the proposed project will restore and re-purpose an historic building.’

As part of Heritage Week for two days in August 2019 Navan & District Historical Society displayed in the County Library, Navan an Exhibition & Historic Photographic Display. Also screened was 'Glimpses of St Patrick’s Classical School' a short 15 minute all exterior shot colour film made by Cormac Murray in the early 1950s.

The days concluded with two visits to the old St Pat’s School site at the end of St Finian’s Terrace.

Walking around the iconic building, some thoughts came to mind. As the old study hall emerged out of the bright afternoon light draped in its partial coat of ground ivy, with sapling trees growing out of its roof it began to take on a very tranquil and tropical look like some newly discovered oval shaped building from a lost past just re-emerging out of a dense jungle.