Peter Hardiman cfc

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Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice

Here is a brief account of some of the business dealings which Edmund Rice engaged in during a most eventful life full of integrity and creativity. Where references are indicated they refer to the main authoritative sources edited by Columba Normoyle. The abbreviations are:

T: A Tree Is Planted;

C: A Companion to a Tree Is Planted;

M: Memories of Edmund Rice.


Although Ireland was not feeling the terrible effects of the Penal Times at their worst there were still active provisions which impacted on Edmund Rice personally, his family financially, his education and practice of religion, and of course the general population. Some instances:

Penal Laws were first introduced in 1652. Laws relating to land acquisition by Catholics were relaxed somewhat by 1782 but meant Edmund's father paid rent of 300 per annum for the land. (T 16) There was also a tithe paid to the Protestant Rector, whose annual income was 1,600. For Edmund's father that tithe was 10/- per acre for potatoes, wheat and barley; 6/- for meadow land; for sheep 3d., and lambs, 6d. (T17) In addition much of the common land had been taken over and rented out at exorbitant levels.

After 1703 no Catholic could teach anywhere in Ireland. Rather, an education system was gradually evolved whereby "the children of Popish natives may be so won over by affectionate (sic) endeavours that the whole nation may become Protestant and English." (c.f. T 267) The Relief Acts of 1782 and 1792 were meant to repeal this situation but Edmund Rice still found it necessary to gain a license to teach which was initially refused.


Edmund Rice was born in 1762 into a comparatively well off farming family at "Westcourt", Callan Co Kilkenny. He was educated firstly in the home and then at a hedge school with fees charged according to the subjects taken, e.g. book-keeping and mathematics 11/4 (T 15). The expense of this can be compared with a woman's annual wage of 2/10/-, and a man's, 5 (T 9). From there he was sent to a school in Kilkenny where he furthered his education doing a commercial course. Edmund had a lot of respect for this teacher and spoke highly of him later.


In 1799, or thereabouts, Edmund, now 17, went to Waterford to begin work with his uncle, Michael Rice, who had a ship chandler's and provisioning store near the Quay. "This was an extremely lucrative business because of the number of ships annually using the harbour." (T 22) The nature of the work required Edmund to mix with a great diversity of people. "Mr Rice became a well known figure on the Waterford Quay. He was fond of jokes and had a great sense of humour...He was one of the few persons who, during the rebellion of 1798, was allowed to pass unchallenged at all the military posts throughout that area." ( T 22-3)


Because of good business contacts and prospects Edmund had entry to the "full social life of the better class citizens" (T 23). Thus in 1785 aged 23 he met and married Mary Elliott "of a well to do family that owned a tanyard."


Edmund's father, Robert, died towards the end of the year 1787 having just made his will in which he appointed Edmund executor. This would seem to be testimony to the high esteem in which he was held even at this early stage. After debts were cleared the residue was to be divided between his six brothers and the widowed mother. "This was a most delicate matter and demanded efficiency and integrity. A few years later when the farm had been divided, Edmund paid his brothers in full and with his usual business efficiency required a receipt for the transaction." Two of these receipts have been preserved, one dated 1792, the other 1795. (c.f. T 24)


Tragedy of an even crueller kind struck again with the death of Edmund's wife in January, 1789. There are two, not necessarily contradictory, traditions regarding her death. One that she died of an illness, the other that she died as the result of an accident while riding in the hunt which she had been fond of. She was well advanced with child which the doctor was able to save though she was disabled in some way. (T 25).The announcement was made in four newspapers again indicative of the prominence of the family. As was the case with so much of Edmund's life there is nothing in writing by him of the effect this had on him but his actions speak volumes.


Joan Murphy, his step sister, came to his aid here and lived with them helping to care for Mary until she was a young teenager. His brother Patrick and wife Mary, who were childless then took charge of her though Edmund meticulously provided for her financial security. In 1826 she was boarded out at an annuity of 16 "a very considerable sum in those days." (A curate's stipend at that time was 10.) (T 28) This responsibility was maintained by the Brothers' community at Mount Sion right up until Mary died in January 1859. (T 311)


Many reminiscences had Edmund as a devout daily Mass goer even before this tragedy occurred. Another source said that he had been chided as a young man for being distracted at Mass (T 26). However, it would seem that following his wife's death Edmund had many more things on his mind in addition to business, henceforth. He believed it to be a call to deepen his prayer life. Spiritual reading, including a bible, which he bought in 1791, was a regular addition to his spiritual diet which also included daily Mass going with a group of young men of similar disposition with whom he formed a close association. These were Mr Thomas Brien, Mr Carroll, Mr Quan and Mr St Leger. In due course they would be his support group when he started to think of educating poor boys.


From the outset Edmund and his band of followers believed that piety must flow into good actions. One of their concerns was the plight of unfortunate women living alone in dire poverty but unwilling to seek support from charitable organisations. His group visited and provided that support. (T 32)


Certainly grieving, but knowing that he had a family to support, Edmund attended to his business with renewed fervour. His business prospered and he also diversified his asset base believing that the banks were not safe institutions in which to invest one's funds. (See T 182 regarding the blow-out in the national debt from 32 million pounds to 112 million between 1801 and 1817 with the consequent closure of 13 banks including Newport's Bank in Waterford. Its director, a brother of Sir John Newport MP and great supporter of Edmund, able to pay only 5/3 in the pound, committed suicide.)

By the time Edmund had decided his course of action in starting a school system for poor boys in 1802 his property amounted to:

• the garter Inn, a posting establishment in Callan,

• 76 acres of land of land in Huntstown, Co Kilkenny,

• a further 64 acres in the Callan district,

• nine houses in Barrack St and one house in Barron Strand, Waterford.

The rentals from these properties and the proceeds from the sale of his business provided funds for building Mt Sion, his first school in Waterford, and subsequent ones in Dungarvan and Hanover Street. (T 182)


Edmund, in the preamble to his last will, in fact gave more prominence to this aspect of his life's work than his educational endeavours:

I have for many years laboured for the advancement of Education amongst the poorer classes and other works of Charity to which I have chiefly devoted my life and several devises bequests and Donations have been from time to time made to me by charitable and humane persons for the furtherance of said objects which I have to the best of my skill and judgement applied as intended together also with large parts of my own property. (T310)


Two Waterford ladies having been trained as Presentation sisters returned and looked to Edmund in helping them get established a school for poor girls. The link person was Fr John Power, a relation of the two women, and a close friend of Edmund. Edmund acquired a site for a permanent convent and school for a term of 91 years at the yearly rent of 13 Irish. (T 36)

There were six sisters in the convent and between them they had sufficient money to secure a yearly income of 108 but only if they could get an interest rate of about 10% which was impossible to obtain from any financial trust or bank (then as now!) Again Edmund came to their assistance and granted them a life annuity at this interest on land he purchased, thus securing permanence for the apostolate they had adopted. (T 37) By 1820 he had been named executor of the will of eighteen Presentation Sisters. The revenue coming during life to seven of these sisters from dowries invested for them totalled 4,632 from Mr Rice's lands. (T183)

There was the case of a Miss Sargent, a convert from Protestantism who was anxious to join the Presentation Sisters. Her father kept delaying paying her dowry hoping that she would eventually give up her idea of entering. Edmund intervened offering to pay her expenses up till final profession. She had to go through the entry process of three different convents before her father released his promised 500 dowry.

The case of Sr Mary Knowd Superior of the presentation Convent in George's Hill, Dublin is much more complex but shows Edmund's desire to see justice is done. The matter is spelt out in two letters Edmund wrote to the lady referred to as Mrs Knowd and clearly indicates the time and effort Edmund applied to the business and the need to prosecute the case in the courts without delay if they were not to lose their money. Very interestingly there are lovely comments throughout the letters which illustrate Edmund's affection for the ladies and his sense of humour even in the midst of some hard-headed business and legal counsel. (C pp 11-15)


By 1802 Edmund had matters in train for the starting up of his school system. They commenced very quietly, more or less on a trial basis with Edmund taking some of the poor street children home for a chat, a meal and some instruction. Finding many of the children responded quite well he started a small night school in premises which were part of his deceased wife's estate in New Street, Waterford. This too proved very promising and so he decided to expand his concept by founding schools to provide much needed education for the impoverished Catholic children.

But while he was looking for prospective pupils he met a young Italian with a large pack on his back offering pictures for sale. This was Carlo Bianconi who had come by barge from Carrick. He had been drenched by the rain and was looking wretched and ill. Edmund spoke to him and found he had only an imperfect knowledge of English. "Buy, buy," was all he could say. Edmund helped him to learn English, gave him religious instruction and encouraged him to use his native ingenuity. Wondering why the poor should have to walk around when the rich could move around in carriages Bianconi eventually set up the first public transport system in 1815, and in a very few years became a very wealthy man and mayor of Clonmel. He never forgot his benefactor and sent 50 and 20 suits of clothes for poor boys every year to the Brothers. (T 80)


Edmund secured the release of this dark skinned young man from the captain of a vessel recently tied up at the quay and sent him for religious instruction to the newly arrived Presentation Nuns who employed him as a messenger and general servant. Eventually Edmund bought him a little house which served as a piggery, and being industrious and thrifty he was able to save a considerable amount of money with which he was able to buy two houses. Before he died he willed the two houses to the Nuns and Mr Rice who received their rents for many years. (T 80)


There was a thirteen year period between the time Edmund's wife, Mary, died and the beginning of his first school system. Amidst the cares of running and expanding his business interests, and engaging in many works of charity, Edmund did have his home to return to each evening and ensure the well being of his sister and daughter. With the other members of his family, especially his sister-in-law, Kitty, keen to have the care of Mary, Edmund's mind was turning to his own future. His spiritual life was well nurtured with daily Mass going and spiritual reading which led him to reflect on the merits of a monastic lifestyle similar to his brother John who was an Augustinian priest. Travelling with a friar on one occasion and sharing a room with him Edmund was very taken by the prayerful spirit this man had. This led Edmund to the idea of making a pilgrimage to Rome and then to seek a life of monastic solitude.


Whether it was his sister Joan or another woman friend it is hard to tell but the feminine touched him and told him to look into the streets and see if that was not the place for his monastery, trying to uplift the souls and bodies of children who had no purpose in life other than eking out a hand to mouth existence as best they could. Never one to rush at decision making Edmund sought the best possible advice and pondered it before finally deciding that starting a school system for these children would be his major thrust from now on. He wrote to the Holy Father, Pope Pius the VI, with his proposal and was encouraged to make a start.


His late wife's property in New Street would be the place of his first school. He transferred his place of residence to this former stable and fitted out the upper rooms as his house and the downstairs section as class-rooms. His first attempt at gaining a licence to teach from the Protestant Bishop was unsuccessful but after turning to his friend Sir John Newport MP the decision was reversed.

His first helpers were the group that he had formed for mutual encouragement, Mass going and attendance on the "Distressed Room Keepers." Even starting off in a small way with just the night school of six pupils was not sufficient introduction to the rigours of boisterous children unused to the discipline of the class-room. With the expansion into a day school his voluntary helpers felt it necessary to decline their services. Thomas Quan was one of these helpers and negotiated to buy Edmund's business from him. He did remain a very committed supporter even though not able to join in with the teaching, giving forty pounds on one occasion.

Obtaining suitable staff was a huge problem at first because even after his voluntary helpers declined he could not induce paid staff to remain either. His trust in providence was rewarded when two young men, Thomas Grosvenor and Patrick Finn, joined him, being pointed in that direction by his brother John.


It was not long before the New Street school became completely inadequate for the numbers of pupils wishing to join. So in June of 1802 he commenced building a school and monastery on an elevated site. This site was previously owned by the church and as the Bishop, Dr Hussey, was exiled out of the country, the negotiations to buy the land were carried out without his knowledge. When he did return he was not pleased to see this building going up without his approval and the previously good relationship between Edmund and himself suddenly soured. Edmund was at a loss to know why this should be until his good friend Fr John Power alerted him to the possible cause. When Edmund learnt of the position he had a Deed of Assignment drawn up by which he handed over to Dr Hussey the full rights over the property, reserving only a life interest for himself .

This act of Edmund's is often interpreted as showing his great detachment and trust in Providence. That is so, but it is well to realize that Edmund was insisting on a life interest for himself. This would seem to indicate that Edmund was not prepared to compromise his project during his life-time at any rate. He also put up a pretty convincing plea to have the project secured.

Actually, Dr Hussey was very taken by Edmund's preparedness to assign the property over and embracing him said: "Go on, my dear friend, and prosper. I want no deed. I know of no one better fitted to administer your property than yourself. " (T 45-47)


Within a few years of this new prestigious looking school opening Edmund was receiving requests for other openings. It was in a letter to the Bishop of Cashel in 1810 that Edmund outlined his schooling system. (C 1-5) One can see from his attention to detail in describing both the materials used and the class organisation and curriculum that Edmund had very much in mind the demands of the working world. The use of a monitorial system which he borrowed from some of the current models, especially from the Presentation system, and perfected, reflect the business manager who knows what close supervision of his staff is all about. Even when there was one Brother for upwards of two hundred pupils, by the use of monitors, he was able to ensure staff pupil ratios 1: 13. Even then the Brother was expected to see each pupil twice a day.


Edmund soon became aware of the tremendous thirst for formal education among the Catholic poor who were not prepared to compromise their own faith by attending the well endowed charity schools which had the quite specific aim of luring Catholics away from their faith. However, it is very difficult to imagine one person endowing a school system and the financial constraints that imposes in a world which expects the state or the church to provide that financial support. But Edmund, putting his vision into reality, not only founded one school but a whole school system with specific guidelines for their financial support, and which took into consideration the individual circumstances of each foundation.

Even as he was building the first school and monastery, called Mount Sion, he realized that it would be too much of a drain on finances to build all of it in stone during this first phase. With the continuing pressure for places he adopted the system of building wooden structures as well to ease some of the pressure on resources. Then, despite the inconvenience of it, he negotiated with a Mr Buggy, a publican, to borrow benches from his premises and return them each evening. (T 67) This may well be the same man whom Edmund went rowing with gaining the reputation of being a very fine rower! (M 18)


From the outset it was clear that education for the poor, although necessary to raise people's prospects in life, could only be really provided once other more basic needs had been met. Thus Edmund set up a bakery and tailors' shop to help provide the basic necessities of food and clothing. In order to finance this very considerable outlay he turned to his friends of his business days and secured their assistance. Again it can be seen that Edmund might not have been a great spiritual writer but the evidence from his immaculately kept accounts books, where still extant, reveal an extraordinary compassion and ability to engage a wide number of people to join with him in this task. Many of these people were Quakers and other Protestant friends. (C.f. T 62-64 for details)


It was not long before requests for similar openings were being made throughout the diocese. The problem was to provide the finance and man-power to meet the request.

Edmund thought of one of his Mass companions who was single and a wealthy wine merchant. In a diplomatic gesture he sent one of his companions, John Mulcahy, to approach him. Mr Brien was very interested but preferred to open and endow a new foundation which became their second school at Carrick-on-Suir. The school got off to a disastrous start with the rush of pupils being quite uncontrollable. Mr Brien did not ever quite recover from that inauspicious opening because, even though things settled down, his health suffered terribly in the ensuing months and his doctor strongly advised him to withdraw from the ordeal. It would have been the first of many sadnesses which Edmund experienced in members withdrawing from his fledgling brotherhood. However, Mr Brien continued to endow the school for a while at least. But even this source of revenue began to dry up and Edmund was worried about securing its future. Even though legal opinion indicated that he did have cause to hold Mr Brien to his original offer, Edmund was opposed to enforcing the bond which "was made out of the goodness of his heart." (T 152)

By 1822 the finances were in something of a parlous position and the Bishop visited Mr Brien telling him of Mr Rice's reluctance to apply pressure on Mr Brien to honour his promise of ongoing financial support. The wine-merchant was so touched by Edmund's attitude that he immediately paid over a sum of 500 to be invested for the benefit of house and school. Then in his will he bequeathed the residue of his property to Edmund Rice and the men working in the school which he founded.


If anything speaks of the largeness of heart of Edmund his relationship with John Mulcahy is a fine example. He was the third member to join Edmund at Mount Sion in Waterford and was entrusted with delicate diplomatic tasks from the outset especially regarding Thomas Brien, just mentioned. In due course he was asked by the Bishop to start a poor school in Cappoquin, which he endowed personally, with subsequent assistance from Bishop Power, and his successor, Bishop Walsh. Whether it was in gratefulness for the latter offer and knowing the extreme opposition Bishop Walsh had to Edmund seeking and gaining status as a religious congregation able to make its own decisions especially regarding the transfer of Brothers, it is difficult to tell. Suffice to know that John Mulcahy chose not to accept the Papal Brief establishing the Congregation in 1821 and stayed under the authority of the Bishop, just as one of the Brothers, Michael Austin Riordan, brother of the second Superior General, engaged as architect by the Bishop of Cork, elected to remain under diocesan control there thus bringing into being the other section of the Edmund Rice family, the Presentation Brothers. (C 164)

What is quite remarkable is that even though John Mulcahy chose not to affiliate with the newly constituted Brothers' group, this did not sever the great bond of friendship existing between Edmund and John. As Edmund went about making his first official Visitation of the different Houses he desired to see John Mulcahy and wish him well. To all intents and purposes it was still a Brothers' school using the Brothers' texts and managerial system except that John was answerable to the Bishop not Edmund. Edmund realized that his financial position was somewhat insecure and felt compelled to alleviate this knowing that when John first entered he did so bringing a dowry with him. Consequently Edmund promised him a life annuity of 30, a very generous amount. (T 169) In later life after Edmund had been relieved of the office of Superior General he took time to have a holiday with John.


The foundation in Cork began in quite auspicious circumstances with the local Charitable Society raising considerable funds to have the "North Monastery" built and endowed in some style. However, before that could happen a virulent epidemic of typhus broke out necessitating the conversion of part of the new school into a hospital for the treatment of those afflicted.

Although one of the Brothers contracted the disease himself and died, the fledgling group, after some training in Waterford under Edmund, brought about nothing short of a revolution in education, partly the result of attracting to their membership professional people, including an architect, an engineer and other equally skilled men who made remarkable inroads into educating the poorer classes of the Irish people.(T 159-167)


However, it was not long before the founding Bishop, Dr Moylan, died and his successor, Dr Kelly, wished to assume complete control over the placement of the Brothers and the deeds of the property. The interchange between the Bishop and Br Baptist Leonard regarding the drawing up of an assignment of the property in favour of the Bishop might seem quite humorous except for the consequences flowing from it.

"Mr Leonard, I want to have a Deed of Assignment drawn up," commanded the Bishop.

"May I ask my lord," said Br Leonard, what names are to be on it?"

"Your Bishop's name," replied His Lordship.

"What other names besides?", enquired Brother Baptist.

"Such names as I shall appoint," said the Bishop.

"What about my name and my brother's name, my Lord?" rejoined Br Baptist. "This property belongs in part to myself and my brother; the remainder was provided by our friends, and I may tell your Lordship once and for all, that no new Deed shall be drawn up on which my name and that of my brother shall not appear." (T 162)

Whereas, before, the Cork Brothers were reluctant to be part of a governing structure with Edmund as Superior, this enmity between them and the Bishop induced them to bind themselves to the other Brothers by the making of vows and adopting a common constitution. Unfortunately, as the years unfolded it was to become a bond of convenience rather than of solidarity and the enmity and conflict ensuing between the Cork Brothers and the other Brothers under Edmund's leadership almost ruined the fledgling organisation.

However, that was to be some years later. In the meantime, Edmund could see the need to secure the title to the North Monastery. Previously they had the property on lease from a Sir George Gould and so Edmund despatched Brother Joseph Leonard to France to buy out for 400 Sir George Gould's interest in the property. This was secured and then Br Joseph took a holiday in Paris at the express wish of Edmund Rice who knew that he had been very unwell. In Paris Br Joseph visited the Superior general of the De La Salle Congregation and informed himself of their system. On his return to Cork he expressed himself full of admiration for the administration of the French Congregation. (T 162-4) This French connection would also be a real bone of contention between the Cork faction and the Rice group and led to much bitterness in the governance of the Congregation right up to and well beyond Edmund's death.


As distinct from Cork which was well endowed from the start, the opening at Dungarvan in 1807 was always going to be fraught with financial difficulties. A Mr Barron, of Faha, Co Waterford, bequeathed by will a sum of 1,000, the interest on its investment to be used to establish and maintain a monastery and school. The interest on the Barron bequest was insufficient for their ordinary maintenance and they were obliged to take up farming as a part time occupation. (T 69)

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