How Cistercian College, Roscrea got its mojo back

A quickly assembled action group prevented the closure of this renowned boarding school

Dom Richard Purcell, former abbot of Cistercian College Roscrea, and former taoiseach Enda Kenny with the CSR school choir in 2011. Photograph: Frank Miller

Dom Richard Purcell, former abbot of Cistercian College Roscrea, and former taoiseach Enda Kenny with the CSR school choir in 2011. Photograph: Frank Miller


Earlier this year student numbers at renowned boarding school Cistercian College, Roscrea were reported to be down by 45 per cent in a decade. Just nine new first-years were confirmed for September 2017, prompting school authorities to announce a wind-down and closure of the school at Mount St Joseph Abbey in Co Tipperary.

Within the space of a few weeks of that announcement by the Cistercian Order, concerned parents, former students and other supporters had helped put together a rescue package to save the school. By September 27th, new students had started, total numbers were up for the first time in years and a financial gap had been filled.

“It’s been extraordinary,” parent and past-pupil Ronnie Culliton, who chaired the quickly assembled action group in February and March, said this Christmas. “A huge amount of work has gone on since then to try and stabilise the school and get good numbers.”

News of the planned wind-down and closure of the college prompted “heartbreak” among students, according to the parents’ association.

However, a major drive to get the decision reversed was immediately launched by supporters of the school, and they were asked by the then-abbot Dom Richard Purcell to look at “options” for keeping the college open.

Meetings held by the Save CCR committee quickly led to financial pledges to help plug the college’s funding shortfall, and is believed to have involved a commitment of €1.5 million from supporters.

Day boarders

Meanwhile, opening the formerly seven-day boarding school to day boarders (who would go home every night) and five-day boarders (home at weekends) was also agreed as part of a package eventually presented to the abbot, and approved by the Cistercian Order.

Past pupils, including former taoiseach Brian Cowen, former tánaiste Dick Spring and champion racehorse trainer Willie Mullins, all welcomed the decision to reverse the closure order which was announced by Purcell in March.

The abbot described that day as “one of the most joyous” in the history of the college and said that a “small miracle” had been performed by all involved during the previous four weeks.

Hurling and rugby blitzes attracted hundreds of participants and spectators in the subsequent weeks and months, increasing exposure for the school, and an open evening in August also gained some extra confirmations.

Pat O’Sullivan has been director of CCR since August and has been impressed by what he has seen since his arrival. “We would be happy that we’ve had a good term, our enrolment seems to be picking up quite a notch, morale is good within the college, there’s a good staff and I’ve found it all very supportive. We have a strong parents’ association and good board of management, and everybody is putting their back to the wheel. Everybody knows they have to make this work.”

Summer camp

A former principal of Rockwell College, O’Sullivan wants to open CCR’s gates more to the local region than they have been in the past and to encourage day boarders into the future. A summer camp planned for July and August is part of that aim.

“Almost everybody here is actively involved in something like sport or music, and that’s one of the things that has struck me – they’re all engaged in activities. I hope that augurs well for the future.”

Board of management member Sinéad Lawlor, who was chair of the parents’ association last year, has also been encouraged by events of recent months.

“It has been quite phenomenal,” she said. While the reversal of the closure decision was a turning point in the college’s fortunes, “someone described it to me as the foothills of Everest – the work has really started in earnest since then.”

Former Irish rugby international Gary Halpin, who has worked in the education sphere in the UK for two decades (and remains famous here for his try against New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup), is joining CCR as head of boarding in January.

Twenty-seven pupils have enrolled in September, the largest number of first-years in several years. The total across all years is now 170. That’s up slightly from the 167 in March, but the aim is to get enrolment above 200.

“You don’t change the course of a ship in a heartbeat,” as Lawlor put it, “but we’re confident we’ll get there.”