Edmund Ignatius Rice

Paddy Neary

Edmund Rice's birthplace in Callan
Edmund Rice’s birthplace in Callan

When Edmund Rice was born in West Court, Callan, Co. Kilkenny on June 1st 1762, the Penal Laws, which had caused so much suffering in Ireland since 1695, were gradually being relaxed. He spent his childhood on a farm of about 150 acres, which cost his father two sovereigns a year in rent. The house in which the Rice family resided can still be seen and is to day a museum dedicated to the founder of the Christian Brothers.

There was no proper primary schools which Catholics could attend and so Edmund attended a hedge school in the old Moat in Callan. The fees were four pence a week and an extra half penny for dancing lessons. He attended this school until he was fifteen, when in 1777 he went to a school in Kilkenny, possibly Burrell’s Hall, the predecessor of St Kieran’s College. The first diocesan college established in 1782 by Bishop Troy. Rice was the first of his family to be educated to this level, the Rices paid £20 per year for their son to board at this school. For this, he received a Classical education, the subjects were English, writing, maps, commercial, grammar, Latin, mathematics and book keeping. After two years, he was sent to his uncle in Waterford who was in business there.

Waterford was a very busy port with ships coming and going to all parts of the World. Michael Rice dealt mainly in meat and exported to England and Newfoundland. He also imported fish from Newfoundland. Edmund quickly learnt the business and soon became very successful. He married Mary Elliot in 1785 who bore him a daughter named Mary. His wife died shortly afterwards due to the typhoid fever which was raging across Europe. Rice’s sister Joan took on the responsibility of caring for the child. When in 1802 he decided to embark on his mission, he entrusted his daughter to his brother residing at West Court. Mary later moved to Carrick-on-Suir in the care of her cousins until her death in 1859. Throughout her life Rice provided for her and after his death the Order continued to support her.

Edmund Rice statue
Statue of Edmund Rice in Westcourt, Callan

Throughout his business career, he gave a great deal of money to the poor, the sick, and those who had been put in prison because of debts they could not pay. In fact, Edmund paid these debts, so that they could go free. The more time he spent among the poor of Waterford, the sorrier he felt for the children who had no chance of going to school. In 1796, Edmund and friends had set up a society to help adults who needed food and money, and now they planned to help the children as well. Edmund had been thinking of retiring from the world and joining a Monastery in Rome. But now he realised there was work for him in Ireland. The Bishops of Ossory and Waterford encouraged him and by 1800 he was teaching boys in the City. Two years later he rented a stable in New Street and converted it into a school room. Thomas Grosvenor and Patrick Finn, friends from Callan joined him and managed to carry on the school.

The next year, 1803, Edmund decided to give up his business and spend all his time teaching. So with the help of four friends and the Bishop of Waterford, he opened a new school at Mount Sion in May 1804. The first of what was to become the great network of Christian Brothers School all over Ireland and the World. Edmund and his friends decided to take religious vows and wear habits, each of them took a name. Edmund took the name Ignatius, the leader of a dedicated band of men who were to change the picture of education in Ireland. 1811 saw the opening of a school in Cork, closely followed by the opening of the first Dublin school.

One of the many people Edmund had helped in earlier years was Charles Bianconi, who had arrived in Waterford desolate with very little money. The two became good friends, Rice helping him to secure a premises in Clonmel. In time, Bianconi established an extensive transport system; he was elected twice Mayor of Clonmel. He never forgot Edmund Rice; each year, he sent £50 and 20 suits of clothes for poor boys. Bianconi in his will left a great portion of his fortune to the Christian Brothers.

Rice was also a good friend of Daniel O’Connell, and in June 1828, when he laid the foundation stone of the C.B.S. on North Richmond Street with 100,000 in attendance, O’Connell referred to Edmund as the Patriarch of the monks of the West. In a short space of 10 years, schools were opening all over Ireland, followed by the opening in 1825 of the first school overseas at Preston, Lancashire, followed by Manchester, London, Sunderland, Liverpool and a second school in London all in the space of twelve years. They were also requested to open a school in Gibraltar in 1835. All these schools were opened during the Founders lifetime and after his death many more were established in America, Africa, Australia, and other countries.

By 1836, Edmund was getting on in years and his health was failing. He had tried to resign as Superior General of the Order, but his friends encouraged him to stay. He finally resigned in 1838 and retired to Mount Sion, where he lived out the last years of his life. He died on the 29th August 1844, and was laid to rest in the Cemetery at Mount Sion. The Bishop of Waterford set aside October 1st as a Month’s Mind for a great public thanksgiving for the life of Edmund Rice. This occasion was marked by a High Mass in the Cathedral where the seats were removed to accommodate the thousands who attended. In 1941 his remains were reinterred in a special mausoleum at Mount Sion. The cause for his beatification was opened in 1963, canonisation followed in October 1996. Edmund Ignatius Rice was indeed a saintly man, a man of great energy , intelligence and practical knowledge whose work has given millions of boys a wonderful start in life.