GlENSTAL Abbey School’s pupil numbers soared to 218 this September – the highest in their 80-year history.
A record 56 new students were enrolled from first to fifth year – 11 are day boarders from County Limerick and surrounding areas.
Reports in national media last week said that pupil numbers in most fee-paying schools “continue to slide” but Glenstal is bucking that trend.
Fees this year stand at €17,375 for seven day boarders and €10,250 for day boarders – both include a €1,000 capital development levy. Their new €6m extension was officially opened last January.
It was the first day of school in Glenstal for those 56 boys, as well as for new headmaster Fr William Fennelly. He becomes just the second Limerick principal following in the footsteps of current abbot, Mark Patrick Hederman, who was a co-director.
The South Circular Road man, who takes over from Br Martin Browne, said just two years ago numbers were at 181.
“It went up a good bit last year and up further this year. Part of that is coming out of the recession and then there is the fine building Br Martin did.
“He has done a huge amount of work on academic standards. It is kind of a virtual circle - each bit reinforces the other,” said Fr William.
Glenstal was pipped at the post this year by Laurel Hill Colaiste FCJ as it went for three in a row at the top of The Sunday Times Parent Power survey.
However, it was a double success for the Fennelly family as they have connections to both schools. Fr William and his brother, Jonathan attended the boarding school in Murroe while his sisters - Janet, Suzanne and Mary - attended Laurel Hill Colaiste FCJ.
The son of Evelyn and the late Dr John Fennelly - a psychiatrist in St Joseph’s and the prison - attended Glenstal in the mid-eighties.
How have things changed?
“There is not 102 ways to be a 12 year-old. Probably the biggest change is mobile phones, they are on the phone all the time to home or social networking, that is probably the biggest change. When I was here you used to get one visit per half term but now parents are much more involved. They come out to matches, the kids go home at weekends, we have day boarders and they are obviously much more involved at home. The business of home is much more a part of the life of the school than it would have been when I was here,” said Fr William.
He studied Law in Trinity before practising as a lawyer in Fermoy and Dublin.
“I loved it, it was a very happy time,” he said.
But at the age of 28 he left the world of law to return to Glenstal.
“I wanted to have life and have it in abundance. Whilst I really enjoyed the law I was looking for something a bit more and it has worked out very well for me. Monastic life has been very, very good to me. I find it a very rewarding life,” said Fr William.
As well as the law degree and being an ordained priest the 45-year-old has a higher diploma and masters in Education.
He take over the reins from Br Martin – headmaster for the last five years.
“He did a very impressive job. I hadn’t taken the measure of what a good job he had done until I started to do his job myself,” said Fr William.
While the multi-million euro extension was built under his watch, Br Martin says he sets more store on “what kind of place it was going to be at the end of my time”.
“We set a lot of store on community, obviously it is a monastic community and so that affects how we want to run the school. The school isn’t a monastery but is a particular kind of community and has some of the same values of the monastery.
“Looking back at what is the school community like now - is it in good shape? Is it in good heart? And I think it is.
“I would be much more happy about that than looking at the building saying I did that because I didn’t,” said Br Martin.
One story he tells is of himself and some of the boys who had a day off during Leaving Cert exams covering a silage pit with Fr James.
“That was surreal. Every school has little quirky things but the most quirky things can happen here because people are here a lot of the time and because there is a whole world in Glenstal other than the school,” said Br Martin.
Fr William is looking forward to the years ahead as principal of one of the most prestigious schools in the country but stresses it is a long way from being from a one man show.
He has a vice-principal, Helen Costello; bursar, John Cannon; dean of boarding, Fr Cuthbert as well as teachers and other support staff.
In Glenstal it is all about community, and a growing one at that.