The 1821 census reported a population of 2,046 in Wicklow Town, but only 172 were attending school. In 1864 the population was 3,404. There were five schools in the town: a national school, a parochial school on the foundation of Erasmus Smith and three small private schools. 741 people were enrolled in various schools here in 1868 but only 294 were in attendance on the day when an assistant commissioner from the Royal Commission on Primary Education visited. The proportion of children at school was small and in the case of girls, remarkably small.
The Order of Preachers (Dominicans), founded by St. Dominic, first came to Ireland in 1216. The Dominican Sisters were invited to take up residence in Bayview House in 1869 by the Parish Priest of Wicklow, Rev. Patrick O’ Doherty. On 20th June 1870 six Dominican Sisters, under their foundress (Mother Ursula Maher), arrived in Wicklow, opening their first primary school here at Bayview on 24th June 1870. The school proved to be very popular and by August, a day school for female students (St. Anne’s) was opened. On 8th September 1870 a private boarding school for young ladies was opened, following the beginning of a private day-school for young ladies in August, thus beginning the Dominican role in secondary education. Attendance at the new school flourished, breaking all previous records. Initially 377 pupils attended between both levels: 315 female and 62 male infants. Ages of pupils varied, with some of the girls/ladies being older than their teachers!
The construction of the St. Dominic’s wing began in 1871 and was completed in 1878. Boarders began to occupy their rooms also in September 1878. In 1882 St. Joseph’s wing, for boarders, was completed. On 8th September 1887 St. Mary’s Preparatory College for boys aged under twelve was opened and continued until 1962. In 1903/04 the original Bayview House was demolished to make room for the construction of the new chapel and St. Catherine’s wing which was completed in 1907. The first Mass was celebrated in the chapel by Archbishop Walsh on 20th June 1906.
The 1901 census shows that there were 53 male boarders ranging in age from 4 to 12, and 48 female boarders ranging in age from 3 to 46. Most of the girls were Irish, but there was also one American, two British and one French girl. The 1911 census indicates that there were 47 sisters in the Dominican Convent, none of whom could speak Irish! In 1929 the construction of St. Therese’s wing began. In 1939 the construction of Fatima Hall began. In 1940 a fire devastated St. Mary’s wing, the boy’s preparatory school. The wing was rebuilt and reopened in 1943.
Increasing numbers of pupils in the primary school led to the need to construct a new primary school. Holy Rosary School was completed and officially opened on 12th January 1950.
The roof of Fatima Hall was raised in 1952 to make room for the dormitories. In 1967 the Dominican Convent entered the Free Education for Post-Primary Schools scheme, making DCW a voluntary secondary school. In 1970 the Dominicans celebrated a century of service to the education of children in Wicklow. On 12th December 1977 the Bethlehem Junior School was opened. The boarding system was phased out and the class of 1983 bade a farewell to the last of the boarders in DCW. Today all students are day pupils.
In 1994 Mrs. Margaret o’ Flaherty became the first lay principal of DCW, replacing Sr. Julie Newman. In 1999 Ms. Helen O’ Sullivan succeeded Sr. Rosaleen Lambon as principal, thus ending the Dominican’s direct teaching influence which had lasted for almost 130 years. In 1998 the Dominican Sisters established ‘An Tairseach’, the Dominican Farm and Ecology Centre. Today DCW enjoys positive links with the Ecology Centre through the facilitation of Ecology-themed retreats, support for the DCW Green School programme and the Transition Year ‘Sustainable Living’ module. John Finlay rightly states that ‘The contribution of the Dominican Sisters to education in Wicklow since their arrival in 1870 is immeasurable, but the undying respect of the people of the town is some small recompense for their valiant efforts.’ (2013, p.186).
This account of the history of DCW was adapted from ‘Footsteps through Wicklow’s Past’ by John Finlay (2013), Chairperson of the Wicklow Historical Society. Sincere thanks to John for permitting the inclusion of his content on our website.