A Short History of The High School Dublin 1870 - 2020

The High School was founded on 1st October 1870 at 40 Harcourt Street, Dublin by the Governors of the Schools Founded by Erasmus Smith, Esquire as a school to prepare boys for business and the professions.  At that time, the great foundation to which The High School was destined to belong was already two hundred years old and controlled four grammar schools and over 150 primary schools.  Established in the middle of the seventeenth century by Erasmus Smith to educate the children of his tenants and other poor scholars, the foundation had an income of over £8,000 per annum by 1870 - a considerable sum in those days.

The English or Intermediate section of the new school offered courses in English, Arithmetic, Book-keeping, and Writing.  In addition, a series of optional courses in Latin, Greek, Natural Sciences, French, German, advanced Mathematics, and Drawing were available.  The school year was divided into four terms which began in October, January, April, and August.  Each school day began at 9.30 am with Prayers conducted by the Headmaster and ended at 3.00 pm.  During break the boys were allowed to go into the pleasure grounds which adjoined the school.  In January 1872 the Standing Committee agreed to allow them to walk on the grass but ordered that the junior masters were to supervise the boys during lunch break! 

The school has always welcomed pupils from many religious backgrounds.  One of the more amusing accounts of the religious breakdown at the school was given by William Wilkins, Headmaster, in a letter to the Board in 1886 which noted the enrolment of 209 Church of Ireland pupils, 41 Presbyterians, 8 Plymouth Brethren, 5 Methodists, 3 ‘Separatists’, 3 Baptists, 3 Jews, 2 Roman Catholics, 2 Moravians, and 1 Congregationalist.  He remarked that ‘the Presbyterian boys have always been the intellectual cream of the school’.  Today, the population of the school contains almost every religion, denomination, faith system, and philosophy which exists in Ireland.  Religious harmony has been a hallmark of the school since its foundation.

The introduction of physical drill following the appointment of a drill-sergeant in 1882 augmented the educational provision of the school but also created the position of School Sergeant which has lasted to the present day.  The role involved overseeing the buildings, supervising pupils at break and lunch time, as well as opening and closing the school.  The caretaker and coordinator of school maintenance is still popularly known as “Sarge”.

The Danum estate had been bought by Ernest Bewley in 1904 and he had built a house and farm buildings there for the famous café-owning family.  The name Danum came with the Bewleys from their former home near Doncaster in England.  The Trust purchased Danum as early as 1955 and the years prior to the move from Harcourt Street saw the development of the playing fields and the planning of the new school.  When it became urgent to move in the late 1960s, the government refused to pay for the new school (except for a small grant of £20,000) so it was built almost entirely from the resources of the Trust and the sale of Harcourt Street.  An extension was built in the same manner at the time of the incorporation from the proceeds of the sale of the Diocesan School for Girls - again without government assistance.  It is only in recent years that the government has given any substantial assistance towards the cost of new buildings at the school.

Although it had a precarious beginning, with only 123 pupils in 1871 instead of the anticipated 300, the school was later to thrive.  The High School moved from Harcourt Street to Danum in 1971 and incorporated The Diocesan Secondary School for Girls in 1974 thereby becoming co-educational.  The Diocesan School was the older of the two new partners having been founded in 1849.  A major building programme for the new millennium was begun in 2000 and further development is ongoing.  The High School celebrated the 150th anniversary of its foundation in the academic year 2020-21 and now caters for over 770 pupils.

The following individuals have served as Headmasters and Principals of The High School:

  • Rev Dr Samuel Cresswell, 1870-1879

  • Mr William Wilkins, 1879-1908  

  • Mr John Thompson, 1908-1927

  • Mr John Bennett, 1927-1951

  • Dr Ralph Reynolds, 1951-1970

  • Mr Allan Brook, 1971-1994

  • Mr Brian Duffy, 1994-2011

  • Mr Andrew Forrest, 2011-present

W.B. Yeats remains the best known past pupil of the school.  He entered the school in 1881 after his family had returned to Dublin from London.  Yeats found the school rather different from the one he had attended in London: ‘Here …. nobody gave any thought to decorum …. on the other hand there was no bullying, and I had not thought that boys could work so hard.  Cricket and football, the collecting of moths and butterflies, though not forbidden, were discouraged.’ (W.B. Yeats, Autobiographies, p. 56)

Yeats was mainly interested in natural history, and it may seem surprising, given his later career and global success, that he was weak at English literature.  He had a difficulty with spelling but his contemporaries noted the quality of his essays when they were read aloud.  He received a prize in English in 1883 and seems to have begun writing poetry at about that time.  In 1937, he allowed The Erasmian to publish a hitherto unpublished poem entitled What Then?

What Then?

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil:
What then, sang Plato's ghost, what then?

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed:
What then, sang Plato's ghost, what then?

All his happier dreams came true —
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew:
What then, sang Plato's ghost, what then?

The work is done, grown old he thought,
According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in nought,
Something to perfection brought:
But louder sang that ghost, what then?

The first issue of The Erasmian had appeared in May 1899 and it has been published annually ever since, with only a few interruptions.

The school has had a distinguished sporting history although no provision was made for sport when the school was founded.  Cricket is first mentioned in 1875 and there were three teams by the turn of the century.  In 1915 the 1st XI won the Leinster Cup for the first time. They won it again in 1950 and in 1966.  Drill began in 1880 and in the same year there is a record of a football and hurley club with 75 members.  Hurley was not hurling and was in fact a forerunner of hockey which took over from it at the school as the nineteenth century drew to a close.  The Irish Hockey Union was founded in 1893 largely by staff and boys from The High School and The King’s Hospital.  However, rugby became the most popular sport and eventually the sole winter sport at that time. The High School reached the final of the Leinster Senior Cup in 1898, 1915, and 1963 before winning the cup in 1973.  Other sports in the school at times included handball, swimming, athletics, cross country, tennis, cycling, boxing, table tennis, badminton, canoeing, climbing, soccer, caving, and hillwalking.

Bibliography: W.J.R. Wallace, Faithful to our Trust: a History of the Erasmus Smith Trust and The High School, Dublin (Columba Press, 2004) which is available for purchase from the Archivist at The High School.