Some of you may be wondering who Laurence Gilson was. A native of Oldcastle, he bequeathed a very sizeable sum 200 years ago to endow a school in his home town. His generosity enabled generations of children from Oldcastle and surrounding areas to receive an education that they might well have otherwise not received. But what kind of background did he come from and what happened to him? Joe Mooney who spoke at the bicentennial commemoration of Laurence Gilson in 2011 has undertaken new research on the background of this remarkable man. We are delighted that Joe has kindly shared his findings with us.
Laurence Gilson: The founder of the Gilson Endowed School Oldcastle
The following is an account of the life of Laurence Gilson from hearsay, stories and sworn affidavits regarding his will from family, friends and acquaintances.
Laurence was born about 1740 in Bolies, Oldcastle, Co. Meath. He was the eldest of four children of Michael Gilshenan (Gilsenan) and Honor Kearney. Laurence had a brother Nicholas and two sisters Mary Alice and Jane. Laurence attended school with his brother and sisters, the school master and mistress being Mister John McNamara and his wife Mary nee Loundes. It is said that Laurence taught school before he went to London.
Michael Gilshenan (Gilsenan) was a tailor who had two houses, one of which was sublet to the above named John and Mary McNamara. Michael died on 10th March 1858 aged 48 and was buried in Clonabraney Cemetery.
Honor Kearney was from Mullinover, Co. Cavan according to a sworn affidavit by Frederick ffolliott. She was married three times;
(1) To Farrell Finnigan with whom she had three daughters, Mary, Anne and Margaret. All three pre-deceased Laurence.
(2) To Michael Gilshenan.
(3) To Peter Martin without issue.
After Peter’s death, Honor moved to Dublin to live with her daughter Jane Rafferty and her husband James. Honor died in 1798 and is buried in Derver Cemetery, Co. Cavan. Derver Cemetery is situated between Whitegate and Lisduff.
Nicholas Gilshenan was an apprentice to a shoe maker in Kells when he took ill. He returned to Oldcastle where he died aged 16 or 17 in 1757 and was buried with his mother in Derver Cemetery.
Mary Alice Gilshenan was married to Thomas Gill, possibly near Mullingar. They had two children one who died young and the other was Mary who later contested Laurence’s will.
Jane Gilshenan was married to James Rafferty on 8th Feb 1790 in Oldcastle. They moved to Dublin and had several children, although none survived infancy. Jane died 13th Nov 1813 in James’s St. Dublin and was buried in Hospital Fields, near James’s St., Dublin. She had made a will and named her husband James as her executor. He also challenged Laurence’s will.
In two affidavits (1) states that Laurence went to London at the age of 16 or 17 and (2) states he went at the age of 20 and lived there until his death, so Laurence would have gone to London sometime between 1755 and 1760. In London he worked according to an affidavit for a Bank, Graham and Mayne, which went into bankruptcy in 1782.
 Frederick ffolliott was the son of John ffolliott and Mary Finnigan
Between the years 1775 and 1781 Laurence was in Douai College, Flanders, possibly as a mature student or maybe a lecturer, given that he was about 35 years of age in 1775.
In an article written in 1836, John O’Donovan stated that Laurence came on a visit to Oldcastle dressed as a pauper. He first visited his brother who berated him for his appearance. Likewise, his relatives did not want to know him. They gave him a very cold reception as he was like a beggarman. When he met people dressed like himself, they welcomed him with open arms. Laurence then put on a rich suit of clothes and appeared in Oldcastle with all the might of a man of money. When this was seen he received several invitations from rich neighbours, but he rejected them all, for when he had on the pauper’s clothes none of them recognised him in the street. He returned to London where he married a very rich old lady whom he survived and who left him all her property.
In all the research I have carried out I did not come across the above story. Laurence is supposed to have visited his brother, but his only brother Nicholas died as a teenager. Also, I could find no evidence of any marriage for Laurence in London. In 1815 a notice was placed in the London Gazette and other papers in England and Ireland looking for relatives of Laurence who may have been entitled to benefit from his will. So the only relatives who came forward were on the Gilshenan/Gilson side. One would ask the question why no one from his supposed wife’s side replied to the notice, given that the money and property came from her. In all the sworn affidavits dealing with his will, they state that Laurence died unmarried and without issue.
The only two relatives who benefited from Laurence’s will were his niece Mary Gill and his brother-in-law James Rafferty. The four Gilshenan brothers who contested the will as Laurence’s nephews were in fact his second cousins once removed. Laurence’s father Michael and their father James were first cousins. They received nothing from the will and were not even allowed to work on the building of the school.
According to the burial records, Laurence died on 15th Feb 1810 and was buried on 22nd Feb 1810 aged 70 in an unmarked grave in St. Pancras Old Church, Pancras Road, Borough of Camden, London.
Joseph T. Mooney 18th March 2012
The Gilson Endowed School
The architect for the school was C.R. Cockerell and the Palladian style building remains as the gem in Oldcastle’s architecture. It has a classic design with a large central building with accommodation for the Headmaster and Headmistress with extended wings for boys and girls schools. Such was the specification of the building that the precise measurement of the nails used are recorded in the original Articles of Agreement which are lodged in the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin!
The teaching method used was the ‘Lancastrian System’ where reading, writing and arithmetic – and needlework for girls was taught with the help of Monitors – older student acting as classroom assistants. This method enabled one trained teacher to education ‘hundreds’ of pupils. The occupations of parents of pupils in the school during the first decades included masons, nailers, saddler, a dyer, a blacksmith, a cooper and a gamekeeper.
In 1832 there were 1,024 children on the books learning an impressive range of subjects. Visiting inspectors in the 1860s report that ‘Latin and Greek were particularly good, and show skilful and thorough teaching’ and ‘it was highlight creditable to witness a lad of eleven years demonstrate the 32nd proposition of Euclid in a masterly manner’.
Note: All the information above taken from ‘Laurence Gilson and The Gilson Endowed School Oldcastle’ by Peter Fallon; After Hours Books; Oldcastle; 1996