West House was a large detached residence with extensive grounds in Helen Street. It had spacious rooms and belonged for a time to Admiral French.
It was bought by John Lushington Reilly, a customs collector who was a great benefactor of the town and the neighbourhood, especially during the Great Famine of 1822. Contemporary newspapers give accounts of the balls and receptions held in its rooms and grounds. The Connacht Journal of February 22, 1827, refers to ‘an entertainment given to the 15th Regiment at West House’.
In 1844, it was bought by Fr John Paul O’Toole, a native Galwegian. He made the necessary alterations to the building and converted it into a college called St Mary’s College, the forerunner of the present St Mary’s which opened in 1912.
The prospectus for the college contained the following – “the course of instructions embraces the Latin and Greek classics, English Literature, the French and Italian languages, writing, bookkeeping, history, geography and mathematics. As an aid to acquiring fluency in the language, French will be spoken during meals. The discipline of the college is strict without being severe. A constant and active superintendence is exercised over the pupils, they are never left alone and thus the infractions of discipline are prevented rather than repressed.
“Terms for board are thirty guineas per annum, including laundry. Music, dancing, fencing as well as stationery, mending of clothes, medical aid and attendance in cases of protracted illness, are an extra though modest charge.”
Within a year, St Mary’s had nearly 50 students including day boys. One of its early pupils was Fr Tom Burke.
When Queen’s College (UCG ) was founded, Fr O’Toole applied for the presidency but he did not succeed. The local press speculated that it was only a matter of time before he was offered a professorship, and in the circumstances, he wound up the school. In fact he suggested it might be used as a hall of residence for students of UCG. In 1850, he was appointed vice-president and professor of English literature and history. However, the bishops were worried about the non-denominational system of education in the universities and they held a synod which, with the approval of the Holy See, forbade any priests to hold any office in the new ‘godless’ colleges. After consultation with the Pope, Fr O’Toole resigned.
West House subsequently became a commercial college, known as Grealy’s College. Students learned shorthand, typing, and other related skills. Our turn of the century photograph shows a classroom with a lot of typewriters on tables waiting for students. After Grealy’s College closed down, most of the grounds around the house were subsequently bought by the Connacht Laundry.