Garret FitzGerald's data mining sheds light on primary schools

Garret FitzGerald: Gifted at dealing with statistics

Garret FitzGerald’s love of statistics shines through even after death in his newly published analysis of school attendance in Ireland almost 200 years ago.

The ex-taoiseach had almost completed the project before he died in 2011. It has been finished by his son and ESRI research professor John FitzGerald, who said his father always insisted he was no mathematician despite a reputation for statistical prowess.

He found reports of an 1824 government survey of Irish education which form the main basis of the publication a decade ago, but the bulk of the work was done in his final four years.

“His talent lay in finding an interesting picture in a sea of data and communicating that picture in an accessible way to a wide audience,” John FitzGerald writes in the preface to Irish Primary Education in the Early Nineteenth Century.

“On holidays with his family he would spend happy hours with his huge sheets of data and a laptop making fascinating new discoveries.”

The book gives a county-by-county analysis of school attendance by gender and religion, and Garret employed the mapping skills of UCC’s geography department to help draw conclusions on the influence of geography, religion and other factors. The value placed on education in pre-Famine Ireland is highlighted, with more than 400,000 of the 560,000 children attending primary schools in 1824 from poverty-stricken families who made major sacrifices to keep them in school.

“In early nineteenth-century Ireland, in the absence of public provision, a huge number of parents voted with their feet to by paying for education for their children,” FitzGerald wrote in his conclusion.

His analysis also shows there was a fair amount of mixed denominational education in this ‘hedge school’ system, with one-in-six Catholic pupils having a Protestant head teacher. As the country moves slowly towards greater parental choice of who controls their children’s schools, his statistical analysis offers a valuable historical context.

Writing in today’s Irish Examiner, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn says it shows how indebted we are to patrons who have sustained the country’s primary schools for generations. But, he said, ongoing reforms reflect the need for families to have more say in who runs their local schools and how they can be more inclusive of an increasingly diverse range of pupils.

School stats - Percentages of children at school in 1824:

- Munster — Protestant 73%, Catholic 39%
- Connaught — Protestant 84%, Catholic 23%
- Ulster — Protestant 36%, Catholic 24%
- South Leinster (including Dublin) — Protestant 72%, Catholic 43%

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