Book review: Irish Education, 1922-2007 Cherishing All The Children?

The education of Ireland’s greatest resource, its children, was entrusted to the Catholic Church by figures as enlightened as Daniel O’Connell. Ryle Dwyer wonders why its hierarchy proved to be so hostile to their welfare.

Brian Fleming

Mynchen’s Field Press, €20

THE Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally — so ran the Proclamation of the Republic in 1916. 

The goal of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” was sadly lacking in the field of education, except for a brief period almost midway through the ensuing century.

“This failure to achieve equality of educational opportunity is a result of the lack of leadership and commitment at an administrative, and more particularly, a political level, supported by a largely complacent and uncaring citizenry,” Brian Fleming concludes.

For the first 40 years of independence, no effort was made to tackle the inequalities of the educational system. John Coolahan expressed that view in his 1981 history of Irish education.

Dr Fleming endorses Coolahan’s opinion that Church and State leaders viewed the poor and working classes “as a self-perpetuating sector of society for whom a limited education in literacy and numeracy was deemed sufficient.” 

For the first 40 years of independence, the dominant attitude of the various authorities was that an elementary education was sufficient for the less well off.

For more than a century Irish politicians followed the example of Daniel O’Connell, who managed to lead the people by rallying the bulk of the clergy behind his movement. 

But his biographer Seán Ó Faoláin concluded that the clergy soon took over the leadership role in the area of education, and the Liberator began following them, rather than the other way around.

“He found himself being dictated to by the bishops on the controversial question of popular and higher education, the national schools and the university question,” according to O Faoláin.

Cardinal Paul Cullen insisted that the State’s only role in education was to provide funding. Parents’ say in their children’s education was deemed paramount. 

The Church purportedly acted on behalf of parents by maintaining control of the school, but the clergy had no intention of allowing parents to become directly involved in the process.

What the cardinal was ensuring was that there was no British or Irish lay control over education here. 

Irish politicians were not just supportive of the leadership on the Church in education matters, they were “more or less completely subservient to it,” according to the author.

Prior to independence, the elementary educational system was clearly on a denominational track under complete Episcopal control. 

“Whether a bishop is right or wrong, a cad or gentleman, we of the Irish Party are afraid to stand up to him,” Tom O’Donnell, the Kerry politician, warned his colleagues.

Only six per cent of the Irish population attended intermediate school under British rule. 

The bishops opposed efforts to boost vocational schools by ensuring that their students were not allowed to sit the Intermediate or Leaving Certificate examinations. 

The hierarchy was impeding any challenge to the established Catholic schools.

The dominant consideration for the hierarchy “was maintaining control” Dr Fleming contends. 

“The educational welfare of children and young people was a secondary matter.” 

British authorities were not prepared to interfere with the Catholic clergy’s management of the schools.

“Our inspectors report that the majority of managers are quite indifferent to education, and that in many cases the schools are left well nigh derelict,” one leading educationalist noted.

Even after Irish independence there was little change. One of Eoin MacNeill’s first decisions as the Free State’s Minister for Education was to close the teacher-training

college at Marlborough Street in Dublin. The non-denominational State-run institution had been the focus of persistent opposition from the hierarchy for decades.

The Governments of WT Cosgrave, Éamon de Valera and John A Costello, which ruled from the 1920s to the 1960s took no steps in education that might “upset the status quo and lead to difficulties with Church authorities,” according to the author.

On coming to power in the 1930s Fianna Fáil’s focus on education centred on the language issue, de Valera and his Minister Tom Derrig moved to make secondary education freely available in the Gaelteacht areas, which were so poor that parents could not afford to keep their children in school. 

But the bishops objected and the government promptly backed down.

The Department of Education had no active role in deciding whether secondary education was provided in any particular area. The local bishop, or the religious orders, made those decisions, Dr Fleming argues.

Primary school was the sole source of education for over 90 per cent of the Irish people as late as 1940. 

The real catalyst for change came from Britain, after RA Butler succeeded in raising the school-leaving age to 15 with the intention of increasing it to 16 as soon as possible. This gave rise to serious reflection among officials of the Irish Department of Education.

The Fianna Fáil cabinet decided in October 1947 to follow the British example by increasing the school-leaving age to 16 as soon as possible. 

But successive governments failed to implement the decision until 1972, when the age was increased to 15. 

But it was not until the Education Welfare Act of 2000 that it was raised to 16, more than 50 years after the original cabinet decision.

In 1948 when Clann na Poblachta proclaimed the objective of providing free education for all up to university level, PJ Little, the Fianna Fáil Minister for Education, dismissed this on economic grounds. “We are not a wealthy country,” he insisted.

With Donogh O’Malley’s appointment as Minister for Education in 1966, “we expected fast and furious action,” Seán O’Connor, the Secretary of the Department recalled. 

But O’Malley’s announcement of free secondary education in September 1966 came as a complete surprise.

“I believe that it is essential for a government from time to time to propound bold new policies which would catch the imagination of the people,” O’Malley explained. 

He certainly captured the public imagination with his announcement, and hence, his colleagues had to go along with him.

The introduction of the school transport system was probably even more significant, in Dr Fleming’s opinion. 

The British administration had sought to implement a similar transport scheme here 50 years earlier, but the Catholic Church blocked this for some inexplicable reason.

This insightful book exposes a lot of hypocrisy. The Irish revolution was far from revolutionary in the field of education. 

It was merely a change of management implementing the same conservative polices and avoiding any fundamental change of “the school system inherited from the imperial administration.” 

The new native government failed to implement the educational reforms necessary to cherish equally all the children of the nation. The abuse tolerated in Irish schools has long been apparent. 

Politicians were not prepared to stand up to the hostility and crass indifference exhibited by the Church. In the process they all betrayed the ideals of some of our most celebrated educationalists.

All this begs a broader question. Why in heaven’s name were the hierarchy and clergy so hostile to the educational welfare of Irish children?


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