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Summary of chapter. This chapter relates the efforts of the Government to provide state-assistance to non-sectarian primary schools.
The Irish Government after the
Reformation had made sporadic attempts to establish Protestant schools in
The Government did set up two successive
Commissions of Education Enquiry to examine the actual state of schools in
The setting up of the Kildare Place Society
relieved the Government of any necessity to do anything itself with regard to
primary education. It offered an annual grant to the Society that was gradually
The schools of the Kildare Place
Society even more than the Pestalozzi-type schools form a landmark in the
history of education. Though they were superseded after fifteen years, perhaps
unjustly, as the chief vehicle for education in Ireland, in them were pioneered
all the procedures and techniques taken up and further developed by the
National Board, and which set standards against which other primary schools
could be measured.
The Kildare Place Society was not
strictly connected with the Established Church. A majority of the members of
the central committee of the Society followed the principles of Joseph
Lancaster, but they also felt very strongly that the joint religious
instruction of the children should include readings from the Bible. And this
was to prove their undoing.
The Society followed Pestalozzi in
insisting on proper training for schoolteachers. It also followed him in
producing attractive schoolbooks aimed at making study pleasant. It took a wide
view of education and felt that the readings prescribed for the children should
open their minds to all kinds of subjects. It therefore proposed first to
properly train teachers, secondly, to provide proper school buildings, thirdly,
to provide school requisites like books, paper, and ink, and finally, to
establish a proper inspectorate of schools.
By 1814 the Society had 16 trained
masters and it opened its first school in the following year. By 1831 it had
1,621 schools with 1,908 teachers and 137,000 pupils. Women teachers had been
trained from 1824 onwards and by 1831 they numbered 482. The publication of
schoolbooks was begun in 1820, and by 1831 nearly 1½ million books had been
printed and sold. In 1822 libraries had been introduced to some schools, and by
1831 were to be found in 1,131 of the Society's schools. In 1830 Government
assistance had reached £30,000 a year. With the setting up of the National
Board this money was transferred to it.
For some years after the
establishment of the Society matters went smoothly, and Catholics seemed to be
satisfied with the schools of the Society. The insistence of the directors of
the Society that the Bible be read as a schoolbook irritated priests like Dr
MacHale. But Dr Doyle observed 'we overlook what we can never approve rather
than offend or cause irritation, hoping that the Government would adopt a wiser
course'. Doyle wished that a compilation of Scripture readings rather than the whole
Bible be used, and that some Catholic priests be on the committee with powers
to veto passages in schoolbooks they objected to.
The Catholic bishops tried to
establish a Catholic Church Education Society but it collapsed from want of
funds after a few years. They therefore approached the Irish Government to see
if it would be possible to obtain modifications in the manner of acting of the
Kildare Place Society. The Marquis Wellesley was sympathetic and appointed
another Commission of Education Enquiry to examine the matter, and appointed
Anthony Blake, a Catholic lawyer and a personal friend as a member of the
The Commissioners reported in 1825.
In their Report they noted the distrust which many Catholics had for the
Society and recommended that the Government itself should take charge of
primary education, and not leave this in the hands of a private body of men
however worthy. Government support for education should continue. There should
be one school in each (Protestant) parish, i.e. about 2,000 in all. Two
schoolteachers should be paid in each school, the assistant master to be a
Catholic or Dissenter where numbers warranted this. All teachers should be lay
persons. Times should be appointed for the clergy of each denomination to instruct
the members of their own flock. This instruction must be based on the epistle
or gospel of the day as set out in the liturgical books. Protestant and
Catholic children could use their own version of the Bible, but Catholics were
not to use a version that contained anti-Protestant notes. The obligation of
maintaining a parish school should be removed from the clergy of the
Established Church, but the continued efforts of the clergy in the matter of
education were to be welcomed. The practice of publishing suitable schoolbooks
should be continued, and also the practice of training teachers. The funding of
schools of the Kildare Place Society should be discontinued unless they placed
themselves under the new Board. Funds for the maintenance of schools should
come partly from the Government, partly from a cess on the local parish, and
partly from parental contributions.
The Government accepted the Report
in principle and the Commissioners of Education Enquiry were re-appointed to
another Commission to prepare for the formation of a National Board. The Report
was far from pleasing everyone. The chief losers were the clergy of the
Established Church. They lost the right to supervise education, to have
parochial schools under their own direction, and even the right to teach in the
Board schools. They were not to be given
any special privileges on the new Board, nor were they allowed to decide what
schoolbooks could be used. The only concession to them was that the principal
teacher in a school was to be a member of the Established Church. This
provision was however sure to irritate Catholics like MacHale who were looking
for points at which to take offence.
The Catholic bishops met to consider
the proposals, and, inspired by MacHale, they put forward Catholic counter
proposals in 1826. The first was that the principal master should be a Catholic
if the majority of pupils were Catholics, and the local Catholic bishop should
be able to dismiss all Catholic schoolteachers for a sufficient reason.
Secondly, they wanted a separate Catholic training college for teachers.
Thirdly, the local Catholic bishop should have the right to approve all
schoolbooks used by Catholic children. It is clear that most of the Catholic
bishops regarded these points as nothing more than highly desirable. Some like
MacHale were later to claim that they were the fundamental and irreducible
requirements of the entire united Catholic hierarchy. What MacHale actually
wanted was an entirely denominational education system in which there would be
two or three schools in each parish funded by the Government who would hand
over the money to the appropriate Church authority in each diocese, to be used
at its absolute discretion. He had the most exaggerated views of the powers and
responsibilities of each individual Catholic bishop with regard to education.
It must always be remembered that MacHale objected as much to another Catholic
bishop interfering in his diocese as he did to the Government. There never was
the slightest chance that the counter-proposals would be accepted.
Archbishop Murray (whose views were
similar to those of Dr Doyle) was asked by the Catholic bishops to negotiate
with the Commissioners on their behalf, and negotiations dragged on for several
By 1831 a practical system had been
agreed on. By this time the Whigs were in office, and had appointed a Whig
archbishop (Whateley) to
In its first year the new Board was given a
grant of £30,000 which was the same as that most recently granted to the
Kildare Place Society. Schools under the Board numbered 4,500 in 1850 and
nearly 9,000 in 1900 when three quarters of a million children were being
educated in Board schools. The annual grant was increased proportionately. The
duties and responsibilities of the Board were much the same as those of the
Society. It was not itself however to start, construct or manage local schools.
It was to await proposals either from existing schools or bodies, or from new
groups which wanted to have a school. Where more than one proposal came from a parish
it was to favour the one that came from a mixed committee of Catholics and
Protestants. When the local committee accepted the rules and direction of the
Board financial assistance could be given to it. In some cases the Board could
assume full financial responsibility, but usually local management committees
were allowed to raise money locally. It was unfortunate that the launch of the
new Board coincided with the sudden increase of sectarian tension that
accompanied the 'Tithe War'.
The Board was also responsible for
the training of schoolteachers, and for the inspectorate of schools. The
curriculum devised by the Board was wide and it tried to make the education as
relevant as possible to the needs of the children. Whenever
possible practical instruction in agriculture and horticulture was included.
The scheme had an odd two-tier structure like the army. Inspectors were
university graduates of higher social rank. The teachers were accorded the
status of hourly-paid workers with a rank perhaps of corporal. They were
employed to teach the simple mechanics of reading and writing, and probably
many at first were capable of little more (See also
It continued producing excellent
cheap schoolbooks and other school materials. Teachers were not obliged to use
the textbooks if they preferred others, but the books themselves were so good
and so cheap that they were widely used. Many of the schoolbooks were written
by Whateley himself, and were scrutinised thoroughly by the carping and
captious MacHale for the slightest sign of heterodoxy. Nationalists too
complained that anything remotely resembling nationalist views or themes was
excluded. There is no doubt that Whateley wished to instil a sense of common
identity into all the children in the
of the work of the National Board has been plagued by a priori judgements. The Republican revolutionary Patrick Pearse on
purely political grounds condemned it, though Pearse's own achievements as an
educator were dubious.
The Catholic bishops, though they
would have preferred a separate Catholic system, accepted the Board and put
forward schools to get financial assistance. After some hesitation the teaching
Sisters were persuaded by Archbishop Murray to accept the money and the restrictions.
These usually amounted to a prohibition of Catholic images in the classrooms,
or the saying of specifically Catholic prayers during the periods of common
instruction, even if there happened to be no Protestant children present.
Yet not all Catholics were equally
happy. One Order of teaching Brothers always refused to have anything to do
with the Board. (It would seem that much of the opposition of the Irish
Christian Brothers to the Board was for nationalist not religious reasons. They
wished to teach a specifically Catholic nationalist version of Irish history
and to include revolutionary poetry in the curriculum -
Archbishop MacHale grudgingly
accepted the Board for a few years and then withdrew all the Catholic schools
in his diocese from its regime. The result predictably was that when he died
nearly half a century later the schools in his diocese were by far the worst in
The clergy of the Established Church
in general refused to accept the rules of the Board (which was appointed by the
Whigs) and formed their own Church Education Society to assist Church schools
which became quite numerous. This had the effect of making the system in
practice denominational for mixed local management committees were not formed.
It persisted until 1860 in its opposition but was finally compelled to seek
The schools of the Kildare Place
Society were eligible for assistance from the Board just like any other on
condition of observing the rules prescribed by the Board. The Society declined
and joined itself to the Church Education Society and until 1860 it refused to
ask money from the Board.
Many Presbyterians were reluctant at
first to join the system and it was condemned by the Synod of Ulster. Their problem
seems to have been that they considered that they were forbidden to use the
whole Bible in the period of common instruction, but were restricted in that
time to the selected readings from the Bible. Negotiations between the Synod
and the Board dragged on for several years, as no individual had powers to
negotiate and each proposal or explanation had to be referred to the next
Synod. But a satisfactory explanation (or fudge) was at last arrived at, and
the Synod joined the system.
Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.