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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Twenty Five

                   Education II

Summary of chapter.  This chapter relates the efforts of the Government to provide state-assistance to non-sectarian primary schools.

(i) The Kildare Place Society

(ii) Discussion with the Government 1821-1831

(iii) The National Board


(i) The Kildare Place Society 

            The Irish Government after the Reformation had made sporadic attempts to establish Protestant schools in Ireland. After 1750 it was doing little more than making annual grants to various bodies connected with education, and various Parliamentarians were questioning if the state was getting value for money. In 1787 a scheme proposed by Thomas Orde for a national system of education with places for 13,000 children passed the Irish House of Commons but got no further. In the last session of the Irish Parliament a resolution was passed in favour of a national system of education but nothing was done about the matter. 

             The Government did set up two successive Commissions of Education Enquiry to examine the actual state of schools in Ireland, particularly those which were endowed, or in receipt of a Parliamentary grant. The last Report was published in 1812.  It recommended that education should not be used as a vehicle of proselytism, that all children should be educated together, and that the instruction they received in common should not contain the tenets of any particular religious body. The Government accepted the Report. A Board of Education was established to supervise the endowed grammar schools.  

             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 increased. 

            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 Though they were superseded after fifteen years, perhaps unjustly, as the chief vehicle for education in Ireland, in them were pioneered all the procedures and techniques taken up and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. [Top] 

(ii) Discussion with the Government 1821-1831 

            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 Commission. 

            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 years. As Murray pointed out to them the Commissioners were making difficulties for themselves. For one thing they wanted the excerpts from the Bible to be read in the period of common instruction. This required an acceptable translation, for in places the wording of the Catholic and Protestant Bibles differed. At this point the Protestant bishops intervened and said that by law only they could approve a new translation. As Murray pointed out, if the reading was done in the period of separate instruction there would be no problem. (In Luke 1.28 the Greek ‘Chaire, kekaritomene’ was translated into Latin as ‘Ave gratia plena’, and in the Catholic Douai version as ‘Hail, full of grace’. In the Protestant Authorised Bible it read ‘Hail, thou that art highly favoured’. The modern Catholic translation, the Jerusalem Bible, gives ‘Rejoice, so highly favoured’. The Montgomery New Testament gives ‘Joy to you, highly favoured one’, and the International Standard Version, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured’. All the translations are possible, but the Latin version followed by the Douai clearly favour a theory of grace rejected by the Protestants.) [Top] 

(iii) The National Board 

            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 Dublin. The Irish Secretary at the time (Stanley) was given the credit. The Tory clergy did not particularly influence the Whigs. A Board of Commissioners for National Education was to be formed. The new Protestant archbishop, Richard Whately, Archbishop Murray, and a representative of the Presbyterians were appointed as the chief Commissioners for National Education along with various Protestant and Catholic laymen. There was to be no local education authority or boards at the level of the county, nor were the Grand Juries to be involved. The National Board was not made a Department of Education. Its function was the limited one of assisting and supervising such local primary schools as requested its assistance. (The Board of Education responsible only for the endowed grammar schools continued its separate existence.) 

             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 Keenan, Ireland 1800-1850. His denunciation of Whately as a ‘heterodox prelate’ is a gem of his style, op.cit. P386)). 

            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 United Kingdom. The nationalists wished to instil a sense of common identity among all the children of Ireland only. MacHale and the Catholic clergy who supported him wanted a separate identity for Irish Catholics. 

            Evaluation 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. Lyons was highly critical of the education provided in the second half of the century, but admits that much of this was attributable to the refusal of clerical managers to employ trained teachers. The criticism of the system of cramming for stereotyped examinations from 1870 onwards was common to most schools in the British Isles. Whatever about the second half of the century, it would seem that the National Board did an excellent job up to 1850. 

            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 - Lyons p 89.)

            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 Ireland. MacHale denounced Whateley's schoolbooks to Rome, and only the most strenuous efforts by Archbishop Murray prevented the Holy See from condemning the system out of hand. Rome finally decided that the Catholic bishop in each diocese should be allowed to decide for himself. When Paul Cullen became archbishop of Armagh in 1850 (and archbishop of Dublin on Murray's death in 1852) opposition to the Board by the Catholic bishops intensified. After 1850 many local school managers in Catholic areas, who by then were nearly all local Catholic priests, refused to accept as teachers anyone who had been trained by the 'Protestant' Board. The result was that by the 1880's only 27% of Catholic schoolteachers (and 52% of Protestant teachers) had received any teacher-training at all. 

            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 financial assistance.  

            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.