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Image credit @ National Library of Ireland, Ref: P WP 1800. A music class of schoolgirls at the Ursuline Convent, Co. Waterford, 1908

Setting up the Irish School System

 “The achievement of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 was a practical demonstration that Catholic demands for fair treatment could not be suppressed any longer and a national school system under state control seemed to the government the best way of directing educational provision. Further, a number of influential, informed, and respected Irish members of Parliament, such as Daniel O’Connell, Thomas Rice Spring, Thomas Wyse, kept up the pressure for action.  Members of the new Whig government of 1830, such as Lord Anglesey, the Lord Lieutenant, and Lord Stanley, the Chief Secretary, judged the time to be ripe for action and so this highly significant government initiative was undertaken 1"

The Stanley Letter 1881

The plan for a system of national education in Ireland was introduced in the House of Commons on the 9th of September 1831, by Lord Stanley, Chief Secretary for Ireland. He explained that a National Education Board would be set up to administer the system. In a letter to the Duke of Leinster, October 1831, inviting him to become Chairperson of the new Board of Commissioners for National Education, Lord Stanley outlined his plans for national education in Ireland.

The main principles on which the board would operate were: - 

1. The Board would have control over all schools erected by it, as well as, over all schools which would place themselves under its management. 
One of the main objectives of the system was to unite children of different nominations in school, and the Board would be required to look with favour   on applications for aid made jointly by: - 

  • The Protestant and Catholic clergy of the parish
  • One of the clergymen and a number of parishioners of the opposite faith
  • Parishioners of both nominations

2. Moral and literacy instructions would be given to children of all religious persuasions combined. Regarding religious instruction, the clergy of each denomination was to be given the opportunity of imparting religious instruction to the children of their respective creeds.

3. Local managers were to have the right to appoint and dismiss teachers. However, the right to dismiss any teacher was to rest with the Board, should it feel the action was necessary.

4. Before aid was granted to a school, certain conditions had to be satisfied. One-third of all the building costs of the school had to be provided locally, plus. local aid towards the salary of teachers. The board also had to be satisfied that local funds would be available to keep the school in repair.

5. The Commissioners of the Board were to be nominated by the different religious denominations. The original Board had 7 members. The Anglicans were represented by the Duke of Leinster, who was to be Chairman of the Board, Archbishop Wately of Dublin, and Dr. Sadlier, Provost of Trinity College. The Presbyterians had two representatives, even though they had formed the majority of schoolgoers. Their representatives were Archbishop Murray of Dublin and the Rt. Hon. Anthony Richard Blake, a barrister. 

READ MORE: The Irish National School Register (1860-1922) Records

Management of Irelands' National Schools

The first meeting of the new Commissioners of National Education took place in December of 1831. It drew up a code of rules according to the principles stated in Mr. Stanley's letter. One of the rules stated that the inscription 'National School' was to be put conspicuously on the outside of any school building that was connected with the Board.

Another rule referred to a sign: "General Lesson' which had to be hung up conspicuously in the school rooms.

At the local level there was always confusion over the role of trustees, patrons, and school managers. The trustees were often the landlord or clergyman who established the school. The patron was usually the person who first applied for aid. A patron, could, if they wished, name themselves the school manager and this happened very often. Later, the patron and manager were generally the same person. In Catholic areas, the term "manager" became almost synonymous with the Parish Priest. After the death of the original patron, the patronage of almost all Catholic schools was transferred to the bishop.

The Presbyterians opposed the system from the beginning and won many concessions for themselves which eventually allowed them to accept the much-needed public money for their schools. The established church refused to join the system and created a system of its own, the "Church Education Society". 

           “As the ‘Established Church,’ it felt that it had a special prerogative in the area of education, and it was opposed to sharing control of educational institutions with any other groups.  It was opposed to the separation of secular and religious instruction and regarded the Bible in its original form, as distinct from scriptural extracts, as central to all education2.” 

All this opposition meant that the Protestant children were generally kept away from the national schools while the Catholics attended. The result of all this was that from an early stage, the new system of education was a denominational one. This was a long way from the fundamental principle of the national system that it is inter-denominational

READ MORE: Ireland's Oldest National School at Mantua

Role of Catholic Clergy in the Progression of National Schools in Ireland

The Catholic bishops were prepared to accept the national schools at the beginning. Archbishop Murray of Dublin was one of seven Commissioners. The national schools offered a more structured educational system to Catholics than Hedge Schools. The fact that so many priests were managers of schools, also ensured that they exercised strong control over the religious instruction given to children. A large number of Catholic clergy sought aid for schools that were attended mainly by Catholic children. This further illustrates the de facto denominational aspect of the national system as it developed.

Not all Catholic clergy, however, approved the system. Dr. McHale of Tuam had been suspicious of the national system from the start. He objected that books even for the religious department must be submitted to the choice of approval of the commissioners. He also believed that the local bishop, and him alone, should be consulted on the 'books used in the schools and the hours set apart for religious instruction, and shall that selection not be approved by the Board of Education, the system ceases to be entitled to the confidence of the Catholic people of Ireland3'

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McHale led the opposition and became a strong opponent of the system from about 1838 when he even went as far as to stop the building of any national school in the Archdiocese. Yet, despite his misgivings, he allowed the clergy under him to take government money under the regulations of the Commissioners of National Education, from the system's beginning until 1838, without audible protest.

The unease of Catholics continued, although by 1840 there were 1,978 schools with 232,560 pupils associated with the Board.

In the 1840's, charges of attempted proselytism in some schools and of anti-Catholic attitudes by the Board made any Catholics suspicious of the system and they began to press very strongly for a denominational system. Archbishop Cullen of Armagh, who presided over the Synod of Thurles,1850, became the strongest advocate of separate education for Catholics. However, in reality, this was already happening.

The national schools did a great deal for Irish education at a time when the country was extremely poor. The Hedge schools throughout the country operated under the most trying conditions; the teachers had no professional training and all the schools were of course illegal. 

With the introduction of the National Schools, the teachers were better paid overall, had better working conditions and better training as the century progressed, and improved their efficiency and proficiency in teaching. By 1861 the National Schools were firmly established and the change from Hedge School to National School was complete. 

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Miss Crowe and Mr Gildea with their pupils at Kilglass National School, Ahascragh, Co. Galway

  • There were over 8,000 National Schools on the island of Ireland in 1916.
  • The Irish Education Act of 1892 required parents in cities and urban areas throughout the country to send children between the ages of 6 and 14 to school for at least 75 days a year.  
  • Rural areas were excluded from the requirements of this Act, which stated that children could be kept out of school if they were prevented by "sickness, domestic necessity…husbandry and the ingathering of crops, or giving assistance in the fisheries, or other work requiring to be done at a particular time or season…"         

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  1. Coolahan, John. Irish Education - History and Structure, pages 4,5.
  2. Coolahan, John. Op.Cit. Page 16
  3. Atkinson, N., Irish Education - A History of Educational Institutions, page 20.

This piece has been kindly written by Michael Fahy, a founding director of Ireland Reaching Out programme. Michael is an established local historian and retired teacher.

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