Education in Ireland at primary and secondary level has traditionally been the preserve of the main religious denominations in the country and one in particular. That was not quite the intention of the prime movers back when a formal education system was first established in this country in 1831. That year £30,000 was allocated to establish a national system of elementary education in Ireland.
There is a myth that prior to this date Irish children were largely taught in what were known as ‘hedge schools’. While such informal and occasionally al fresco establishments did exist in the 1700s education had become rather more professionalized by the 19th century. The Society for Promoting Elementary Education among the Irish Poor, better known in its much shorter form as the Kildare Street Society was in receipt of government funds from 1812 and ran almost fifteen hundred schools with over one hundred thousand students by 1825.
Despite the fact that there were allegations made against the Society of proselytism the influential Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, James Doyle – an ally of Daniel O’Connell – saw nothing objectionable to Catholics in the schools. Doyle was more concerned with low educational standards elsewhere than he was with any perception that the Kildare Street institutions might be trying to convert Catholics to Protestantism.
Others were not quite so sanguine and deprecated the practice in Kildare Street schools of scripture reading or ‘unaided private interpretation of the Sacred volume’ which was ‘peculiarly obnoxious’ to other members of the Catholic hierarchy.
It was, in part at least, to, as he put it himself, ‘banish … even the suspicion of proselytism’ that in October 1831 the Chief Secretary Earl Stanley – later British Prime Minister Lord Derby – wrote a letter to the Duke of Leinster outlining a system of education more closely associated with the state than the looser regime that prevailed at the time. The government, the Chief Secretary informed the Duke, would fund the building of schools (with a small amount of local financial input), and would pay the salaries of teachers. Stanley’s letter was meant to convey to the Duke and to the Kildare Street Society that the government was no longer prepared to farm out education to an organization that was, in part, privately funded. It then proceeded to do just that all over again.
The main object of the new regime was to ‘unite in one system children of different creeds.’ The Board of National Education was told to look most favourably on applications for assistance from schools jointly managed by Roman Catholics and Protestants. But the policy of introducing a system of non-denominational, religiously integrated education was quickly abandoned as the Commissioners of Education caved in to demands from the main churches for rigidly denominational, segregated education. Within twenty years only 4% of national schools were not associated with a single religious denomination. The Dublin Castle administration didn’t always buckle to the realities of Irish life but in this instance it opted for pragmatism over principle.
The sum of £30,000 was allocated for the development of a new system of national education one hundred and eighty five years ago, on this day.
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