The Development of Infant Education in Ireland, 1838‐1948, Epochs and Eras Series: Rethinking Education – Volume 4

Tom O'Donoghue (The University of Western Australia, Australia)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 14 October 2011



O'Donoghue, T. (2011), "The Development of Infant Education in Ireland, 1838‐1948, Epochs and Eras Series: Rethinking Education – Volume 4", History of Education Review, Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 189-190.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the British state sought to dominate the Catholic Irish through Protestant proselytism and a series of Penal Laws aimed at the removal of all of their rights to property, religion and education. Although the effect on the great majority seems to have been the promotion of resistance and a strengthening of loyalty to Catholicism, many of the native Catholic gentry went into exile. Over time, priests replaced them as leaders in local communities. In the latter half of the eighteenth and early decades of the nineteenth century, the priests’ leadership role increased, aided by the relaxation of the Penal Laws and the granting of Catholic Emancipation throughout the UK in 1829. Concurrently, a new generation of reforming bishops became increasingly assertive about Catholic interests, including education. They were listened to carefully by British politicians who had begun to realise that it was only by cooperating with them that the State might be successful in subjugating the Catholic majority.

The Catholic Church insisted that instruction in Catholic doctrine should be available in state‐subsidised primary schools. Gradually, it, like the Anglican Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church, gained control of primary school education following the establishment of the National System of Primary Education in 1831. The principal objective of this system was to offer an elementary education to Catholics and Protestants together in the same schools to instil mutual tolerance and respect. A new National Board of Education was charged with the allocation of building and salary grants to local schools established and managed by patrons in the community and run according to certain conditions. The churches, however, worked successfully to destroy the principle of mixed education. Thus, by the middle of the 1850s, Catholic children were attending schools where the patron was the local bishop and the manager was the local priest.

The Catholic bishops become gravely concerned in the early years of the twentieth century when debates arose concerning the possibility of democratizing education in Ireland, following the 1902 Balfour Education Act in England and Wales, and they used their power to defeat the initiative. They were equally successful in defeating the McPherson Education Bill (1919), which sought to establish a national department of education, local education committees and part financing of schooling through local taxation. The ability of the bishops to hinder the proposed reforms was indicative of their intention should an independent Ireland eventually arise, to build on their dominant position, gained over the previous 70 years.

Shorty after Independence, a national Department of Education was established in Ireland, with responsibility for the administration of primary, secondary and technical education. Mainly, it was loyal conservative Catholics who administered the system, maintaining the existing management system for primary and secondary schools. The bishops were very pleased with arrangements. Church personnel had been centrally involved in the development of new curricula for primary schools, which had a strong Catholic ethos. While primary schools sought to develop basic skills of literacy and numeracy, a major emphasis was also placed on nation building through the promotion of the Irish language. Although not closely identified with the origins of the associated language revival movement in pre‐Independence days, the bishops were now happy to cooperate with the State in using the schools as the prime instrument for restoring Irish as the national language of the country. Overall, throughout the first four decades following Irish independence, the Catholic Church maintained its dominant role in Irish education irrespective of the political party in power. This was the heyday of the Church in the country, when there priests, nuns and brothers presided over schools, hospitals and a wide variety of social welfare institutions.

Throughout all of the period considered so far (from 1831 to the early 1960s) two diametrically opposed views circulated in Ireland regarding the nature of the child. One was that the child is intrinsically good and should be afforded the freedom to grow and blossom. The other was that the child is intrinsically bad and should be subjected to severe discipline, control and punishment in order to have its nature changed. Given the Catholic Church's emphasis on the doctrine of original sin, it is not difficult to imagine how the latter was the view which was overwhelmingly in the ascendancy within Irish education. This is one of the central arguments of O’Connor's book, an outstanding work on a much neglected area within the history of education in Ireland. The argument comes through again and again in her exposition on the development of infant education in Ireland for the period 1838‐1948. At the same time, the various resistances which were mounted, the inspirational work of the members of the Edgeworth family, the influence of John Synge and Samuel Wilderspin, and the initiatives taken by teaching sisters of some of the religious orders who concentrated on working with the children of the Catholic middle classes, constitute some of the fascinating developments detailed in the book. Another key theme dealt with in exemplary manner is the manner in which child‐centredness was marginalized in the early decades of newly independent Ireland as the State sought to use the schools to bring about a revival in the Irish language, at a time when it had been reduced to being the first language of only a very small percentage of the population. As O’Connor so concisely puts it, “the interests of the young child as individual were to be sacrificed in favour of citizenship in a new nationalistic State”.

Overall, this is a very scholarly piece of work. It is based on a solid body of primary source material, much of which has not been used by other scholars. Evidence from documentary sources is complemented (for the twentieth century) by that provided through interviews with kindergarten advisors, primary school inspectors, lecturers on early childhood education and adults who were students in early‐childhood schools. This is a work which is essential reading for all interested in Irish history, history of education, and the history of early childhood. Finally, the series editors of Peter Lang's (UK and Ireland section) special “rethinking education” series are to be congratulated for ensuring that their commissioned works are of such a high quality.

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