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[Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Chapter Eight


Chapter Summary. This chapter deals with Irish education at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. The Protestant and Catholic schools are also dealt with. Also non-religious instruction in technical schools and agricultural colleges. The hyperlinks immediately below are to the most important headings.




Teachers, Inspection, and Training

Religious and Other Schools







Other Institutions



Nature and Purpose of Education

            Education was one of the great bones of contention between the Catholic Church and the Government, and the alleged disabilities of Catholics with regard to education was an important plank in nationalist propaganda. So the actual provisions for education need to be described at length.         

            But first, what did the various contending parties in the struggles over the purpose of education expect from an educational system? From their actions, or lack of them, it would seem that their chief purpose was to block the other parties. They were not interested in literacy and were satisfied if a rival school could be kept out of their parishes. This seems very much to have been the case in Tuam where Archbishop MacHale was chiefly concerned with keeping out biblical schools. From Roman times onwards the Christian clergy in the West acquired a central role in the provision of literary education which they were very reluctant to relinquish. All the clergy were opposed to the hedgeschoolmasters whom they saw as imparting non-religious instruction. But if the children under their own care learned their catechism by rote they seem to have been satisfied.      

In general it was accepted that the working classes did not need to be able to read and write, and indeed it was often considered better if they did not. An exception was among strict evangelicals who believed that every Christian should be able to read the Bible. But many people wanted their children to learn how to read and write, and the so-called hedgeschoolmasters responded to that need. Early in the 19th century elementary arithmetic was added to the curriculum. The Government after 1812 supported only non-denominational education.

It was commonly agreed that education should be religious and moral and would be Christian in scope. With goodwill it should not have been difficult to construct a simple course on the common tenets of Christianity based on biblical narratives. And indeed, some teachers had no difficulty in teaching all versions of Christianity to their pupils, the Protestants their Bible and the Catholics their catechism. However difficulties arose, as when some evangelical teachers for example insisted on using the Bible as a text book, and using the Protestant version of the Bible.

Besides teaching literacy and religion there were other aspects of education to be considered. Opening up the mind of a young person to vistas of knowledge, developing a taste for further reading and enquiry, developing a taste for arts and music, for justice and fair play, teaching the young how to behave like gentlemen or ladies in society, promoting altruism and an interest in matters for the public good, developing the talents of the individual, physical development, and such like.

The criticism of the ‘Results system’ in the National and Intermediate schools was that it forced teachers to focus exclusively on the subject matter for the exams. In secondary schools, Government assistance and the teacher’s salary were measured precisely on the results of the Intermediate exams. The result was that the teachers reduced cramming to a fine art. The same criticism was levelled at the training colleges (National Teacher, 24 Aug. 1900). Cardinal Newman had beautiful ideas about how the sons of gentlemen could develop their minds in a university setting, but most Irish students had exams to pass. No doubt many teachers tried to keep the broader aspects of education in mind, but ultimately they had to produce a measurable result to satisfy inspectors. The Irish Christian Brothers had a reputation as crammers, but their lower middle class pupils had to pass exams, and pass them well if they were to enter a whole range of occupations. The parents who sent their children to the ‘Brothers’ relied on them to beat knowledge into them and get them through their exams. Canes and short thick leather straps were sold as part of the essential equipment for a school, the usual punishment being from one to six strokes on the palm. In 1904 a Catholic schoolmistress was fined in the courts for beating a child ‘black and blue’. Her action was defended by the manager of her school, the parish priest, who said it was at times necessary to give a child a good beating (Church of Ireland Gazette 2 Dec. 1904).[Top]


            It is easy to indicate the relative degrees of education, kindergarten, primary, secondary, and university, what each was for, and fit any particular institution into one or more of these categories. It is much more difficult to say what the standards of education in any particular institution were at any given time, and how those standards compared with those before and after. In many ways the foundation of the Humboldt University in Berlin in 1809 set the benchmark for what a modern university should be, and consequently what modern secondary schools should teach and the standards they should attain, and what a primary school child should know before entering a secondary or grammar school. The Humboldt was a modern university pioneering teaching and research into modern subjects. In the eighteenth century many universities had lapsed into torpor and decay, continuing to teach the medieval subjects of philosophy, theology, medicine and law from ancient authorities. The University of Jena, for example, from which Karl Marx received a doctorate, awarded a doctoral degree for virtually any piece of paper submitted to it. Oxford University in the eighteenth century went into a deep sleep, concentrating on drinking port. Yet after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, when Richard Whately and John Henry Newman were fellows, standards were starting to rise. Neither of its sister universities, Cambridge and Dublin, seemed to have declined as far. Universities were as good as the standards they set themselves. Nonetheless knowledge of Latin with the ability to write and converse in Latin with facility was always required for matriculation.

            Irish endowed schools, though small, seem to have been able to provide an adequate number to matriculate in Trinity College, though these latter were not necessarily representative of others in the same classrooms. In the 18th century there was an excessive concentration on Greek and Latin. In 1759 a senior lecturer in Trinity College helpfully sent a letter to headmasters of schools which taught Latin and Greek indicating the books boys were expected to be familiar with. These included 14 ancient Latin authors and two modern including Erasmus and 8 Greek authors including the Gospel of St Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The matriculation examination was on the whole of Virgil’s Aeneid and the first 14 books of Homer’s Iliad, and for sizarships (scholarships) the whole of both the Aeneid and the Iliad (Dublin Journal 3 July 1759). It was a formidable standard, but one which could not be maintained as the curriculum was broadened. Nevertheless endowed classical or grammar schools set the standard for all boys schools in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Regarding standards in other subjects, especially as more modern courses were established in the 19th century, universities and grammar schools functioned entirely independently of each other. London University was established in 1826 as a modern style university on the model of the Humboldt University and in practice within the United Kingdom its matriculation examinations set the standards of achievement for other subjects in grammar schools. Grammar schools began admitting pupils typically around the age of twelve, and had six annual forms, the sixth being for eighteen year olds. But bright boys who had previously been privately tutored, or who had been sent to a preparatory school, could enter at nine and advance through the school in half year terms, so the form he was in had little correlation to his age (Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, passim).

Most boys and all girls in 1850 had no intention of proceeding to university and the secondary school was a place where they acquired some of the accomplishments of ladies and gentlemen of the middle class. (Children of the aristocracy were often sent to English public schools, particularly to remove their Irish accent.) As they might attend from between 1 to 6 years, the standards attained by them were very variable, though it was still a social cachet to have gone to a secondary school. Cost, more than anything else, seems to have determined admission to secondary education though in time simple entrance examinations were imposed. For those getting a full education the normal pattern was to begin school at 4 years, and spend 2 years in Infants, and six years in the standards of the National school. At twelve years they transferred to the secondary or grammar school for a further six years, and entered university at 18. But there were other patterns.

            Primary education usually meant instruction in the ‘Three Rs’ originally reading, writing, and religion, but later reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. As boys could be sent to a grammar, Latin, or superior school from the age of nine onwards they had to be taught the elements of reading and writing English before that. On the other hand a boy might stay at his local school ‘as far as the master could put him’ up to the age of sixteen or seventeen. The aim of those who framed the curricula of the Kildare Place Society and the National Board seems to have been to provide a complete education, including practical instruction, up to the age of sixteen for those who desired it, for few boys and girls in Ireland before 1850 went to a secondary school. The National Board was well-advised to extend the primary school (which was the only school) as long as possible and even provided courses in Latin and Greek. Though the education was neither free nor compulsory before 1892 many parents in practice paid little or nothing. There was thus a considerable overlap between the courses and age groups in the primary and secondary schools. There was no age threshold or limit with regard to entry into university, and precocious children could matriculate (DNB, William Pitt). [Top] 


General Aspects and History


In the course of the 18th century many working people learned to read and the desire for some literacy became quite widespread even if it was only the ability of a farmer’s wife to write her own name. This desire was widespread in the towns on the east coast of Ireland, but was virtually non-existent among the Gaelic-speaking cottiers on the west coast (Adams, Printed Word, 20). When the restrictions on Catholic teachers were removed by the various emancipation Acts the sector was virtually unregulated. Anyone, even with the most limited education themselves, could start a school in even the most unsuitable buildings. (In theory the permission of the Protestant rector was still required.) These could be barns, or rented rooms, or tiny church halls. There was nothing peculiar to Ireland in this. By the beginning of the nineteenth century these were very numerous in the northern and eastern parts of the country. As Carleton pointed out the chief objection to them by the clergy was the fondness of the schoolmasters for drinking whiskey. Dr James Warren Doyle in 1821 objected to them on various grounds, one of which was that boys and girls were taught together in tiny rooms (Fitzpatrick, Doyle, I, 129).

 The Kildare Place Society was formed to establish schools managed on the principles of the Report of 1812, to provide the buildings, to provide books and other school necessities cheaply, and to train teachers. The Government gave it an annual grant. Despite some straying in the direction of a biblical education, it would seem that the gentlemen of the Kildare Place Society were to only group in Ireland in the whole of the 19th century (apart from the gentlemen on the National Board) who were genuinely interested in education. The Catholic clergy especially realised that they could not compete, school for school, with the Government-assisted and allegedly proselytising Kildare Place Society. At the request of the Catholic bishops another Commission on education was established, and it recommended the formation by the Government of a National School Board which would take over the functions and duties of the Kildare Place Society and receive its grant (Akenson, Education Experiment, Chapter III). The Society continued its work on a reduced scale to the end of the century. [Top]


The Education Act (1831 established the Board of National Education (National Board), and approval was given for a national system of education in every part of Ireland, partially paid for by the state. There were to be mixed classes in which secular subjects were taught together, and times appointed for separate instruction in the tenets of each religious denomination. The national school system came to account for virtually all primary schooling. The advantages of belonging to the system were so big, and the disadvantages so few, and the concessions with regard to the teaching of religion so great, that few school managers could resist it. The various clergymen or their nominees had the right to enter the schools at the time for religious instruction to teach their own adherents (Burns, ‘Schools’, Catholic Encyclopaedia). Most Catholic bishops gave their support even though it did not give them all the points they desired. Belonging to the system was not compulsory; private education was not excluded by law.

Those who did resist, like many Church of Ireland schools and those in Archbishop MacHale’s diocese, did so because of strong prejudices. MacHale and his supporters argued that it was not a Catholic system in accordance with Church law, and that it contained proselytising elements. From 1850 onwards, for most of the Catholic clergy, maintaining the Church’s alleged rights over education was the top priority; the quality of education was not considered.

The Lord Lieutenant appointed the gentlemen and clergymen who were to compose the Board of Commissioners. In accordance with the precedent regarding Maynooth College the leading figure on the Board was a layman, the senior nobleman in Ireland, the Duke of Leinster. The chief clerical commissioner was Archbishop Richard Whately of Dublin. He was formerly a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, was very interested in education, and believed that education, even for primary school children, should go far beyond reading, writing, and religion. The Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Daniel Murray, was the principal Catholic commissioner, while the Rev. James Carlile D.D. was the representative of the Presbyterians on the Board. The remit of the Board was set out by the Chief Secretary, Mr Edward Stanley (later Lord Stanley, and Earl of Derby) in a letter to the Duke of Leinster (Akenson, Educational Experiment, 117), and in 1844 the Board was given a charter, and a legal existence. It was recognised by all that policy would be determined by the three senior clergymen, so it was essentially a religious system, not a lay system. In 1832 a paid secretary was employed and by 1850 a secretarial staff of 50 was being employed. In the same year 4 inspectors were employed. The inspectors were the eyes and limbs of the Board, approving every school, dealing with complaints, determining the remuneration of every teacher, and testing every child the teachers dared put forward for inspection. As the number of schools increased so too was the number of inspectors (Akenson, 143-6).

For various reasons, the Treasury was forced to provide most of the costs of the system. Irishmen of all ranks heartily disliked paying for anything which it was possible to get the Government to provide free. Also, as money had in time to be provided for matters not originally envisaged, like teachers’ pensions, or a huge number of inspectors, this burden fell on the Treasury. For sectarian reasons often three schools had to be provided in a parish where one would have sufficed, so costs of education in Ireland were higher than those in England or Scotland. The initial grant was for £30,000 but had risen to £148,000 in 1848 and £1.1 million in 1900 (Akenson, 136, 325). The result was that the Treasury came to take a close interest in the figures which had to be approved annually, and the National Board had great difficulty in extracting extra money even for increases in teachers’ salaries, or for their pensions. The Catholic bishops resolutely opposed other sources of funding, as from local authorities, in case their influence would be lessened.

The role of the National Board was originally regarded as supplementary, providing inspection, approval, training, additions to salaries, and cheap books and requisites. It had been intended that there would be a large local input into the system. It was hoped that in a given district the local gentlemen, businessmen, and clergy would not only provide the buildings, but would also partially pay the teachers, raise money for school perquisites, but also devise courses suitable for local needs. For example, in much of rural Ireland, theoretical and practical agriculture would be taught, but in the big cities like Dublin and Belfast the elements of the various trades would be taught. The principle of a local contribution was maintained, but often it was confined to contributions towards the school buildings. Local contributions remained moderately substantial up until 1892 when compulsory free education was introduced. (It was considered unreasonable to exact a parental contribution from parents who had no income.) In 1851, the local contribution towards teachers’ salaries amounted to around 15% of the total budget for the year (Akenson, 151). In 1900, the Treasury was paying £1,149, 692 against £66, 124 (5%) from local sources (Irish School Weekly 27 Oct. 1900). The parental contribution in some cases consisted of no more than a sod of turf a day for the school fire. The children were responsible for cleaning the school. Often there was no fund for repairing damages like broken windows and it was expected that the teachers would repair damage out of their own pockets. The Irish nobility were remarkably stingy in their contributions, one presumes because of the desire of the clergy to have total control in their own hands (McNeill, Vere Foster, 114).

The Board adopted all the activities of the Kildare Place Society, whose annual grant was transferred to it. It had no coercive authority and could only offer inducements. It was a conduit of Government assistance, and could only make regulations, and establish a system of approval and inspection, to ensure that the public money was properly spent.

It did not own the school buildings nor employ the teachers but only approved them. It devised a system whereby, if a local school was ‘vested’ in the Board, and then used solely for purposes of education, the Board would pay two thirds of the cost of its construction. At the utmost only about 15% of managers vested their schools in the Board, the rest preferring total control over their defective buildings. Vested schools could be vested in local trustees or in the Board. After accepting assistance from the National Board Church of Ireland schools could be vested in a diocesan education board. Non-vested schools controlled entirely by the patron and manager, were notoriously bad (Irish School Weekly 5 Aug 1922). In practice the Board had to accept the building the local manager or trustees put forward, however bad and however ill-equipped, for it was not an Education Authority. Most of these buildings were extremely defective with clay floors, and also lacked privies and playgrounds. In 1858 the Protestant philanthropist Vere Foster, visited 80 schools in his native Co. Louth, a comparatively rich east-coast county, and was shocked by what he saw. In some places there were three schools where one would have sufficed; in others no schools at all. He offered to pay the one third of local costs for as many schools as were required in the county, provided the schools were vested in the Board, and to supply in addition a house for the teacher. Predictably the Catholic clergy refused the offer. The quality of the buildings improved over the years. Still, in 1898 many of the schools in Connaught, the poorest province, were regarded as defective, though sufficiently numerous to allow all children to walk to school. The chief defect still seems to have been the lack of privies. Of 1,596 schoolhouses 204 were condemned as unacceptable (Irish Teachers’ Journal 13 Jan. 1900). Among the worst schools were some in Belfast, whose buildings were so unsuitable, being mostly church halls, that the Ministry of Education refused to adopt them under the Londonderry Act (1923) and preferred to build new schools. In the centenary year 1931, many schools were criticised for poor toilet facilities, lack of washing facilities, a common cup for drinking water, no drying facilities for clothes, poor ventilation, lighting and heating, unsuitable playgrounds, poor school furniture, and lack of cleanliness (Irish School Weekly 25 April 1931; 5 Aug. 1922). Paradoxically, the Reports illustrated how expected standards had risen.

The number of schools was never static. In 1899 there were 8,670 schools in operation under the Board, with a further 491 schools on their list but not in operation. Then 108 new schools were approved and 89 were suspended, giving a net increase of 19. Schools were usually suspended because of inadequate attendance (Irish Teachers’ Journal 20 Oct. 1900). Of the 8,670 schools 3915 were vested while 4,755 were not vested. Of the vested schools 2850 were vested in trustees, and 1,065 were vested in the Board. Two thirds of the costs of all schools vested in the Board were paid by the Board, construction and improvements being carried out by the Board of Works. Not surprisingly, the vested schools were much superior. Catholic priests were in general opposed to vesting. Some small church schools especially in Belfast used their church hall as their schoolroom, and if vested it could not be used for church purposes.

Whately wrote many of the textbooks himself, while Dr Carlile wrote others. Being written by clergymen these books were highly religious and moralistic in a general sense. And as Akenson pointed out, teachers were likely to impart a slant favourable to their own denomination (Akenson, Irish Educational Experiment, 237). Whately was also very interested in economic development in Ireland, and believed that scientific agriculture should form a large part of the curriculum in rural Ireland. The school books and the other school perquisites were excellent, and far better than any that commercial enterprises provided. They were cheap, which was important for all parents had to purchase the books, writing materials, etc. The quality of the books was high, being regarded as the best in the English-speaking world when first published, and they were exported in large numbers to other countries. The books naturally were used and re-used until they fell apart. (The Butler Education Act (1944) introduced the principle of free school books in Northern Ireland.) The Board also allowed for considerable local initiative, and by 1900 was examining in a wide range of subjects including Latin, Greek, French, algebra, lace-making, singing and instrumental music. Clearly, these subjects would only be taught in a particular school if there was a teacher that knew it. Where a boy was keen, and the master competent, boys could be prepared for the lowest grade of the Civil Service entrance examinations straight from primary school (Akenson, op.cit. Chapter IV).

The teachers were at first treated and paid like domestic servants or unskilled labour and they had to approach the parish clergyman by the servants’ entrance. Their teachers’ pay was from the Board minimum, ranging from £9 a year to £16. These low figures can only be explained by the supposition that at least half the teacher’s salary would be paid from local sources. (It was estimated that £5 a year could sustain a man at subsistence level, but an agricultural labourer in full employment might get £7 or £8 but in cases could rise to £15. The average profit from pay-schools in Co. Wicklow was £22.) This was increased to three bands of £12, £15, or £20. Sometimes there was a local contribution towards the salary of the teacher. In 1858 the Board claimed that it was paying 80% of teachers’ salaries, and an inspector told some teachers that if they wanted more they should apply to their own managers. This ignored the fact that the manager could dismiss a teacher at a quarter of an hour’s notice (National Teacher 18 May 1900). It was recognised on all sides that teachers would have to supplement the basic allowance, and they tried various means to do this, even mending clocks (Dowling, Irish Education, 125). Predictably, all this was blamed on the Government, not the local managers or clergy.

In 1872, following the example of English Schools Boards, a system of payments by results was introduced, which made the teachers’ salaries dependent on the results of the annual inspection of their classes. Though the system was ended in 1900 because it was felt to be unduly constricting the children’s education, it provided a solid basis to measure a teacher’s ability to teach reading, writing, and simple arithmetic. When in 1900 the system was changed to allow inspectors to take a wider view of the education provided in a school, it was felt that a subjective element was being re-introduced. The new system too was closely modelled on that adopted by the English schools (Irish Teachers’ Journal 27 Oct 1900). Also from 1872 the dismissal of a teacher required three months notice. Eventually, the Board (and the Treasury) was forced to pay all the salaries of the teachers, to provide a pension fund, and to try to provide residences for the teachers.

Unfortunately, from the very start the clergy of the three major denominations rushed to get control of the schools. This had two results. The Catholic clergy, besides keeping out the Protestant clergy, wanted to indoctrinate their children with the political beliefs of Daniel O’Connell as well. Irish history was deliberately not taught officially because of the differing sectarian versions of it. In 1900 it was decided to allow the teaching of history, but no suitable text books were available. The Church of Ireland Gazette noted that hitherto Irish history was taught only in some schools run by Catholic religious orders, and it was of the most distorted kind with no pretence of impartiality (Church of Ireland Gazette 2 Feb. 1901). Religion, politics, and propaganda version of history were indissolubly linked. But Patrick Joyce of the National Board in his Child’s History and Concise History had made a reasonable attempt.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the objections of the Catholic clergy to Government proposals for improvement were politically inspired. About three times as many schools were provided as was necessary. Another conclusion might be that the gentry and businessmen, deprived of any role, saw no need to contribute financially. Furthermore, the clergy, having succeeded in excluding the opposition clergy, saw little point in exerting themselves to provide and furnish buildings and pay the teachers properly. They were not particularly interested in improving education (Church of Ireland Gazette 24 Aug. 1900). Nor did they see the need to provide the best teachers, or to see that those teachers were properly trained. Quite the contrary. Teachers of the wrong religion for a particular school were excluded, and also trained teachers of any religion who had been trained by the National Board. Nor were any grants to improve school buildings accepted if this meant giving any control to the Board over those buildings. In most cases the patronage of a Catholic parish priest was transferred to the bishop of the diocese after the death of the first patron. The effect of this of course was to lessen the already small local interest in the schools (Akenson, Irish Educational Experiment, 152).

 The patron appointed the manager, so the bishops just appointed the local parish priest. The school manager hired and dismissed teachers, oversaw the general functioning of the school, and carried on all dealings with the National Board. Up until the 20th century teachers’ salaries were paid to the manager. When this was changed to make the payments direct to the teachers it was regarded as an attack on the Church (Irish School Weekly 20 Feb. 1920). The National Board had wished and expected that most of the schools would be community-based and non-denominational but this happened rarely. Most managers were in holy orders, and of nearly 5,000 schools in 1852 only 175 were in joint management. In 1900, out of 8,684 schools 7,636 had clerical managers (Akenson, 215).

 Matters got relatively worse after 1870 when the English Education Act allowed the establishment of local school boards financed from the rates, and even worse after Balfour’s [English] Education Act (1902) which placed the provision of education on the county and borough councils. (This caused a storm of outrage by the Nonconformists because schools of their rivals, the Church of England and the Catholic Church could be given assistance. Their cry was ‘Rome on the rates’, but the Established Church was their real target.) Corresponding legislation could not be passed for Ireland because of the absolute insistence of the Catholic bishops and clergy that all education must be sectarian, and all public money for its support should simply be handed to the clergy. Though innovative in 1831 the National Board’s sole source of income was a parliamentary grant and any major changes in its rules required approval by Parliament. Nor was there any Ministry of Education to see that such Acts were passed, as was the case in both parts of Ireland after 1921. By default it was left to the Chief Secretary to see what he could get done. Because of clerical opposition the Fisher Act (1918) was not applied to Ireland, but was largely enacted as the Londonderry Act (1923) by the Northern Ireland Government. This allowed large amounts of local authority money to be spent on education.

Most of the clergy accepted some assistance from the National Board, but many of the clergy of the Established Church tried to work through their own Church Education Society. After about thirty years they gave up the attempt. In 1900 about a third of the national teachers were Protestants. The Catholic Archbishop MacHale of Tuam, one of the poorest dioceses in Ireland, refused to accept help from the Board, and decided to rely on orders of teaching brothers. These were quite numerous, but only in the larger towns was it possible to survive on parental contributions. When the archbishop died in 1881 the schools in his diocese were the worst in Ireland, and his successor speedily sought the assistance of the Board. All the Catholic bishops at the Synod of Maynooth in 1900 accepted the national schools as they were then managed (Burns, ‘Schools’).

A Compulsory Education Act (1892) was passed which tried to introduce compulsory education, but it was far from successful. One problem was that it was left to local towns to decide when to implement the Act. Though there were 125 towns and townships within which the Act might be applied, only 85 had introduced the Act by 1900 (Warder 22 Dec. 1900). By 1918 the figure was unchanged. Even where the Act was in force every loophole was exploited by parents to keep children away from school, usually to do work on the farm. Even in 1919 average daily attendance was only 70% of enrolment (Irish School Weekly 31 Jan.; 7 Feb 1919). Attendance tailed off sharply after the age of 11 or 4th standard, and the standard of the Fourth Book was such that those who completed it could only be described as barely literate (Irish School Weekly 19 May 1923, citing figures for 1912-13). They could probably read a penny newspaper but little else. For most Protestants however the aim was that the children could read the Bible for themselves. The English of the Authorised Version of the Bible is quite simple.

As if there was not enough trouble over religion various nationalist groups, with the support of many teachers, from 1900 onwards tried to insist on the compulsory teaching of Irish, something which could only take time away from studying more important and practical subjects, and from more important objectives like providing proper standards in school buildings (Weekly Irish Times 7 Oct 1905).[Top]

Teachers, Inspection, and Training

Both the Kildare Place Society and the National Board put great emphasis on teacher training, as well they might. Ireland was not short of teachers or schools as anyone could open a school and expect a modest income. This work was suitable for women whether spinsters or widows. If they knew how to read and write they were equipped to teach. It also was suitable for younger sons of Catholic families who had received some education, but could not descend to manual labour. Presumably most of those who applied to the new clerical school managers to be employed as national teachers had already been teaching in a local pay-school. As with the hedge schools teachers could range from those with a good knowledge of the classics to the barely literate.

 At first, in 1831 the Board had to accept such teachers as were presented by local managers, and just weed out the totally incompetent. So the Board provided a training college, and also graded examinations for teachers so that they could improve themselves (Dowling, Irish Education, 123-6). In 1838 a teacher training college was opened in Marlborough Street, Dublin. Initially the training course lasted only five months, but this was not regarded as satisfactory. The training was not in methods of teaching but involved teaching the subjects themselves to an acceptable standard. By 1900 training was extended over several years, first as monitors in a model school, followed by one or two years in a residential training college. In 1848 the first general examination of teachers was held which had a side effect of bringing teachers together. The three bands of pay were increased to seven beginning with £14 and rising to £30, the aim being to motivate teachers to improve their skills (National Teacher 18 May 1900).

To widen the scope of training, the monitor (monitress) or pupil teacher system was adopted. This was put in practice in local national schools deemed suitable, and also in 32 ‘model schools’ 4 in Dublin and 28 in the provinces. Of these 14 were in Ulster where they were popular with the Presbyterians, while there were only two in Connaught. The others were supported by the Church of Ireland and the Dissenters, the Catholic bishops refusing to recognise any body they did not control. They tried to establish rival model schools (Dowling, Irish Education, 124). (By every criterion Connaught was the worst province with regard to education.) Boys and girls in model schools aged about 13 or 14 were selected as monitors. He had to wear his boots and Sunday suit every day, and was partly taught and partly did teaching for 4 years during which time he was paid 1 shilling and 11.02 [old] pence correct to the second decimal place a week (Irish School Weekly 3 Jan 1931).The Commissioners, not the local clerical manager, selected the teachers for the model schools and naturally chose the best teachers. The buildings, salaries, and equipment were better than in ordinary schools. Not infrequently, the pupil teachers were just exploited as cheap labour. A Central Model School of a higher standard was opened in Dublin, and Patrick Keenan, a Catholic educated in the Central Model School, was appointed its headmaster in 1845. Others were opened from 1849 onwards, and Archbishop Cullen denounced one which was opened in Drogheda in 1851. In 1864 some of the larger convent schools were recognised as model schools (Corish, Irish Catholic Experience, 206).

The standards of education in boys and girls secondary schools rose in the second half of the 19th century especially after the passing of the Intermediate Education Act (1878) and the admission of women to universities following the opening of the Royal University in 1880. So by 1900 candidates for teacher training would have passed the Intermediate Leaving Certificate at about the same standard of university matriculation. By 1900 half the newly appointed teachers had been to a training college; the other half had been monitors or pupil teachers. These latter could normally be only assistant teachers, though in a two-teacher school that was an important office, often involving teaching all the girls (Irish Teachers’ Journal 20 Oct. 1900).

To train teachers in the teaching of agriculture a model farm was established at the Albert College, Glasnevin, just outside Dublin in 1837. Its courses were then extended to provide full courses in practical agriculture. Later Model Agricultural Colleges with farms with around 10 acres of land were established in various parts of the country. They numbered 42 by 1858, half under the Board, and half under local management. But liberal interests in England complained that the Government was subsidizing agricultural education in Ireland in direct competition with similar schools in England which received no grants, so the grants were discontinued, except the one at Glasnevin which was exclusively for the training of teachers. Only one other school, the Munster Institute survived on local support. There were also ordinary national schools, eventually reaching 127 in number, with small plots attached, where the elements of scientific agriculture, or more properly gardening, were taught (Dowling, Irish Education, 129-30). The numbers fell off sharply after 1900 as the masters got no extra remuneration for teaching the subject. In 1901 there were only 28 remaining.

The Catholic bishops refused to accept a training college not controlled by themselves with the result that in 1900, seventy years after the system was established, only 48% of the national teachers had received any formal training (Church of Ireland Gazette 24 Aug. 1900). As early as 1856 the Sisters of Mercy in Baggot Street, Dublin, made efforts to give short courses to women teachers, but the six-month course was dismissed by the Powis Commission on Education as totally inadequate. In 1870 it recommended the allocation of public money towards private (denominational) training colleges. In 1883 St Patrick’s Training College for men and Our Lady of Mercy Training College for women were opened and recognised, but had to support themselves. Government assistance was allowed in 1890 (Warder 24 May 1902). In 1901, the Lady of Mercy Training College was moved to a new building at Carysfort, Dublin. Later three more Catholic training colleges were opened (Dowling, Irish Education, 124). Each was under the local bishop. The Kildare Place training college survived and was under the Protestant archbishop of Dublin. Archbishop Plunket found it in a poor state, but reformed it, and got it affiliated to the National Board on the same basis as the Catholic colleges. It was the first to establish a link with a university. Presbyterians tended to use the National Board’s college in Marlborough Street, while the Church of Ireland used Kildare Street (DNB Archbishop William Plunket). It was noted that training colleges were originally established to teach poorly educated aspirants the subjects they were to teach children. Teaching methods of teaching was not well regarded. The publicly-funded training colleges were dependent on payment by results, so that cramming became the norm in them. No class of infants was actually taught (National Teacher 24 Aug. 1900).

There had to be a system of inspection to approve the schools and the teachers and to ensure that at least minimum standards were reached. As the only sanction the Board had was to entirely withdraw its grant, inspectors had to accept even what they could not approve. At the start, inspectors were recruited from amongst university graduates and of necessity were mostly Protestants. It is not clear what the relevance of a degree in classical studies was to primary education, but there was no obvious alternative. It was a system of officers and men as in the army and police. But when the Board was established for some time others were appointed inspectors, notably (Sir) Patrick Keenan. The schools inspections had a direct effect on the salaries of teachers who were started in the lowest band of pay, and their promotion could be retarded by an unsympathetic inspector whose decisions could be arbitrary. For this reason, teachers often liked the payment by results (Irish School Weekly 26 Mar 1932). The children examined either knew the answers or they did not. By 1920 the grievance was beginning to be eased by allowing experienced teachers to apply to become inspectors. It remained a grievance that teachers with practical experience had no role in the designing of the curriculum, or the inspection system, this being the preserve of university graduates on the National Board or the inspectorate. The Board itself was almost completely autonomous, but major changes in the system, like the New Programme in 1900, had to be approved by Parliament. Likewise any increase in its grant had to be approved by the Treasury before each annual Government budget. [Top]

Religious and Other Schools

            The schools of the Irish Christian Brothers formed the largest group not under the Board though some belonged to other teaching orders. They received no grant for their primary schools, paid all the costs of building and maintaining the schools and were free from all Government supervision and inspection. They were basically penny-a-week schools and of their nature they had to be large boys schools in towns. In 1901 there were 97 of these schools. Most of the religious orders however, especially of nuns, accepted the National Board. There were also 85 other private schools.

            King Henry VIII ordered that Protestant primary schools should be established in each parish both to teach the Protestant religion and the English language. Not much was done to put the edict into practice, and in 1791 it was estimated that there were about 200 of them. Then they multiplied as a new spirit of religious observance flowed through the Irish Church. By 1809 there were 549 schools under the clergy of the Established Church and 800 by 1825. When the National Board was formed the clergy of the Established Church formed a Church Education Society to maintain their independence. As this proved unsatisfactory, and the schools under the National Board became in practice denominational the clergy submitted to the Board. In 1885 there were still 1,350 primary schools under the Commission for Endowed Schools (DNB Gerald Fitzgibbon). After disestablishment, the Church began to put the teaching of religion in Protestant schools on a firm basis, and established diocesan boards of education to deal with the religious syllabus and examinations (Church of Ireland Gazette 19 Jan 1900). The Catholic Church followed suit. Teaching religion was supposedly the responsibility of the ministers of the various denominations, but normally the same teacher taught all subjects including religion; one hour a day being set aside for religious instruction. Where for example there was no Protestant teacher in a school, as was often the case, the Protestant children were left free during that hour. The drawback for them was that they had to attend Sunday school on Sundays.

            One school on its own was the Royal Hibernian Military School which had been established for children of soldiers, particularly orphans. It chief object was to prepare the boys for military life. In 1900 it had 460 pupils. Schools like these were especially detested by the Catholic bishops because they were run by Protestants, and the expectation was that all the boys, even the children of Catholic soldiers, would be raised as Protestants. Following the disbandment of the Irish regiments in 1922 it was relocated to Shorncliffe, Kent, England.

Unions and Journals

            The improvement of the status and conditions of teachers from ill-paid hourly workers to almost professional status owed nothing to the National Board or to the Churches, but was largely the result of efforts by the teachers themselves, and the unions they formed. Teachers began to meet from 1848 when a general examination for teachers was held. In 1849 anonymous letters appeared in the press complaining of conditions, so the National Board threatened instant dismissal of any teacher who wrote to the press. The teachers formed a Redress Committee, and again the Commissioners threatened dismissal to anyone who brought a complaint to a redress committee (Irish School Weekly 25 May 1929). The chief point they were interested in was pensions, and when the Commissioners in 1854 decided that teachers’ salaries were too low to permit the reductions necessary for a pensions scheme teachers thoughts turned to forming a union. The first meeting was held in 1857 and was attended by only four teachers. But by 1860 it had sufficient support to send a delegation to London to meet Lord Palmerston, the prime minister. The delegation was accompanied by several Irish MPs then in London. Palmerston agreed to give financial assistance but the Commissioners refused to apply for it (National Teacher 18 May 1900). Never at any time did the teachers get any support either from the National Board or from the clerical managers. Quite the opposite. Though Sir Patrick Keenan, the Resident Commissioner, did recognise the union.

            Teachers’ self-improvement societies were established to raise their own educational standards and to improve their salaries. An early teachers’ journal, The Schoolmasters’ Magazine was published in Armagh in 1839. It noted that teachers were forbidden to attend fairs, markets, or meetings, especially political meetings (Irish School Weekly 5 Dec 1931). It was remembered later that delegates earning £35 a year [13 shillings and sixpence a week; farm labourers could get 10 to 12 shillings] could not afford transport and so had to walk to all meetings even several miles away. For a meal all they could afford was a bun and a glass of stout.

            Teachers’ unions finally took off in 1868 with the powerful help of Vere Foster a Protestant gentleman that nobody could ignore. They had three principal aims, a living wage paid by the Board, pensions, and schoolteachers’ houses. The union sent three or four teachers to give evidence to the Powis Commission of Education Enquiry. Vere Foster met Robert Chamney, a journalist and publisher in Dublin. Chamney launched The Irish Teachers’ Journal on 1st Jan. 1868 and it carried an Article by Foster who set out his views about what was needed in Irish education. Foster was invited to appear before the Powis Commission, but declined. Instead he sent out a questionnaire to the secretaries he could contact of all the local teachers’ associations then being formed in every county. These numbered about a hundred, and sixty nine replied. He collated their replies and submitted them to the Powis Commission. In the meantime a group of teachers met with the object of forming an all-Ireland union. The first meeting of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) met in December 1868. Over 100 delegates attended representing several thousand teachers. Foster was elected president of the union, and in that capacity he led a delegation of teachers to meet the Lord Lieutenant, Earl Spencer, a Liberal. About this time, Chichester Fortescue, also from Co. Louth, was Irish Secretary, and Thomas Burke from Galway, was the permanent Under Secretary. It also helped that this decade was peaceful, before the outbreak of the terrorist campaign of the ‘Land War’, and that both Liberal and Conservative Governments were in reforming mood. It was later recalled that the INTO never had so much influence or was better received than in this period.

            At the Teachers’ Congress in December 1870 a resolution was passed calling for some restrictions on the absolute power of the clerical school managers. One teacher from Monaghan voted in its favour with the result that the bishop of the diocese ordered his immediate dismissal. Foster responded in the Irish Teachers’ Journal. Foster then led a delegation to London to see Gladstone which again roused the bishop to denounce any proposals put forward by Foster. The Government’s proposals were put forward in 1872 which increased teachers salaries, and made three month’s notice of dismissal compulsory (McNeill, Vere Foster, 155-174). He never succeeded in getting assistance for education from the local rates as was done in England due largely to clerical opposition (It was finally granted in Northern Ireland in 1923 to the dismay of the Catholic bishops and despite the evidence of over twenty years in England that it had no ill-effects.) Several minor Acts were passed to try to get residences for teachers provided. But it had limited effects for various reasons. Foster cited the case of a teacher who had to walk 10 miles daily to and from his school and who had to purchase a velocipede or ‘boneshaker’ bicycle.

            The INTO became the largest and most influential teachers’ union in Ireland. Though intended from the start to be non-sectarian, it gradually ceased to attract Protestant teachers who preferred to start their own union. In 1894 the Catholic bishops meeting in Maynooth College, bowing to pressure from the unions, allowed an appeals procedure in cases of dismissal. This was not great, nor legally enforceable, but it allowed an appeal from the parish priest to the bishop of the diocese. Protestant teachers had not this protection, nor had teachers in England (Irish Teachers Journal 29 June 1901). However, an appeal for wrongful dismissal was heard by Chief Baron Palles, and a Dublin jury at the Chief Baron’s insistence awarded her a quarter’s salary plus £221 (Irish School Weekly 29 July 1922). The National Board continued to refuse to recognise teachers’ unions. Addressing students at the Catholic Women’s Training College in Dublin in 1900 the Catholic Archbishop Walsh condemned the INTO for presuming to discuss the New Programme on which he had already pronounced. The archbishop failed to recognise that times had changed. Practicing teachers had not been consulted on the New Programme. The Killanin Committee of Enquiry into education (1918-9) was the first on which teachers were the majority (Irish School Weekly 2 June 1922).

            Slowly the issue of teachers’ pensions was tackled. A great desideratum of the teachers’ unions, namely pensions for national teachers, was secured under the National Teachers (Ireland) Act (1879). This aimed at providing a pension equal to two thirds of income. It was a contributory scheme, the teacher paying one fourth of the annual contribution, and the state three fourths. To meet this £1.3 million were taken from the temporalities of the disendowed Church of Ireland which was placed in 3% Land Commission stock. This was not the first attempt to provide for retired teachers, for the scheme replaced gratuities given to retiring teachers which by then amounted to £7,200 p.a. and was increasing rapidly. However the Fund was becoming insolvent, so contributions were increased and pensions were reduced. The Treasury in 1897 added a further £18,000 p.a. to the Pensions Fund (Irish School Weekly 22 April 1922).

            The Irish Protestant Teachers’ Union, as its name implies, dealt principally with the problems of Protestant teachers. It was started around 1900 to counteract managerial victimization, and unjustifiable dismissal of Protestant teachers which were then frequent (Irish School Weekly 8 July 1920). In 1914 it was advocating that schools should be placed under the local authority as in Scotland. By the beginning of the 20th century, teachers were not short of periodicals dealing with their own profession, in particular with primary education, so we are particularly well informed about matters of concern to primary teachers. The Irish Teachers' Journal was perhaps the most important and followed the affairs of the INTO closely. Others were The National Teacher and the later Irish School Weekly which replaced The Teachers’ Journal, and Our Schools. [Top]



The distinct three-stage system of education we know today, with the children, on passing a certain grade in one school, passed on to a higher school or college was not so clear. There were primary schools which taught only reading, writing and arithmetic, intermediate schools which taught Latin, and chartered universities which conferred degrees. But these all functioned independently of each other. A child aged 10, having been taught Latin and Greek by his father, could be admitted to university. A primary school could teach Latin to the higher forms, so that they too could matriculate. A private classical school could teach more or less what the master wanted. The census of 1871 listed 587 ‘superior schools’, these being defined as those in which a foreign language was taught (quoted by O’Suilleabhain, ‘Secondary Education’).

In the course of the 19th century there occurred various revolutions or perhaps series of revolutions in secondary schools education, commencing in England. One was specific to girls schools, and the others applied to all. The first was the foundation of the University of London whose matriculation examination was widely adopted as a national school-leaving certificate. It set the syllabus and the standard in a wide variety of subjects, particularly in science and modern languages, in a way that matriculation to the older universities did not.

The next was that associated with Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby. Latin grammar and the classics still dominated the curriculum, but a ‘modern side’ was introduced with mathematics, modern history, and modern languages. It was regarded as just as important to form a boy’s moral character as to develop his mind. The boy was to be turned into a Christian gentleman ‘thoughtful, manly-minded, and conscious of duty and obligation’. Church services were held in the school on Sundays. He used sixth-form boys as prefects to instruct and instil discipline into the younger boys. School games were developed to ensure that boys had little time for just hanging about and amusing themselves. He laid great stress on preparing boys for examinations (DNB Arnold, T.). The number of universities in England multiplied, so university entrance exams became important for many. His ideas were almost universally accepted and produced the grammar schools and public schools as they were known in the 20th century.

Catholic boys schools had their own traditions of training boys but they too gradually conformed to the model, and came to regard teaching games as essential. Many parents of course, especially of the middle classes, had no intention of sending their children on to further education except perhaps in a training college. But they also felt that five or six years in grammar schools enabled them to speak and behave like gentlemen and not rustics. Some too felt that two or three years with the ‘Brothers’ or ‘Sisters’ would enhance their children’s chances of getting a job. Two thirds of the pupils in 1920 were taught Latin, and 1,000 girls were also taught it. About 1,000 boys were taught Greek as well (Irish School Weekly 10 Dec 1921).

In 1904 Lord Justice Holmes described life in the Royal School, Dungannon, when he entered it in 1851, and said his contemporaries in other Ulster schools had the same gloomy view of their schools, unlike the happy memories which English gentlemen had of their public schools at the time. No effort was made to make school interesting or enjoyable; there was just the grind of learning. There was no interest in the history of the school. The school had no traditions, nor was there an esprit de corps engendered by playing games against other schools. The systematic playing of games was not introduced until 1853, and then only cricket. Later, when football was introduced, the school produced great teams. He had forgotten most of what he had learned, even the classics, but what the school did was to teach the student the method of acquiring knowledge and train the mind to receive it and make use of it. What was of greater importance it tended to form character (New Irish Jurist 1 Jan 1904).

The financial situation of all non-endowed schools  was transformed by the Intermediate Education Act (1878). This allowed payment of public money to schools dependent on their success in examinations. An Intermediate Education Board was established to conduct the examinations and disburse the funds (Dowling, Irish Education, 134-5). As the payments were made to the schools regardless of denomination the Catholic bishops regarded this as a model for all education. The result, desired by the bishops, was a totally segregated sectarian system of education with Catholic and Protestant schools even in the same town totally ignoring each other. (The segregation became complete when Catholic schools played only ‘Gaelic’ games, and so could only play each other, a result again highly pleasing to the Catholic bishops.) Margaret Byers strove hard to get girls schools included under the Act and in this she was successful. The fact was the Government could not afford to build and run intermediate schools of its own, and all the existing schools were denominational. The money came from the funds of the disestablished Church. Like the National Board, the Intermediate Board was independent of the Government, though the Lord Lieutenant had to approve the courses and standards. Apart from that the Government did not set either the syllabus or the examinations. Monsignor Molloy succeeded in getting a central place for science. He was the Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Catholic University (Our Schools 2 June 1906). The Irish Christian Brothers recognised this Board.

The salaries of the teachers in secondary schools depended entirely on payment by results, instead of only partially as was the case in primary schools. This led to an intense focussing on cramming (National Teacher 18 May 1900). The schools of the Christian Brothers for boys of the poorer classes were largely dependent on exam results. Other schools, like those of the Jesuits for the sons of gentlemen, relied largely on fees. In 1901 the top 10 places in the list of prizes went to Catholic schools, the Christian Brothers’ School, North Richmond Street, Dublin, taking first place. The list speaks volumes. The best Protestant school was Campbell College, Belfast. In 1908 the results were more widely distributed. The Christian Brothers’ O’Connell Schools, Dublin were in 1st place, the Jesuits’ Clongowes College in 2nd place, and the Royal Belfast Academical Institute in 3rd place. St Louis Convent, Monaghan, led the girls schools, followed by Londonderry High School for girls (Weekly Irish Times 29 Sept. 1908). By the new rules published in 1901, the capitation grant was to be paid at full rate if 80% of the students passed the Board’s exams; if less the grant was reduced. Capitation meant the number of pupils enrolled, which was much smaller than is common nowadays.

The Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act (1900) introduced several modifications and gave the system its definitive format. The basic syllabus comprised English, history, geography, science, arithmetic and elementary mathematics. Latin and Greek could also be taught, and Irish was counted as a modern language. Because of the system of prizes and exhibitions which were competitive, standards in the exams were high while they remained low in the matriculation exams. However there was criticism of the examination in music. A girl entering a secondary school was taught two pieces a year for the examinations and was just drilled in them. There was no theory of music and no reading at sight (Weekly Irish Times 10 Nov. 1923). In 1920 a senior figure in the York Street Flax Mills, in Belfast, noted that businesses had to depend on products of the intermediate schools but pointed out that none of the members of the Intermediate Board had any connection with commerce. The Board was composed of five clerics, three lawyers, and four professors or other academics none of whom represented the world of manufacturing, commerce, merchanting, insurance, banking, railroading and shipping to which 75% of their students were destined (Weekly Irish Times 30 Jan. 1909).

Between 1868 and 1898 a considerable part of the income of secondary schools came from the Department of Science and Art, South Kensington, London, under the control of the Education Committee of the Privy Council, which gave grants to schools who entered for its examinations in science and technical subjects. A large number of schools taught science courses, but when responsibility for scientific and technical instruction came under the new Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in 1899 the numbers taking the courses rapidly fell off. At first the Intermediate Board had to rely on the Department in South Kensington for inspections until it could train its own inspectors and set its own examinations (Irish School Weekly 26 Nov. 1921; Dowling, Irish Education, 136).The Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction became largely responsible, along with the county and borough councils, for technical education. Nevertheless, many secondary schools adopted the Department’s programme for manual instruction, chiefly carpentry, for boys and domestic economy (sewing and cookery) for girls (Weekly Irish Times 4 Dec. 1920; DNB Sir John Donnelly, Sir Henry Cole).

The normal qualification for teaching in a secondary school was a degree in the relevant subject, but in practice teachers taught other subjects as well. Teacher training for secondary teachers did not commence until 1898 when the Royal University instituted a diploma in education, or dip. ed. The other universities then opened departments of education. A Register for secondary teachers was established, to which only those with a university degree and a diploma were admitted (Dowling, Irish Education, 135). Salaries were extremely low for professional people. In 1920, of 1,349 lay teachers, only 100 got £200 a year, while 30% got less than £100. Coal miners were earning £225 (Weekly Irish Times 18 Sept 1920). A fully-qualified teacher got on average £174 while an unqualified man got £94.

 At the beginning of the 19th century access to secondary education was restricted, and the fees charged made it available only to the wealthier classes. Education consequently was very profitable. The increase in the number of schools, and the grants from the Government, and the availability of prizes and exhibitions meant that the children of the lower middle classes could then benefit. It was these that the Irish Christian Brothers especially targeted with fees as low as three or four pounds a year which was only possible because of the money from exam results from the Intermediate Board. Education was strictly single-sex. By 1920 all the larger towns had at least one boys school and one girls school which did not necessarily mean more than 40 or 50 pupils in either. As usual, the great blackspot was the province of Connaught where towns were few and small.

In 1920 there were 352 intermediate schools of which 236 were Catholic and 116 were Protestant. (This would average 3.5 per town but most small towns would have had one boys school and one for girls.) Protestants were still somewhat better represented in education with about a third of the schools for a quarter of the population. The average number of pupils in Catholic schools was 70 and in Protestant schools 63. Protestant schools had a much higher proportion of qualified teachers (Irish School Weekly 25 Feb. 1922). In 1905, 7,443 boys and 2,845 girls were entered for the Intermediate Boards’ examinations (Weekly Irish Times 5 May 1906). The numbers were increasing rapidly each year. By 1920 the schools had a total of 21,000 pupils, of whom 12,000 were presented for the examinations, of whom 7,000 passed. From this narrow base the ruling classes were drawn. There was little doubt however that the examinations greatly raised standards in secondary schools. It is obvious that secondary education was very under-developed despite the multiplication of small schools. Latin was taught in most schools, including girls schools to enable matriculation to the universities. The average enrolment was thus 60 pupils. But if tiny schools with around 10 pupils are excluded the typical secondary school may have had around 90 pupils with class sizes of 15.[Top]


            The Protestant secondary schools were the most important and set the standard for the others. The earliest had endowments in lands. Grammar schools anciently were almost invariably connected with cathedrals and monasteries. When universities commenced in the Middle Ages it was still necessary to have grammar schools to teach boys Latin before going to university where all lectures, books and disputations were in Latin. In England, boys schools as we know them nowadays were founded in the late Middle Ages, Winchester in 1394 and Eton in 1440. From 1500 onwards they became quite numerous, most the great ‘public schools’ being founded in the 16th century as the Protestant reformers tried to get a firm grip on education.

            The suppression of the Irish monasteries in the 16th century meant that a gap in the provision of Latin grammar schools occurred and a statute of Elizabeth I ordered that each Irish diocese should provide one. Though nominally well-endowed many Irish dioceses were quite impoverished, so it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that many were founded, reaching a total of 14 in 1857. James I provided endowments for the Royal Schools, which in the 19th century included schools in Armagh, Portora (Enniskillen), Dungannon, Raphoe and Cavan. With the disendowment of the Established Church they lost their endowments. Besides the Royal Schools there were other schools of private foundation like the Erasmus Smith schools, founded by Erasmus Smith in the 17th century. He left his great estates, acquired during the Cromwellian confiscations for the purposes of education (Dowling, Irish Education 41-51). The Incorporated Society for Promoting Protestant Schools managed several grammar schools. St Columba’s, Rathfarnham, Dublin was founded in 1842 as a school for the sons of Irish gentlemen equal to the public schools for the upper classes in England, and would seem to be the school that introduced Dr Arnold’s ideas to Ireland.

            Of the diocesan free schools, excluding those with fewer than 10 pupils, there were 9 still in existence with 300 pupils, of whom 38 were Catholics and 22 Presbyterians. Of the Royal Free Schools there were 7 remaining in Ulster in 1868 with 311 pupils of whom 3 were Catholics. The Erasmus Smith Schools numbered 20 with a total of 458 pupils of whom 50 were Catholics. Of the chartered schools and later model schools some had secondary pupils but did not teach classics (Irish School Weekly 5 Nov. 1921). The danger of proselytism seems to have been non-existent in the 19th century.

            At a time when cramming became almost the norm, especially in non-endowed Catholic schools, a thoughtful Article appeared in the Irish Presbyterian on what education should be about. There should be a love of learning for its own sake, a healthy and varied life outside the classroom with games like cricket, football and rowing. Boys should be taught courage, modesty, command of temper, self-respect and respect for others, and consideration. Vulgarity, servility, and snobbery should be rooted out (Irish Presbyterian, Mar. 1900). This reflects Dr Arnold’s ideal.

            The endowed schools belonged of course to the Church of Ireland, but the other denominations attempted to provide their own schools. As the most numerous the Presbyterians took the lead. The first Presbyterian school was Belfast Academy which remained a boys school. Two other schools which grew to be famous were the Royal Belfast Academical Institute and Magee College, Londonderry. Though few in numbers, the Society of Friends (Quakers) always maintained schools, and Cardinal Cullen was educated at the school in Ballitore, Co. Kildare. The Friends’ School in Lisburn, Co. Antrim was perhaps the most important. The Methodists too established schools and the Methodist College Belfast became the largest school in Ireland (Dowling, Irish Education 151-157).

            The Protestants set the standards for girls’ secondary education also. Once again the source of inspiration was England. Frances Mary Buss in 1850 founded the North London Collegiate College for girls as the first equivalent of boys public and grammar schools, teaching girls the same syllabus. In 1858 Dorothy Beale was appointed headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies’ College which she reformed on the lines of Dr. Arnold and Miss Buss. The two set the new standards for girls schools. No less important was the work of Sarah Emily Davies who fought to get entrance for women into universities and in 1869 founded Girton College for women students in Cambridge, England, closely followed by Newnham College in the same university. The first university in the United Kingdom to award degrees to women was the Royal University in 1880. Sophie Byrant from Dublin, a mistress in the North London Collegiate College went round the convent schools in Ireland urging them to prepare their girls for university (DNB, Bryant, Davies, Buss, Beale). Gradually, the regimes in girls schools and boys schools, Protestant schools and Catholic schools became assimilated to each other.

There were of course Protestant girls schools before that, but they were established by individuals and just taught what that individual happened to know (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 378-9). Many girls, for lack of better opportunities, had to become governesses. Up to 1860 education for girls was completely different from that of boys. There was emphasis on music, languages, literature, drawing, painting, and needlework. These ‘accomplishments’ provided for her entry into society whether she married or not. A woman had to be able to entertain her husband’s, her father’s or her brother’s guests.          

            Two schools were quickly started in Ireland like the two in England, Victoria College Belfast and Alexandra College, Dublin. Victoria College was opened by Mrs Margaret Byers in 1859. Alexandra College was opened in 1866 by Mrs Anna Haslam aided by the Rev. Hercules Henry Dickenson, later Dean of the Chapel Royal, Dublin. These two unsung heroines pioneered the advancement of women’s education and were also in the forefront of the fight to get the franchise for women. Mrs Byers was also a leader of the temperance movement. Their immediate objective was to get studies in girls schools raised to the level of matriculation for universities, and then to get women admitted to the universities. Parallel to this struggle was one to allow women into medical schools, to get licentiates in medicine for women, and to get permission for women to practice medicine. When the Royal University allowed women to take degrees as external students these two schools developed departments to teach the syllabus. These were discontinued when women were admitted to teaching universities. In 1877 Miss Margaret McKillip opened Victoria High School, Londonderry because of a lack of a good girls school in that city. For many years it headed the list of Protestant girls schools in the Intermediate exams. [Top]


            The rationale for separate Catholic schools was the apprehension, carefully cultivated, of the danger of proselytism. Also control of education was a further instrument of control by the bishops. For the regular orders, a school was a source of steady income which could be used for religious purposes. Finally dedicated orders of teaching brothers were started to oppose Protestant or mixed schools and to provide what they saw as a complete Catholic education.       

In 1869 there were 47 Catholic classical or grammar schools 22 of which were diocesan colleges and 25 controlled by the religious orders. Of the 28 dioceses, 22 of them managed to sustain a Latin school or minor seminary for those aspiring to the priesthood but which admitted other boys as well. Of those belonging to religious orders, 5 were under the Jesuits, 5 under the Carmelites, 3 under the Vincentians, 2 under the Holy Ghost fathers, 5 under other Orders and 5 under teaching Brothers (Irish School Weekly 5 Nov. 1921).

            Catholic schools for girls were started earlier than for boys, as the penal laws against Catholic schooling were being relaxed. Though girls in small numbers had always been educated in convents, the first religious order of women established to run schools for the religious education of upper class Catholic girls was the Ursulines. It was founded by St Angela de Merici in 1535 in Brescia in Lombardy, and it spread over Europe, and an Irish bishop invited the nuns to Ireland in 1780. In 1793, the first Catholic college for boys, St Patrick’s of the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin, Carlow, was opened. Gradually other Orders of men and women opened schools. Orders of teaching brothers were founded, the most famous of which were the Irish Christian Brothers founded in Waterford in 1802 originally for primary education but gradually for secondary education as well. More teaching orders for women came to Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. In 1861 4,504 (42%) girls were being educated in superior schools against 6,199 (58%) boys, indicating the social aspect of secondary education, for girls could proceed no further (Census 1861). Had the intermediate examinations been available many of the girls would not have been presented for them, making comparisons with later figures difficult.

            The Catholic schools followed the trends set by the Protestant schools. They fall into three main categories. The first were the diocesan colleges whose primary aim was to prepare candidates to enter the major seminaries in preparation for the priesthood. The next class, typically taught by the Jesuits, was for the sons and daughters of richer Catholics, and who charged fees at an appropriate level. At the bottom were schools for the children of poorer parents, typically taught be the Irish Christian Brothers or the Irish Sisters of Mercy, and originally were upper extensions of the primary school run by the order. In 1920 by one count there were 352 intermediate schools of which 236 were Catholic and 116 were Protestant. There were no posh secondary schools for boys in the north of Ireland. There was however one for girls run by the Society of the Sacred Heart in Armagh as an adjunct to their primary school.

In general, though the published curriculum was quite wide, the level of attainment by the students in the Catholic colleges seems to have been very low. In the 19th century few of the teachers had degrees or were trained. The colleges were poor and the buildings in poor condition; facilities to study at home in most cases being non-existent, coupled by the strait-jacket of payment by results must have resulted in a poor quality of education (O’Suilleabhain ‘Secondary Education’ 64). It is likely that only the Jesuits could maintain proper standards. Some of Christian Brothers’ schools also produced remarkable results, at least in examinations.[Top]


The institution of the technical school system was the only instance where the Government managed to defeat the Catholic bishops and to set up a system of mixed or non-sectarian schools under local lay control without regard to the bishops. Even these could not argue that the Catholic Church had a divine right to teach carpentry. It was able to do this because there were few technical schools at post-primary level in existence, and the establishment of local authority councils and the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction meant that there was public money available to build and staff the schools. But the bishops never forgot an insult, and several years later secured the removal of the chief author of the system, Sir Horace Plunkett, from office.

            Technical education came to mean the teaching of practical skills in schools where craft instructors taught groups of young people. These skills had always been taught, either by parents to their children or by masters to their apprentices. The traditional way into the various skilled trades was through apprenticeship. A boy or girl’s father entered into an agreement with a master craftsman to have his child taught the trade, and usually paid a considerable sum to the master. This was the rule moreover for professions like surgeons, barristers, apothecaries, and nurses. With the growth of trade unions, the craft unions often successfully insisted on the journeyman’s ‘ticket’ as a condition of membership or employment. But in the 19th century there also arose a great demand for semi-skilled labour, independent men or women who were trained in some process such as carpentry, laundry work, typewriting, short-hand, book-keeping, needlework or cookery.

Art and design were essential to mass production, so there were various schools of art and design, established even in the 18th century. In casting iron for example an elegant mould (mold) was required. Stone carving required competent craftsmen. The Royal Dublin Society was established in 1731 for the improvement of agriculture and the practical arts, anticipating the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction by a century and a half. Its Drawing School established in 1750 was a free school teaching drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Though aimed primarily at teaching fine arts it also helped the building trade by teaching design to artisans. This was the period when craftsmanship in building was at its peak (White, Royal Dublin Society). Further consideration of these will be found in the section of tertiary education.

The Department of Science and Art, South Kensington, London, under the Privy Council, inspired by Prince Albert, tried to ensure that primary and secondary schools would put on ‘practical’ as well as ‘literary’ courses for the great majority of children who would have to support themselves by the labour of their hands. This Department developed the ideas of Sir Henry Cole and Sir John Donnelly. Cole was originally interested in promoting art and design as essential to every manufacturing process. Donnelly instituted the system of grants for teaching technical subjects mentioned above, which many Irish secondary or intermediate schools took advantage of.

            The Local Government (Ireland) Act (1898) which authorised such expenditure allowed the local authorities to build and maintain their own technical schools, and most of them proceeded to erect such schools, at first in urban areas but afterwards in rural areas. Initially they gave grants to existing institutions. Irish convents especially took advantage of these grants. The Convent of Mercy in Gort, Co. Galway in 1900 received £89 for courses in lace-making, embroidery, knitting, dress-making, cookery, typewriting, and shorthand (County Council’s Gazette 23 February 1900). In the same year the Catholic bishop of Kerry pointed out that the Sisters of Mercy in Killarney had for years been providing instruction in lace-work and design, embroidery, needlework, laundry, and cooking. These courses were still eligible for grants from the local councils, and indeed the grant of £89 came from the sanitary district of Gort, the money being raised by a penny in the pound rate on the whole county of Galway. The Department also gave grants to existing secondary schools to install laboratories for instruction in science (Warder 26 May 1906; Dowling, Irish Education, 137).

As there was no Department of Education to co-ordinate public spending, largely because the Catholic bishops felt it would interfere with their spheres of influence, there was a considerable amount of over-lapping between primary schools, secondary schools, and technical schools in different subjects. The Catholic bishops warned about any attempt to interfere with the religion of Catholic children in technical schools, allowed Catholics to attend technical schools where there were also Protestants, but forbade attending residential training colleges in technical instruction which Protestants attended (Warder 13 Oct. 1906).

 Many of the new urban councils commenced what were to be called technical schools under their own control. The first and most important technical school however, Pembroke Technical School at Ringsend, Dublin, was started by a private philanthropist, George Herbert, 13th Earl of Pembroke (DNB Herbert).It was quickly followed by the City of Dublin Technical Schools, Kevin St. Dublin, for boys and girls, and the Rathmines School of Commerce, this latter under Rathmines urban district council (Warder 4 Oct. 1902). Newry, in Co. Down was quickly off the mark (Warder 23 Dec 1903). In 1901 there were hardly any technical schools outside the cities, but by 1906 there were 30 of them nearly all in temporary accommodation. By 1904 there were already 17,737 students enrolled. Dublin was preparing a second technical school in Bolton Street. By 1920 there were 300 distinct schools or classes in connection with the Department or local approved schemes. At the same time the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction was promoting technical or manual instruction in secondary schools, and woodwork for boys and domestic economy for girls was widely taught (Weekly Irish Times 26 May 1906; 4 Dec 1920)). By 1920 a wide variety of courses was being taught in the technical schools, commercial courses, short hand and typing, secretarial work, mechanics and machine construction, woodwork, turning and metal work, electrical work, painting and decorating, plumbing, spinning, weaving, needlework, drawing, lettering and writing, etc. In Belfast also the Queen’s Street Working Men’s Institute later became the Belfast College of Technology. The Government School of Art in Belfast was incorporated into the new Municipal Technical Institute in 1907. In 1916 Belfast instituted a Municipal College of Technology which would train students for a higher grade of examinations (Northern Whig 7 July 1924). By 1919 courses in wireless telegraphy was being taught in the technical schools in Ireland. [Top]


In Ireland, as in England, several schools or colleges were established in the first half of the 19th century to teach agriculture. In 1847 the Devon Commission published details of six such colleges in six different counties. The National Board made valiant efforts to develop agricultural education but the Treasury withdrew funding for these following complaints from private interests in England. Bell and Watson comment on the dislike of the small farmer for a mere agricultural school or college which would prevent their sons rising above their present station, as well as a suspicion that it was a preparation for raising rents (Irish Farming, 12).

            Only two of the schools or colleges of agriculture established by the National Board survived until 1900 when they were handed over to the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. These were the Albert College at Glasnevin outside Dublin and what was called the Munster Institute in Cork. The Albert College was established by the National Board as a farm on which those training to be teachers would receive some instruction in the theory and practice of agriculture. It was expanded to give full courses to agricultural students, and was protected by the National Board against cutbacks but was restricted to teaching student teachers. The Munster Institute was the only one of the Board’s provincial colleges to survive, and it only managed to do so by taking in paying students for courses in dairying, that province being then the great dairying region of Ireland. There was also a fishery school at Baltimore, Co. Cork. After 1850 there was a craze for agricultural education. The National Board increased the number of its schools teaching agriculture. In the workhouses the Poor Law Guardians commenced agricultural and industrial instruction. Teachers in training were instructed in agriculture. Yet the craze or impulse largely faded, and Government assistance was withdrawn following the denunciation by the Liverpool Reform Association of public spending on agricultural instruction. But in any case much of the instruction was of poor quality (Irish Farming World 27 April 1900).

            From a low point about 1880 interest in agricultural instruction began to revive. The Munster Institute charged £20 for courses in dairying and numbers attending had by 1900 risen from 40 to 110. There was a similar revival at the Albert College (Warder 24 Feb. 1900). The dairying courses were also very popular in the Albert College. The new Department rapidly re-equipped the Albert College, provided new laboratories, and workshops for manual instruction, and provided courses for horticultural students. A small herd of pedigree shorthorn cattle was acquired and pure breeds of poultry. An additional four acres was added for fruit culture. Twenty five free places for students were provided (New Irish Jurist 20 Feb. 1903). The Department also gave financial assistance to the Munster Institute but because it was under local management it could not interfere directly. Courses, largely for women, were given in dairying, calf-rearing, poultry-keeping, gardening, sewing, cookery, and laundry work. The Department commenced another agricultural college at Athenry, Co. Galway. In 1922 it opened a Dairy School in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone. An Agricultural and Horticultural School was opened at Muckamore in Co. Antrim. Two religious orders, the Cistercians in Mount Melleray, Co. Waterford, and the Salesians at Pallaskenry, commenced agricultural colleges. The numbers attending these courses was often quite small, around about 50 each, but by 1920 agricultural education was being taken seriously.

Schools of Art and Design

            The art school of the Royal Dublin Society was reorganised as the Government School of Design, later called the Metropolitan School of Art and there was a vigorous of the Arts and Crafts Movement making notable contributions to lace making, metal work and stained glass (Harbison et al Irish Art and Architecture). Drawing and technical drawing were essential in architecture, engineering, and shipbuilding. These courses were aimed chiefly at the middle classes. Beside the Metropolitan School of Art there was the Royal Irish School of Art Needlework established in 1874 by Countess Cowper but it is more commonly associated with Geraldine, Countess of Mayo. It is chiefly famous for making the banner for an Irish division during the First World War which was rejected by Earl Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War. Belfast also had a School of Art (Encyclopaedia of Ireland; Bew, Ideology 136).

            The Dublin Municipal School of Music was under the Royal Irish Academy of Music. The Cork School of Music, established in 1878, claimed to be the first municipal school of music in the British Isles (Encyclopaedia of Ireland).           

Private and Commercial

            There were also private commercial schools and colleges. For example there was Skerry’s Civil Service College in Dublin which prepared students particularly for civil service examinations. Women were increasingly being taken on as clerks in the Civil Service and the Post Office. The subjects taught for entrance examinations were English composition, handwriting and spelling, arithmetic, geography, French and German (Weekly Irish Times 10 Feb 1900). Hughes’ Secretarial Academy in both Belfast and Londonderry was also a secretarial college (Weekly Irish Times 29 August 1903). In Belfast as well was Miss Duns’ Shorthand and Commercial School, and Belfast Mercantile College, founded in 1854, which also coached for the army. Skerry’s and Eskdale’s colleges were referred to as ‘grinders’ or crammers. Like other crammers, their object was to prepare students for entrance examinations in the armed services, the Civil Service, and elsewhere. In Belfast also was the National Teachers’ Institute which provided a postal tuition course for entry into the training colleges.

Special Schools

            A school for educating the deaf and dumb among Protestants was commenced in Cork in 1883. A similar school was established by another Protestant clergyman in Dublin in 1887. These were charities and got no state aid.[Top]



            In 1850 there were two universities in Ireland. Dublin University with a single college, Trinity College, was usually called Trinity College, Dublin to distinguish it from similarly named colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. The other was The Queen’s University of Ireland, with three colleges, The Queen’s College, Belfast, The Queen’s College, Cork, and The Queen’s College, Galway. The names indicated that the university and the colleges were given charters by Queen Victoria. It was the intention in establishing three separate colleges when there was only a sufficient number of possible candidates for one college to give a general religious influence and ethos to the different colleges, though like the University College in London they were established as secular colleges. This however displeased fanatical churchmen, and the University College was the first to be described as a ‘Godless College. It was understood that students from the Church of Ireland would continue to attend Trinity College, that Presbyterian students would attend the college in Belfast, and Catholic students would attend the other two. The respective Churches would be free to establish halls in connection with each, in which chairs of divinity, moral philosophy, and other subjects about which the clergy felt strongly could be endowed privately, and chaplaincies could be established to provide for the spiritual needs of students. Far from being ‘Godless Colleges’ it was always intended that religion would form a central part of the student’s education, but as in the National Schools, instruction in religion was to be given solely by the ministers of the various denominations. Only in Belfast where the Government was able to reach an accommodation with both the Subscribing and Non-subscribing branches of the Presbyterians did the system of the Queen’s Colleges work as intended.

            Trinity College, Dublin had been established as a Protestant University under the direction of clergy of the Established Church. It had however its own separate charter, and a separate endowment in lands. It was not supported from taxation, and it was not until the 1920s that it had to apply for state aid. It was a traditional university like Oxford and Cambridge but was closer in spirit to the latter. Like Oxford and Cambridge it had two roles. One was to teach classical languages and other studies to a high level. The other was to enable young men of ability who would be the future administrators of Ireland to meet. In an age of patronage, getting to know the right people was essential. (The English Catholic bishops recognised that if Catholic men were to take their place among the administrators of Britain and the Empire they had to attend either Oxford or Cambridge. The Catholic bishops in England asked the Pope to remove the prohibition on Catholics attending Oxford and Cambridge and this was done in 1895.)

By the Penal Laws against Catholics they were excluded from the university. The Catholic Relief Act (1793) admitted Catholics to its degrees, but not to any offices, fellowships, bursaries or emoluments. Catholics were not originally forbidden by their own Church to attend but the atmosphere was overwhelmingly Anglican and even as late as 1920 some of the Fellows of the university were in Holy Orders. In most parts of the world where Protestantism was dominant Catholics just adapted themselves to the situation, and did in fact attend such universities. As the nineteenth century passed the religious restrictions on Catholics were relaxed. In 1873 all religious tests were abolished and all posts were opened to all, including the provostship, fellowships, and foundation scholarships. The College in 1874 offered to allow the establishment of a Catholic chaplaincy, which offer was spurned. In 1875 the Catholic bishops placed a ‘ban’ on Catholics attending TCD which lasted for nearly a century.

The College had the most learned fellows and the best library. It also excelled in the study of Irish antiquities, and was very strong in mathematics. It was closely involved in astronomical research through its observatory at Dunsink, outside Dublin. It was closely involved in research into physics and electricity and established a laboratory for such research. It excelled in mathematics and in the new branch of engineering. A chair of English literature was established in 1867. In classical studies it was among the best in the world, as also in law and divinity (DNB, Kells Ingram, J. H. Todd, George Francis Fitzgerald, Traill, A., Joly, C. J.). It was late in allowing the admission of women students, the decision not taken until 1903. Shortly afterwards Greek was dropped as a requirement for matriculation by those intending to study the natural sciences. In that year it had 943 matriculated students. Degrees from Dublin University, like those from Oxford and Cambridge, were recognised in most countries in the world as being of unimpeachable standard. The quality of ‘provincial’ universities in most countries was variable, so their degrees were regarded with scepticism, a condition which survives to this day. Trinity College appointed its first lady professor in 1913. Its professor of astronomy had the duty of fixing Irish time. The college had also provided a hostel for women students with a hockey field and tennis courts. It also continued, like London University, to accept external students for its examinations. It provided a one-year diploma in education for arts graduates which was very useful for securing that all those who taught in secondary schools had a degree and some training in teaching. By 1921, because of inflation of prices and the falling returns from lands the endowments of the college were no longer adequate. The Government in London gave support which however ended in 1922. State assistance was eventually provided by the Southern Irish Government in 1948 (Dowling Irish Education 175).

The Queen’s University of Ireland regulated the affairs of its constituent colleges, and conferred the degrees, an arrangement similar to that of the largely autonomous colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. It had an office in Dublin Castle (DNB Stoney, G. J.). The three Irish colleges were relatively autonomous, but were non-residential. The aim of the colleges was to prepare students for bachelor’s degrees. Especially with regard to Catholic applicants the standards of the intermediate schools was not high. Nor did it help when an ever increasing majority of the Catholic bishops opposed them. The bishops never managed however to get Rome to declare the colleges ‘intrinsically evil’ but only ‘intrinsically dangerous’ which meant that the condemnation was not outright. Priests were however forbidden to take an active part in them so that chairs of divinity could not be endowed in them nor chaplaincies established. Unlike in the English universities, the crown reserved all appointments to itself. Considerable effort was made to attract competent staff. (At this period any graduate in arts or medicine who devoted some years to studying a subject could acquire sufficient knowledge to be made a professor of that subject, so qualifications varied.) Each college was to have a staff of twenty professors with a president, registrar, librarian and bursar. Of the original sixty appointed only seven were Catholics, which is a fair comment on the level of higher studies among the Catholic population (Dowling, Irish Education, 159). There were no halls of residence so the students lodged locally in houses that took in lodgers. The Young Ireland Movement which was anxious to have all Irish children taught together supported the colleges, and pointed out that the Catholic bishop of Sydney, Australia, accepted less favourable terms in the new University of Sydney (1850) to secure access to higher education for Catholic youths. It should be noted that in the various changes from Queen’s University to Royal University to National University, the semi-autonomous colleges were largely unaffected. Most Catholics heeded the opposition of the bishops, and after twenty years Cardinal Cullen amazingly was able to boast that only 37 Catholics students were studying for arts degrees in the three colleges, 18 in Cork, 16 in Galway, and 3 in Belfast (Lyons, Ireland since the Famine, 96).

The medical faculties in all three colleges proved the most popular and became the largest faculties with over 50% of the total number of students. In 1878-9 medical students accounted for 65% of the students. In Belfast the faculty of medicine was allocated two rooms, one a lecture hall, and the other a preparation room. For dissection they went to the Academical Institute which retained its dissecting room. In 1863 a larger building was provided. Medical standards could be compared for students could always take the examinations of the Royal College of Physicians or of Surgeons which in fact was more widely useful than the degree from their own university (Allison, Seeds of Time, 83-86). As always in bodies funded by the Treasury there was a chronic shortage of money especially for new equipment. In 1901, the Belfast College sought a public subscription to bring its equipment up to date and provide new laboratories (Warder 5 Oct. 1901).

University education was not free. The Government paid for the buildings, and paid the salaries of the staff, but students had to find considerable sums themselves. Students had to pay fees, unless they had received a scholarship covering them. Board and lodging in private lodging houses was estimated at £1 a week. Fees for Arts students were around £10 a year and for medical students £39 plus £10 for clinical instruction in the General Hospital. So depending on the course he might have to pay over £250 for a five-year course in medicine (up to £10,000 at today’s prices). Even an Arts student on a three-year course would have to spend £150 (£6,000) (Allison Seeds of Time 84; his calculations can be taken as representative).

The Queen’s College, Galway was the smallest. In 1871 it had 141 students which was larger than most of the colleges in Cambridge. It had the best academic record of all three, as far as Prizes and Honours in the Royal University went, despite the fact that its standard for matriculation was low. By 1884, under the Royal University it had only 101 students and remained at that figure. It was suggested in 1907 that it should be made into an agricultural college. In 1900, the Belfast College had 347 students, Cork 171, and Galway 83. In 1901 there were 3,200 university students in Ireland of whom about 1,000 attended TCD (Lyons, op. cit. 97). Any college or secondary school could prepare students for the Royal’s examinations.

Archbishop MacHale and Archbishop Cullen pressed ahead with a separate Catholic University under their own control. They had assured the Pope that Ireland could easily build and support an independent Catholic university, but as usual they were talking nonsense. However approval was given by the Holy See, Dr John Henry Newman was engaged as first rector, and papal authority was given to confer degrees, which of course were not recognised in Ireland or elsewhere. The Irish Catholic hierarchy constituted itself as the governing body. Newman was not an able administrator, nor did he get on with Archbishop Cullen. A site was found at No 86 St. Stephens’ Green, Dublin. Between 1852 and 1882 about £250,000 was collected for it in Ireland and America, but after provision was made for buildings and equipment only about £8,000 a year was available for running expenses. Successive rectors from time to time attracted men of considerable ability as professors, but like the Queen’s Colleges, the standards of degrees were not necessarily high (O’Donnell, ‘Catholic University’). As with the other colleges its medical school was the most successful element and was able to present its students to the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons.

The prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, in 1879, noting the poor state of university education in Ireland with the Catholics supporting neither the Queen’s Colleges nor their own Catholic University, decided to put university education in Ireland on an entirely different basis. The Government was still resolutely opposed to funding a denominational university. The Queen’s University of Ireland was to be wound up, and replaced with a purely examining body, to be called The Royal University of Ireland. The University Education (Ireland) Act (1879) was duly passed and came into effect the following year, 1880. The Queen’s Colleges were retained, but any college, even women’s colleges, could prepare students for its examinations. It was an excellent idea, and the University, like London University, could have accepted applications from all over the world. In fact, women students from Oxford and Cambridge first got their degrees from the Royal University. It did not however overcome the inveterate hatred of the Catholic bishops for any form of education not under their own control. Students from the Catholic University could however sit for examinations under the Royal University and get recognised degrees.

The administrative buildings of the Royal University were in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin on the site of the Coburg Gardens recreation grounds which had been used for the International Exhibition in 1865. The Exhibition building was taken over by the university. (In 1912 the building was demolished to make room for new buildings for University College, Dublin.) Its Senate, the majority of which was nominated by the crown, was empowered to elect thirty two fellows at salaries of £400 a year to assist in examinations. Fifteen of the fellowships were allocated to the Catholic University, soon to be called University College, Dublin, and managed by the Jesuits. Sixteen fellowships were divided among the three Queen’s Colleges, and one was given to Magee College Londonderry. It is not clear why almost half the fellowships were given to the Catholic University, but presumably it was as a hidden subsidy. The funding available to the Royal University was £20,000 a year derived from the Irish Church Fund, but needed extra funding for by 1908 it was disbursing over £40,000 a year to the Colleges, of which £7,000 went to UCD.

The Catholic bishops, still totally opposed to the Queen’s Colleges took steps to enable the Catholic University get the benefit of the Act. It helped that Cullen died in 1878 and MacHale in 1881, and that their successors were both more moderate and more flexible. All Catholic colleges were allowed to prepare and present students for the Royal’s examinations. Two very prominent Catholics, Charles Owen O’Conor Don M.P. and Dr (later Monsignor) Gerald Molloy were appointed senators. The O’Conor Don was probably the leading Irish Catholic layman at the time with a position similar to that of the Catholic Duke of Norfolk in England. He was very interested in education, land reform, industrial legislation, etc. Monsignor Molloy, a doctor of divinity and professor in Maynooth College, preferred more practical issues and accepted the Chair of Natural Philosophy in the Catholic University. Such a professorship covered natural science, and he assisted Marconi in his experiments with radio waves. He became Vice-Chancellor of the Royal University and also a member of the council of the Royal Dublin Society. The Royal University, though it could only set examinations, used that power to raise standards in all colleges which sought its degrees. Numbers sitting its examinations also rose steadily from 748 to 2,658 in 1900.

The Catholic bishops undertook a drastic re-shaping of the Catholic University. Monsignor Molloy in 1883 became rector of the Catholic University and held the post until his death in 1906. He retained his connection with the Royal University, and also with the Board of Intermediate Education. In 1883 the Arts School of the old Catholic University was hived off and placed under the Jesuit Fathers. Its first rector was the Rev. William Delany S.J. This order was by far the most learned in Ireland and its members were well able to cope with all the disciplines of a modern university and to raise teaching standards to a universally acceptable level. In its second phase in 1903 the Catholic University embraced an association of colleges which included University College, Dublin (UCD) under Rev W. Delany, S.J., Maynooth College, Blackrock, Carlow, and Clonliffe colleges, and St Cecilia’s medical school all under Monsignor Molloy as rector, and sitting the exams of the Royal University (Whitaker’s Almanack 1903; O’Donnell, Catholic Encylopaedia ‘Catholic University’). By 1908 the bulk of the prizes of the Royal University were going to UCD, it getting more prizes than the other three put together. In 1908 UCD got 99 prizes, Belfast 22, tiny Galway 5, and Cork none. The college was assisted financially by the 14 fellowships of £400 a year each given by the Royal University (Donovan, ‘University College, Dublin’). It quickly became the preferred college for Catholic parents, and its success prevented any growth in the Cork and Galway colleges.

The Catholic bishops were now in a powerful position to press for a denominational Catholic University, funded by the state but controlled by themselves. The Jesuits realised that no public money would ever be granted to a university controlled by their order, but were prepared to assist in any arrangements. Two royal commissions recommended the recognition of the Catholic University. The solution the Government came up with was ingenious. Two new universities were to be formed, each with its own senate, The National University of Ireland based in Dublin, and The Queen’s University of Belfast based in Belfast.

 University College, Dublin would be recognised as a Catholic college in all but name but would be controlled by Catholic laymen. The Queen’s Colleges in Cork and Galway were to be retained and with the University College Dublin would form the National University of Ireland. Queen’s College, Cork was re-named University College, Cork, and Queen’s College, Galway was re-named University College, Galway. A new governing body was appointed to UCD composed of 27 Catholics and 3 Protestants. The first president was a layman, Dr D.J. Coffee of St Cecilia’s. New statutes were drawn up for the Colleges in Cork and Galway. Dublin and Cork included courses in agriculture; Dublin included courses in sociology, and Cork a course in journalism. The Government provided an initial grant of £170,000 and an annual funding of £70,000 to the new university (Lyons, Ireland since the Famine, 98). Maynooth College became an affiliated college of the National University. It is not clear when the Catholic University as such came to an end, but it still existed as a legal body in 1911.

The Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Archbishop Walsh, was elected chancellor of the National University while Lord Shaftesbury was elected chancellor of The Queen’s University of Belfast. The Royal University, the examining body, was in due course wound up. Fr Francis (Celsus) O’Connell of the Cistercian abbey of Mount Melleray, matriculated in the Royal University in 1909 and claimed to be the last student to get a degree from it. The final conferring of degrees took place in November 1909 when 350 degrees were conferred. The ceremony was spoiled by noisy demonstrations and the throwing of flour. Among those identified were some from the language movement demanding compulsory Irish in the new university. As Lyons notes, the partitioning of higher education was a prelude to the partitioning of Ireland 12 years later (Lyons Ireland since the Famine 98). Cardinal Logue in 1912 declared that the National University should be considered a Catholic university, and that the ban on attending Trinity College remained. He also deplored the fact that men and women were being taught together and considered that there should be a separate female college (Weekly Irish Times 29 June 1912). Strangely, evening or part-time students in the new universities were excluded from taking degrees, though this was later remedied.

The Queen’s College, Belfast was to become a single-college University, The Queen’s University of Belfast, to be managed largely by the Presbyterians. The Rev. Thomas Hamilton was made its vice-chancellor, the man who actually ran the place. It had 390 students in 1908, more than the other two put together. It established a course in scholastic philosophy despite the objections that the subject would only be taught by Catholics and studied by Catholics. It introduced a degree in commerce, and also linked up with the Municipal Technical Institute to allow students there to study for diplomas or degrees. It also added agriculture as a subject, and provided for extension courses for local people (Weekly Irish Times 6 Oct., 10 Dec. 1910). Queen’s was liberally backed by the wealthy businessmen of Belfast, expanded rapidly, and had 1,100 students in 1920. It acquired athletic grounds at Cherryvale for its students besides adding new subjects like dentistry, Spanish, and Business Studies. £100,000 was raised by public subscription for new buildings and equipment. New professorships, lectureships, scholarships and studentships were founded. There was a Students’ Union in its own building, and a hostel for women students (Church of Ireland Gazette 7 Jan 1921). In that year too it passed only 112 of the 313 candidates who sat its matriculation examination.

Within a few years the National University capitulated to the language extremists and made the absolutely useless and divisive Irish language a compulsory subject for matriculation emphasizing its sectarian nature. This is totally different from providing courses in Irish for those who wish to study it for its own sake or because they need it for historical research, but there was little of value written in the language, and English was far better for study and communication. The language movement was now dominated by Catholic political extremists demanding independence for Ireland. It was a sign of the wave of violent and intolerant racist fascism which was beginning to sweep across Europe. County Councils controlled by Catholics awarded university scholarships tenable only at colleges of the National University and made it a condition that Irish should be a compulsory subject. This, in effect, excluded nearly all Protestants (Enniscorthy Echo 2 Dec 1911; Bew, Ideology and the Irish Question 84-6). [Top]

Other Institutions

            There are other institutions of higher education, the Royal College of Science, and the Royal Veterinary College and Magee College. The Royal College of Science was formed in 1867 by the reorganisation of the Museum of Irish Industry and the Dublin School of Science applied to Mining and the Arts (Encyclopaedia of Ireland; White, Royal Dublin Society 114-9, Dowling Irish Education, 178-9). This college placed emphasis on training in the laboratory rather than in the lecture theatre. It taught subjects like mathematics, applied mathematics, practical agriculture, applied science, chemistry, engineering, geology, and physics. It was under the direct supervision of the Department of Science and Art, South Kensington (DNB Donnelly, J. F.). The course in science comprised chemical manufacture, mining, engineering, physical science and natural science leading to a diploma of associate after three years study. The courses were recognised by the Royal University. In 1900 it was placed under the new Irish Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction which then established a chair of agriculture (Farmers’ Gazette 19 May 1900, 1 Mar. 1902). At that time, no agricultural instruction was being given in Ireland at a higher level, though low-level courses were being given at the Albert College (or Institute) and the Munster Institute. Larger buildings were constructed and the new college opened in 1911. It was finally merged with University College, Dublin in 1926.

            The Royal Veterinary College of Ireland had its distant origin in courses by the Royal Dublin Society early in the 19th century. These lapsed and in spite of various proposals, were not revived until 1895. In that year the Royal Dublin Society opened a guarantee fund, Parliament promised £15,000 and a charter of incorporation was applied for. The college was governed by a body of 20 members of which the Royal Dublin Society provided 12 (White, Royal Dublin Society 55). Though there were large numbers of veterinary inspectors employed by the Veterinary Department of the Privy Council and the Department of Agriculture, especially at ports and for the control of contagious animal diseases, there was no place in Ireland where veterinary science could be studied. There was a college for veterinary surgeons in England, but it is doubtful if the Veterinary Surgeons’ Act (1881) prohibiting practice by unqualified persons applied to Ireland. Irishmen could however train in England or Scotland. The £15,000 was provided by the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction which became responsible for the college. The first lectures were in temporary buildings but new ones were built. The new buildings cost £26,650 and the college was required to be self-supporting from fees. In its first nine years 309 students entered and 63 qualified leading to well-paid jobs all over the Empire. But many more were needed at home especially with regard to bovine tuberculosis (Weekly Irish Times 30 Jan 1909). Its diplomas were awarded by the much older Royal Veterinary College in London, though the examinations were held in Dublin. In 1912 it had 150 students (Weekly Irish Times 9 Nov 1912). By 1925 the new Ministry of Agriculture in Northern Ireland was promoting veterinary education at all levels.

            Magee College was one of the two colleges erected for the purpose of educating candidates for the Presbyterian ministry. By her will Mrs. Martha Magee, a rich Presbyterian widow, left £20,000 in trust for the erection and endowment of a college for the education of the Irish Presbyterian clergy. This bequest led to a protracted and stormy controversy, which was only settled by a chancery suit. The General Assembly, led by the Rev. Henry Cooke, D.D. wished to apply the funds to an exclusively theological college in Belfast, the Assembly’s College; the trustees favoured the establishment of a college in Londonderry, with full curriculum in arts and theology. In April 1851 Master Brooke in the Chancery Court gave a judgment upholding the position of the trustees and the college was opened in 1865 with seven endowed chairs, three of which were theological. It gained a reputation for the high quality of its education, and became a constituent college of the Royal University. However in was not made a constituent college of either the Queen’s University of Belfast or the National University of Ireland. In 1909 it became an associate college of Dublin University and its students were enabled to graduate from that university (Dowling, Irish Education 180-1; DNB Magee).



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.