History of Education

How has the study of the history of Irish education at primary informed your understanding of contemporary issues relating to education and teacher identity in education?

An analysis of the history of primary education in Ireland has benefitted my understanding of the education system, and shed light on certain issues, which I have previously expressed contempt for. These included the issue of patronage and the state of the Irish language in education. From my studies and reflection, I have gained a sense of patience and respect as part of my professional teacher identity, and cast away my prior judgments on the history of the primary education system.

The debate on the patronage of schools dominates Irish education, and it is an issue I am conflicted by as a prospective teacher. An overwhelming 96% of our schools are under religious ownership, this does not reflect the growing diversity in Ireland; the education system is an anachronism (Coolahan et al., 2012; Hyland, 1996). I was apprehensive to step into a system where my employment opportunities might be dictated by conformity to such religious owners.

Taking a look back, Coolahan (2000, p.4) remarks how divisions were rife, with ‘animosities and suspicions between denominations’, the unifying education system that Lord Stanley envisioned in 1831 would never be possible. Catholicism had been part of the Irish people’s identity and had been threatened; the fear of proselytism is one I have not experienced (Coolahan, 2000). Studying the past according to Burke (2002) allows for pre-conceived conceptions of judgement to be cast away, and in my case it has allowed my harsh criticism over the current stronghold of religious ownership of national schools to be lessened. I understand how such fears and divisions in society might have enabled for a firmer grip on education from the Church.

Coolahan (2000, p.46) describes how the state, upon gaining independence in 1922, gained a ‘subsidiary role, aiding agencies such as the churches’ in the education system, a sentiment I can see still being attended to today. The Dalkey Project of 1975; the establishment of the Forum of Patronage and Pluralism in 2011; and the removal of the ‘baptism-barrier’ in 2018 are efforts, in more recent times, to dissolve the authority the churches still hold (Hyland, 1996; Coolahan et al., 2012). I found it hard to picture myself in a system where it is still chipping away at the brickwork of religious patronage in education. I still question where I can fit in. It does not sit right that I might have to conform to gain greater employment opportunities as a teacher, however, I can wait. There is a sense of patience I’ve gained in knowing that the national education system will not suddenly be dismantled of its religious patronage, as the whole foundation was built on it.

Picture of an Irish school workbook ‘Christ’s Life in Us’ the 1970 version, in the National Library of Ireland, indicates the changes we’ve made in education since these workbooks were in use.
(Credit: https://markhumphrys.com/christs.life.html used with permission)

L.P Hartley’s 1953 book The Go-Between opens with the line ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’, a mindset I can now bring with me into my teaching (Hartley, 1953). I was previously stubborn to the possibility of conformity within my future role. However, I now have acceptance of what happened in the past and that it is not effective to gripe on about it. I hope to be more patient with the changes regarding pluralism knowing how turbulent the past has been. The aim presently is to bring an ethos of inclusivity into my future classroom, one which patronage can disable in Ireland’s growing diversity.

This video offered me an insight into the importance of looking at the past critically but not with judgements that I associate with today’s world.

The position of the Irish language in education has been an unsteady one, and I personally blamed the Irish education system for my absence of fluency regarding Irish. I adore the pride I get to carry as an Irish person abroad, yet I always felt slighted by my lack of the native tongue. Fears of teaching Irish inadequately were masked with anger for the failure of the education system.

It is imperative to recognise that during the turn of the 20th century in Ireland, English was a favourable tool to gain prestige and privilege (Akenson, 2011; Kelly, 2002). Despite the bilingual programme of 1904 and the ambitious, spiritual mission that the Irish Free State government embarked on, regarding the policy of Gaelicisation, there existed a lot of scrutiny and frustration amongst teachers (Bennett, 2006; O’Ceallaigh and Ní Dhonnabháin, 2015). I placed myself in the past here, and I believed I would have aligned with Pearse’s sentiments from the Murder Machine (1924); filled with resentment towards the education system denying my language and my identity. Yet, understanding the level of naivety the young nationalists had and the lack of support teachers were offered during this time to implement such an ambitious plan, I have altered my callow, inexperienced views. I now sympathise with how those teachers must have felt at that time, abandoned and overwhelmed (Bennett, 2006; Ó’Ceallaigh and Ní Dhonnabháin, 2015).

There have been continuous efforts at revitalising the Irish language, in particular the 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030 (Department of Education, 2010). It aims to increase bilingualism, rejuvenate the language and demand a public presence for it (O’Ceallaigh and Ní Dhonnabháin, 2015). In my opinion, the aims and plans are reminiscent of the ambitious plans of the past.

A large burden had been placed on the education system in the past to keep the Irish language alive. By contrast, Ní Mhaelain (2005) states that the Irish language in education is unable to exist without a natural setting beyond the education frontier, a view I now hold myself having understood the difficulties in placing such a burden on the education system. I admit to being ignorant regarding the state of the Irish language and apologise for calling the education system a failure for not making me a Gaelgoir that I so desperately wanted. However, I now have a greater realisation of the struggles the language has endured. I aim to continue in promoting the language as a teacher but also doing so outside education, as I understand now that for the language to thrive, it needs to be accepted and utilised by society.

This video of Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill reading aloud her poem ‘Ceist na Teangan’ paints an image of a boat being sent out to sea, a similar depiction of placing the life of the Irish language on the education system.

The study of Irish education has enlightened my understanding of the complex and controversial relationship education has endured with patronage and the Irish language. It has liberated my bitterness and apprehension towards the education system. I feel empowered and ready at the journey ahead both to make the national school system more inclusive for Ireland’s growing diversity and to teach Irish with passion and relevance to the lives of my students.

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Akenson, D.H. (2011) A mirror to Kathleen’s face: education in independent Ireland 1922-1960. London: Routledge.  

Bennett, J. (2006) ‘Curricula and primary education in Ireland, north and south, 1922-1999’, Oideas, (47), pp.7-31.

Burke, A. (2002) Teaching – retrospect and prospect. Dublin: Brunswick Press.

Coolahan, J. (2000) Irish education: its history and structure. Dublin: IPA.

Coolahan, J., Hussey, C., and Kilfeather, F. (2012) The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector. [Online] Available at: https://www.education.ie/en/Press-Events/Events/Patronage-and-Pluralism-in-the-Primary-Sector/The-Forum-on-Patronage-and-Pluralism-in-the-Primary-Sector-Report-of-the-Forums-Advisory-Group.pdf (Accessed: 04 October 2020).

Department of Education and Skills (DES) (2010) 20-year strategy for the Irish language 2010-2030. [Online] Available at: https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Policy-Reports/20-Year-Strategy-for-the-Irish-Language-2010-2030.pdf (Accessed: 26 October 2020).

Hartley, L.P. (1953) The go-between. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Hyland, Á. (1996) ‘Multi-denomination schools in the Republic of Ireland 1975-1995’, C.R.E.L.A. Education and Religion Conference. University of Nice, 21-22 June 1996. [Online] Available at: https://www.educatetogether.ie/sites/default/files/multi-denominational_schools_in_the_republic_of_ireland_1975-1995_by_aine_hyland.pdf (Accessed: 28 September 2020).

Kelly, A. (2002) Compulsory Irish: language and the education in Ireland 1870s – 1970s. Ireland: Irish Academic Press.

Ní Dhomhnaill, N. and Muldoon P. (2016) Poem of the week: “ceist na teangan/the language issue” by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Available at: https://wfupress.wfu.edu/poem-of-the-week/the-language-issue-nuala-ni-dhomhnaill-poem-of-the-week/ (Accessed: 24 October 2020).

Ó’Ceallaigh, T.J. and Ní Dhonnaháin, Á. (2015) ‘Reawakening the Irish language through the Irish education system: challenges and priorities’, International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 8(2), pp.179-198. [Online] Available at: https://www.iejee.com/index.php/IEJEE/article/view/107 (Accessed: 24 October 2020).

Pearse, P.H. (1924) ‘The murder machine’, CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts [Online]. Available at: https://celt.ucc.ie//published/E900007-001/index.html (Accessed: 24 September 2020).