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Breaching educational barriers

30 November, 1999

Henry Peel OP surveys the story of catholics and education in Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, a period during which anti-catholic penal legislation was on its last legs.

In one of his stories entitled ‘The Poor Scholar’, William Carleton wrote: “There is no country on the earth in which either education or the desire to procure it is so reverenced as in Ireland”. Next to the claims of the priest and schoolmaster come those of the poor scholar for the respect of the people. ‘The Poor Scholar’ is included in Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, which was first published in 1830. There is an abundance of evidence confirming Carleton’s judgement. Since English protestant schools were established in Ireland after the Reformation, catholics were forbidden to teach school. Catholics were first permitted to teach school by an Act of the Dublin Parliament, which received the Royal Assent on July 27, 1782.

Charter schools
Since the Reformation, the policy of the government towards the education of catholics may be conveniently summarised in the words of the Royal Charter of 1733 for establishing what from this charter were called Charter Schools: “That among the ways proper to be taken for converting and civilising the said deluded persons [Popish natives] . . . one of the most necessary and without which all others are likely to prove ineffectual, has always been thought to be the establishing of a sufficient number of English Protestant schools wherein the children of the Irish natives may be instructed in the English tongue and the fundamental principles of True Religion”. Under the penal code, catholics were forbidden to teach school, and those who attempted to do so were liable to the same penalties as priests. It was also an offence to go abroad or to send anybody to be educated abroad.

The first mitigation of this educational policy was an act of parliament entitled, ‘An Act to allow persons professing the popish religion to teach school in this kingdom and for regulating the education of papists’. This is the act which, having passed all its stages in the Dublin Parliament, received the royal assent on July 27th, 1782.

When Luke Gardiner was shaping the Catholic Relief Act, which passed its third reading in the Irish House of Commons on March 6, 1782, he had originally intended to include a section dealing with the education of catholics. He proposed simply to repeal the law forbidding catholics to teach school and to suspend the law forbidding them to be educated abroad.

Education bill
This proposal encountered considerable opposition in the House and, fearing that the whole bill might be rejected, Gardiner got permission to make a separate bill of the sections already passed. These were the sections granting catholics equality with protestants with regard to their property and granting freedom for the practice of the catholic religion.

The education bill as it eventually emerged involved much more than simply repealing the acts outlawing catholic education at home and abroad. In order to benefit by the act, the catholic teacher had to take the oath of allegiance approved for catholics in 1774. The teacher of the school had also to be licensed by the local protestant bishop. The act forbade the endowment of any ‘popish’ university, college or school. Perhaps the tone of the debates is best summed up by one of the supporters of the emancipation of catholics, who said: “Will gentlemen declare the true cause of their opposition, or will they be like the lady who said:

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I will not tell:
But this I’m sure I know full well
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

Gentlemen carry expressions of humanity on their lips, but their hearts are far from toleration.”

Parochial system and hedge schools
Of course there had been a great many catholic teachers and schools of one kind another before the Relief Act of 1782. There was a parochial system, with the Mass House or chapel sometimes duplicating as a school building. There were also the so called ‘hedge schools’, the school master being paid by the pupils and often moving from one locality to another. In most towns and cities, there were schools for the families of catholic merchants and traders as well as for the poor. St. Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, opened doors in 1782. Many similar schools were to follow.

Presentation Nuns and Christian Brothers
Among the most significant developments in catholic education in the eighteenth and the following centuries are those indicated in the following letter addressed to Pope Pius VII by Bishop Power of Waterford in 1808.

Most Holy Father,

Well known to the Sacred Congregation is the great profit and advantage heretofore derived, and which continues to be derived, by our holy religion in the kingdom of Ireland from the praiseworthy new Institute of nuns of the Presentation who devote themselves to the Instruction of poor children in Christian piety and good works, an Institute already spread throughout the whole kingdom and highly approved by all the bishops and of the greatest advantage to parish priests, to missionaries who are thus helped in the instruction of abandoned children. Now the present Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, states respectfully that there is in his diocese a congregation of devoted and pious laymen who devote themselves in imparting to poor boys such instruction and charitable assistance as the above mentioned nuns afford to poor girls. In the city of Waterford and in two other towns in the diocese there are houses already opened In which devout men live in community and employ themselves continuously in the gratuitous instruction of poor boys. Their house and schools were erected by Edmund Rice, who is himself one of the pious workers.

In order that an advantage so praiseworthy and advantageous to religion may be consolidated and perpetuated, the Bishop anxiously recommends to Your Holiness the ardent desire and petition of the aforesaid pious and devoted laymen to obtain an Apostolic Brief similar to that previously granted to the nuns of the Presentation Order and directed to the Bishop of Cork, which would grant the facility of making simple vows as the aforesaid nuns made them, so that the charitable work may be canonically sanctioned.


This article first appeared in The St Martin Magazine (July 2002), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.