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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?

In embarking on the study of the history of Irish education, I expected to encounter documentary detail that would outline the evolution of a system of education and the curriculum thereto attached. What ensued for me, was rather a discovery process linked to my own sense of national identity, and indeed a deepening of my historical and sociological awareness. New questions have been generated, pride and frustration awakened, and changes have come about that will no doubt shape the teacher identity towards which I aspire. The reasons for this can be summarised by the quote below:

‘The central meritocratic proposition that ‘all can succeed’ functions to blur and decontextualise […] and can actually mask the prevailing reality of an unequal education system. This ‘unfair’ aspect to meritocracy exposes education as a non-neutral activity.’ (O’Brien & Ó Fathaigh, 2007)

The history of education in our state has been marked by the question of cultural ‘neutrality’, whether as objective or impediment. My essay will examine the manner in which this has influenced (a) diversity issues and (b) curriculum challenges on macro and micro levels, that is to say in relation to the development of both the twenty-first-century school and the contemporary Irish classroom.

‘The Sage on the Stage’: It took several educational reforms before the teacher-centred approach was abandoned in favour of a more child-led system. Image Credit:

As student teacher, former university lecturer and mother of two Educate Together pupils, I found myself shamefully shocked to discover at this late point in my life, that the multi-denominational aspirations of certain school communities today date as far back as 1831 and the Stanley Letter’s proposition that a framework be adopted to ‘unite in one system children of different creeds.’ Despite the complexities of the reasoning behind this goal,[1] it nonetheless demonstrates a concrete landmark in the history of diversity in Irish education. The Stanley Letter gestures to an acknowledgment of shared moral principles, regardless of denomination. However, the difficulties arising from application of these recommendations are ones that were to endure throughout the nineteenth century, and which echo in the contemporary tensions between denominational and multi-denominational school settings.

Amongst the host of reasons for which these multi-denominational aspirations were not realised to the intended degree was the socio-political nature of the climate at this time, one described by Coolahan as hostile, suspicious and rife with fears of proselytism (Coolahan, p.14). Stanley’s letter advised that the commissioners should not only look ‘with peculiar favour’ upon mixed applications, but also that they ‘make inquiry as to the circumstances’ surrounding single-denomination applications. However, the latter stipulation was not put into practice, a laxness that Akenson believes to have ‘undercut the principal of combined education at its very root’ (Akenson, p.159). The churches of the time were vehemently opposed to the distinction between religion and secular instruction given the perceived role of religion as central to education. Aside from the reaction of the Catholic Church, Presbyterian and Church of Ireland circles implemented changes that worked the system to their advantage, including the establishment of the Church Education Society, in opposition to the national system (Coolahan, p.16). The lasting effects of denominational education relate not only to the place of religion in the curriculum, but also the controversial question of patronage, an issue central to contemporary socio-educational reforms. From the outset, the Stanley Letter’s requirement for a local contribution of at least one third the estimated expense was to place the Church at an advantage in the management of schools. The fallout from this led to the unique Irish system whereby schools are privately owned but publicly run. Over the last number of years various policies, papers and movements have sought to address this issue, most notably the 1978 establishment of Educate Together schools, multi-denominational and democratic educational communities operating within a secular framework of patronage. In 2011 the inauguration of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector evidenced further commitment to the diversification of the national school system. Inextricably linked to this issue of diversification is the question of ethnic diversity, its urgency evidenced by CSO immigration statistics such as those provided in the table below. While religion is a key concern in today’s multicultural society, what is also vital to consider is the changing curriculum, and the place of Irish as core subject at primary level.

The immigration figures for Ireland at their 2006/07 peak, and even since, highlight the increasingly multicultural nature of Irish society, and indeed of the national primary classroom. Image credit: CSO, reproduced in ‘The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector: Report of the Forum’s Advisory Group’, 2012.

My recent study of the role and teaching of Irish at primary level has triggered reflection on the conflation of my own professional and national identity. As great-granddaughter of an Irish writer whose pen name, ‘Celt’, gestures to the significance of the Gaelic Revival in my family heritage, I have had to rethink the importance attached to our native language in the history of Irish education. The language policy adapted under the Free State constitution of 1922 revealed that ‘The Irish education system was to be the main vehicle through which revival of Irish was to be achieved.’ (Murtagh, cited in Drudy, 2009). From the First National Programme Conference through the 1934 Revised Programme of Primary Instruction, it is clear that the value placed on Irish has resulted in biased treatment of both teachers and students. (Walsh, 2007). The Supreme Court’s intervention in Departmental measures, ordering the Government to rescind its decision on increments, reflects the unethical nature of policy at the time. This contradicts sharply with the progress initiated by the report of the Belmore Commission (1897-98) and Dr. Starkie’s Revised Programme of Instruction in 1900. These developments triggered a movement towards curriculum integration and more ‘child-centred, heuristic methods of instruction’ (Walsh, 2007, p.133). The influence of this development on the 1971 curriculum and indeed the revised 1999 curriculum is considerable and demonstrates the significance of international educational reform and development as motivating factors for the Irish system. However, the non-neutral dimensions of education are difficult to surmount. Still today, the status accorded to Irish closes the door to a more diverse teaching body, many of whom may have significant skills to bring to our schools. What inspires my own developing teacher identity is not just the progress made, but that yet to be achieved in our education system. As Walsh notes: ‘the emphasis (mis)placed on certain skills or competencies is ‘often foregrounded in curricula to the neglect of a concern for educating children in democracy, social justice and peaceful co-existence.’ (Walsh, 2016, p.11) My aim, as consolidated by recent study of this module, is to make my classroom a space where such issues are prioritised, with a just balance of respect for our own national identity and the multicultural, multidenominational backgrounds that enrich our school communities.

Family heirlooms as testament to the nature of the Gaelic Revival. The words of my great-grandfather demonstrate the significance of the Irish language to so many citizens of the early twentieth century. ‘I know nothing except the Irish Language that gives more pleasure to those who take part in it, or to those who concentratingly observe it.‘ – Celt. Image Credit: Amy Devlin-Fox. Source: Gaelic Athletic Annual 1907-08.


Akenson, D. (2012) The Irish Education Experiment: The National System of Education in the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge.

Coolahan, J. (1981) Irish Education: Its History and Structure. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

Coolahan, J., Hussey, C. & Kilfeather, F. (2012) The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector: Report of the Forum’s Advisory Group. [Online] Available at:  (Accessed: 07 December 2020).

Drudy, S. (2009) Education in Ireland: Challenge and Change. Dublin: Gill Books.

O’Brien, S. & Ó’Fathaigh (2007) ‘Ideological Challenges to the Social Inclusion Agenda in the Republic of Ireland.’ International Journal of Inclusive Education, 11(5/6), pp.593-606.

Stanley, E.G. (1831) Letter from the Chief Secretary for Ireland, to His Grace the Duke of Leinster, on the Formation of a Board of Commissioners for Education in Ireland. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 07 December 2020).

Walsh, T. (2007) ‘The Revised Programme of Instruction, 1900-1922.’ Irish Educational Studies, 26(2), pp.127-143.

Walsh, T. (2016) ‘100 Years of Primary Curriculum Development and Implementation in Ireland: A Tale of a Swinging Pendulum.’ Irish Educational Studies, 35(1), pp.1-16.

[1] See Hoolahan, p.4: ‘In the context of post-Union politics the government felt that the schools could serve politicising and socialising goals, cultivating attitudes of political loyalty and cultural assimilation.’

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