Catholics, Conflict and the Creation of the Irish National School System

In recent times the role of the Catholic Church in the Irish educational system, particularly the primary school system, has come under scrutiny. The declining influence of the Church, the growth in secular values and rapid increase in cultural diversity has led to many questioning a system where 96% of Irish primary schools are under the patronage of a religious organisation, with over 90% of these under the patronage of the Catholic Church.[1] For those unfamiliar with it, Ireland has a system of primary education where a patron body owns and operates a school but the State funds it. The consequence of this is that the entry requirements, ethos and religious education of the school all reflect the ethos of the patron. Sometimes the patron is a religious organisation other than the Catholic Church, such as the Church of Ireland, and there are a growing number of multidenominational schools, under the patronage of Educate Together, but these are very much in the minority. The consequence is that for the overwhelming majority of Irish people, regardless of their own beliefs, their local school is essentially a Catholic school which is funded by the state. Because of their ethos these schools can refuse unbaptised children entry, refuse to hire gay teachers and refuse to teach about homosexuality or contraception. Religious instruction is the Catholic catechism and children are prepared for Communion and Confirmation on school time. While the public mood is changing, the Church is reluctant to surrender control of schools and Ireland’s predominantly conservative politicians are slow to antagonise the church and alienate their voter base. Remarkably, while there is much recent discussion about religious education, admission requirements and patronage in general, there has been very little public discourse about how this system developed. It is, perhaps surprisingly, not something that was invented in the newly independent Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s but a system that came into existence under British Rule in the Nineteenth Century as Catholic and Secular and Nationalist and Imperialist values clashed and cooperated in ways one might not readily expect.


Cardinal Paul Cullen and Archbishop John MacHale

While Catholics were barred from most political positions until Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the dismantling of the penal laws between 1774 and 1793 lifted most restrictions on religious observance. The lifting of the Penal Laws allowed the Catholic religion to revive and move from outdoor or secret sacraments to an organised religion with its own churches. From 1850 Paul Cullen, first as an archbishop and later as cardinal, had a profound impact on the operation of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Prior to his return to Ireland in 1850 Cullen had been rector of the Irish college in Rome. His time in Rome had coloured his political outlook because he witnessed first-hand the seizing of the Papal States, the short-lived Italian Republic of 1848-9, and the workings of secret societies, which he felt were full of Freemasons and Protestants. He saw the hand of England in attempts to undermine the Pope and believed that, even if Catholics were well-intentioned in subscribing to radicalism, organisations founded on Godless ideas would ultimately betray them. He therefore worked to protect the Church from what he saw as the twin threats of British rule and militant nationalism.

Cullen’s great rival was Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam. MacHale resisted Cullen’s efforts to centralise power and was viewed as the quintessential patriot bishop. However, like Cullen, he was opposed to political radicalism. MacHale was a friend of Daniel O’Connell and made common cause with him on a number of popular issues, ranging from Catholic emancipation to opposition to tithes. Although he lent vocal support to issues such as tenant right and Repeal of the Union, MacHale showed the greatest enthusiasm on issues that directly impacted on religion and publicly expressed his opposition to tithes, proselytism, and secularism. He was most vocal on the topic of education. Questions of education were never regarded in isolation and MacHale saw the schools administered by the Protestant Kildare Place Society, the national school system, the intermediate education system, the Queen’s Colleges, and proselytism all as part of a larger scheme to undermine Catholicism.[2] MacHale believed the education issue had arrayed ‘in opposing and determined ranks, the patrons of exclusive secular instruction on one side, and the champions of the denominational education of the Catholic Church on the other’, and called on priests and people to oppose ‘a system of alien and unchristian education’, as ‘those who are not zealously in favour of the true faith should be ranked among its enemies.’[3] Cullen was seen to lack the nationalist credentials of his great rival John MacHale and was at times even referred to as a ‘castle bishop’; that is, a bishop on good terms with, or sympathetic to, the British administration in Dublin Castle.[4] The differences between Cullen and MacHale have been widely discussed, but their common opposition to secularism and desire to advance the position of the Church made a profound impact on education in Ireland which has lasted to this day.

The Foundation of the National School System

Education was central to Catholic Church policy throughout the nineteenth century. Both Cullen and MacHale felt that the government wanted to use education to destroy the Church.[5] Colin Barr claims that while the government had attempted to intervene in education in Ireland since the mid eighteenth century ‘The national schools grew out of the recognised failure of earlier efforts to attract Catholic students’, such as the publicly funded but privately run Kildare Place Society.[6] The Kildare Place Society had set up schools and was viewed by many Catholics to be engaged in proselytism, the effort to convert Catholics to Protestantism. For most poor Irish people, if they went to School at all it was to a hedge school. These informal school settings were funded by donations by parents and the teachers were usually poorly educated themselves.

The National School system was initiated in 1831 as a form of multidenominational state-sponsored education. Plans for the system were laid out by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Stanley, in the Stanley Letter, which provided for a board compromising of Bishops from all the main churches. However, while the new system provided a national framework for education it left a large amount of responsibility with local sponsors. These sponsors would provide the site, act as patron of the school and have responsibility for hiring and firing teachers. The Board of Commissioners for National Education paid for construction of schools, paid most of the salaries, provided a curriculum and operated a system of inspection.[7] This system of local patronage provided a framework which allowed what was envisioned as a mixed form of education to eventually become a denominational one.

Although its aim was to provide education to the bulk of the population it remained controversial for decades. John MacHale’s biographer, his cousin Ulick Bourke, claimed MacHale opposed the system of national education because ‘he saw that the Anglican representatives of the Board began from the very start to make the national system a vast scheme for proselytising the Catholic boys and girls of Ireland.’[8] They supposedly excluded the Catholic catechism, but included scripture prepared by Calvinists. MacHale wanted a system of schools that were separate and denominational and to this end he and the bishops with whom he was allied appealed to the Vatican for support in 1839.[9] Eighteen bishops, the vast majority, spoke out in favour of national education and in opposition to MacHale. Regardless, the Vatican expressed opposition to the system and a situation emerged whereby individual bishops could decide whether or not to cooperate with the national schools in their own dioceses. Cullen’s influence may have been central to forming Church policy on the national schools and, while the differences of opinion between Cullen and MacHale are widely recorded, the common ground they found on education became the bedrock of Catholic policy in Ireland.

It was the recalcitrance of the Catholic Church towards the National School system which led to the British government making concessions on religious education. These concessions, combined with the willingness of some bishops to engage with the system, led to the beginnings of Catholic patronage of schools and created a foothold for denominational education in the state sponsored system. This was quite different to schools which were wholly Catholic in nature, such as those founded by religious orders and under complete control of the Church. A consequence of MacHale’s opposition to the National School system was that it created an educational vacuum in his diocese and left Catholics who sought education open to proselytism, particularly in Connemara. The Society for Irish Church Missions to Roman Catholics was founded in 1846 with the aim of converting Irish Catholics to the Anglican faith. Its work during the famine led to resentment of the organisation and in popular memory the ‘Soupers’ became notorious for attempting to convert the starving with the promise of food. They primarily focussed their missionary work in the two poorest regions of Ireland, the slums of Dublin and the impoverished region of Connemara in the west of County Galway. The Society undertook what Miriam Moffit has described as ‘an ambitious and aggressive proselytizing campaign in Famine-ravaged west Galway in 1846.’[10] She states that ‘The starving poor of Connemara, anxious for food and education, flocked to the mission’s schools and services.’[11] In the early 1850s MacHale played down the scale of proselytising activity in the area, but it was to provide further grounds for conflict between him and Cullen as Cullen criticised his inaction in dealing with the issue. Cullen wrote regularly to Rome outlining what he believed to be MacHale’s failure to stem the tide of missionary activity. Moffit claims that by the end of the 1850s not only had Cullen achieved supremacy over MacHale but the threat posed by the missionaries had receded and in areas where Catholic Schools were built attendance at Mission schools fell sharply.[12]

Cullen and MacHale also opposed the establishment of the non-denominational Queens Colleges in the 1840s and their attempt to establish the Catholic University in opposition lead to conflict between the two and the end of their alliance.  Education continued to be a live issue throughout MacHale’s life and a letter from him in the Tuam News of 10 November 1871 carried instructions to clergy on the issue. It stated:

The question of the education of the Catholic youth in Ireland under the hallowed guardianship of religion has been at length felt by all classes to be one of vital importance, arraying as it has done, in opposing and determined ranks, the patrons of exclusive secular instruction on one side, and the champions of the denominational education of the Catholic Church on the other.[13]

Stating there was no room for neutrality in the issue MacHale called on priests and people to oppose ‘a system of alien and unchristian education’ and that ‘those who are not zealously in favour of the true faith should be ranked among its enemies.’[14] However, while MacHale had been central to preventing the establishment of a purely secular system, his continued opposition to the National Schools ignored the fact that as a result of his actions the Catholic Church had succeeded in increasing their level of control of the National schools over the course of the Nineteenth Century.

While the system continued to be nominally religiously mixed by the mid-nineteenth century only 4% of schools were mixed. The Catholic Church brought pressure on the government to regularise this and recognise the denominational nature of education which had sprung up. The Church made representations to the Government through the Powis Commission in 1870 and again in the1890s and while the government accepted the reality of denominational education they were slow to make official a denominational system which excluded those who were not of the main religious faiths.[15]

Public Opposition to Proselytism and Secular Education

While it seems the church hierarchy had an obsession with education throughout the nineteenth century and saw it central to their role in society it does not mean that rank and file Catholics did not come to adopt their attitudes. The Clifden Disturbances were a series of events which erupted in Connemara, part of the archdiocese of Tuam, in 1879, the same year as both the Knock Apparition and the outbreak of the Land War. This series of events took as a starting point an altercation between a Catholic priest, Fr. William Rhatigan and a Scripture reader for the Society of Irish Church Missions, William MacNiece on 28 February 1879. (MacNiece was, coincidentally, Grandfather to the poet Louis MacNiece). Some of the incidents which took place were minor and involved such activities as the destruction of turf belonging to Protestant converts, but, other more significant acts involved the burning of mission schoolhouses, and a mob assaulted MacNiece and his armed police escort. The irony here was that those who attended the mission schools were primarily Protestant with Catholics utilising the local National School.

In 1879 education was a live issue which occupied a vast amount of space in newsprint. In reviewing newspapers of the era, apart from the land issue, it was the domestic concern which seems to have most occupied editors and, presumably, their readers. Particular emphasis was placed on the question of denominational versus secular education. The feeling of many in the Catholic hierarchy on the question of education was summed by Archbishop Croke of Cashel when he said:

A school is obviously not a good school if it ostentatiously or otherwise prefers the less to the more important concern; if it crams a child with knowledge of things regarding this world, and gives not so much as a crumb of information bearing on to the world to come, or if it rewards a pupil for advances in secular sciences and cares not a pin’s point for proficiency in religious matters.[16]

The question of denominational versus national education was to manifest itself in a rather peculiar way in 1879 in Mallow, Co. Cork, when the diocese there moved to transfer four Christian Brother schools in the town to the National System. The result was that a mob assembled and took control of the schools and a public spat, every bit as visible as that in Connemara, took place between the parishioners and the clergy. These incidents led to twenty people being charged with ‘wrecking’ the schools.[17] The diocese claimed that their objections to the Christian Brothers running the schools related to a number of practical matters but the reaction of the people on the issue shows that it was not always the clergy who led the people on the issue of education.

A much more protracted dispute was the ‘Callan Schools Affair’ which Colin Barr has stated ran from 1868-81. The dispute began as a conflict between the Parish Priest of Callan, Co. Kilkenny, Robert O’Keefe and Bishop Edward Walsh. It led to O’Keefe taking legal action against Paul Cullen for libel and became a cause celebre in the conflict between supporters of Church authority and those who felt it had no right to interfere in civil and governmental affairs. O’Keefe was suspended for defying orders, and suing a bishop, and when the Church attempted to remove him from his role in the local national school system it was seen by some as interference in the civil process.  It lead to local animosity but O’Keefe attracted considerable support from those, including liberals and unionists, who sought to limit Papal interference in civil matters. For many Catholics, however, it represented yet another attempt by the British to undermine the Church.[18]

The Formalisation of Denominational Education

As highlighted above, the Catholic Church in Ireland consolidated its position throughout the nineteenth century and particularly after the Famine. Devotion was more regularised, power was more centralised, and the clergy were more deferential. Moreover, it had nurtured a situation where Catholicism became an essential element of Irish identity. Irish people had aired grievances throughout the nineteenth century and the Church had often shown sympathy, but it was concerned primarily with its own situation and sought to prevent any undermining of its authority. In particular, it focused its energies on the field of education and saw the growth of secularism as a threat.

At the foundation of the Irish Free State no major changes were made to the manner in which schools were run or administered, although a series of measures placed religious education at the heart of the curriculum. However, the publication of new Rules for primary schools in 1965 and the introduction of a new curriculum in 1971 cemented the denominational nature of schools.[19] These measures however, merely built upon the developments of the nineteenth century. Attempts to establish interdenominational education had not been able to withstand religious opposition and, through the system of patronage established, the system was ripe for a religious takeover. The growth of the social power of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century was widely supported by their congregation and Catholics themselves often actively supported denominational education. This situation also found acceptance in the newly independent Ireland but has failed to adapt to the realities of twenty-first century Irish society.


[1] Department of Education and Skills website, accessed 02/02/17

[2] Bernard O’Reilly, John MacHale, Archbishop of Tuam: His Life Times and Correspondence (2 vols, New York, 1890) ii, 414-5.

[3] Tuam News, 10 November 1871.

[4] Emmet Larkin, The Making of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, 1850-60 (Chapel Hill, 1980), p. 202.

[5] Ibid., 1850-60, p. 99.

[6] Colin Barr,  Catholic University of Ireland p. 11

[7] Kenneth Milne, ‘National Schools’, Oxford Companion to Irish History, ed. S.J Connolly, 2nd edition, Oxford, 2002.

[8] Ulick Bourke, Archbishop John MacHale p. 105.

[9] O’Reilly, John MacHale, i, p. 421.

[10] Miriam Moffit The conversion of Connemara and conflict between Paul Cullen and John MacHale p. 231

[11] Moffit Cullen and MacHale p. 232

[12] Moffit Cullen and MacHale p. 240

[13] Tuam News, 10 November 1871

[14] Tuam News 10 November 1871

[15]Áine Hyland, ‘The Multi-Denominational Experience, Irish Educational Studies, 8, 1:1 Accessed 13 February 2017

[16] The Nation 10 May 1879

[17] The Nation 12, 19, 26 April, 3, 10 May

[18] Colin Barr The European Culture Wars in Ireland: The Callan Schools Affair, 1868-81, Dublin, 2010

[19] Áine Hyland, ‘The Multi-Denominational Experience’, Irish Educational Studies, 8, 1:1


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