“We wouldn’t have a health or education system to begin with…”

Some hastily written thoughts on education from 2017… 

Last year a a newspaper published a column in favour of continued state support for church-run institutions, by a lecturer in religion in a teacher training college. The column was headline ‘Church and  casually asserts that ‘as for the contention that there should be no religious involvement in the operations of State services, we wouldn’t have a health service or an education system to begin with if this contention was State policy.’

This idea is rolled out with some regularity, often in debates in public houses, but is it true?

In terms of education the answer is mostly no, at least for the last two-hundred years. Looking back to the nineteenth century and later into the twentieth century, there were notable efforts to improve education provision in Ireland which, more often than not, were fought by the Catholic Church.

While teaching orders such as the Christian Brothers or the Sisters of Charity did indeed run schools, most Irish people were educated by lay teachers. The primary education system today is based on the one set up under British rule in 1831. Established with the intention that schools be non-denominational and were prohibited from teaching religion, the various churches in Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, worked to make sure that this system was inoperable. By the turn of the century almost all primary schools were run under the management of the local parish priest or rector, although staffed by lay teachers who were paid using state funds.

It should be borne in mind that the vast majority of teachers in Catholic schools during the 1800s were untrained and by 1900 barely 50 per cent of national teachers were trained. This was because there was a prohibition on employing teachers who had attended the non-denominational training college in Marlborough Street. In the eyes of the Catholic church, it was preferable to have untrained teachers rather than ones who had been trained in a secular environment. It was only when Catholic run teacher training colleges were established during the 1870s that children attending Catholic schools had the benefit of qualified teachers.

Similarly, the Catholic Church opposed the setting up of University Colleges Cork and Galway (now NUI Galway and University College Cork) along with Queens University Belfast because they were non-denominational. The Catholic Church wanted a Catholic university and Catholics were instructed not to attend these ‘Godless colleges’, lest they pick up any secularism there. Of course, more recently, the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid instructed Catholics in his diocese of the necessity for Catholics to be given a ‘fully Catholic education’ and forbade them from attending Trinity College Dublin, under pain of mortal sin.

Every bit of control which the Catholic Church secured over education was jealously guarded. For decades, the parish priests who managed schools could fire teachers with immediate effect for no reason. Efforts by the Irish National Teachers Organisation to get security of tenure for its members were highly controversial and resulted in the INTO being banned in half the Catholic schools in Ireland at the turn of the 1900s. Again and again, the teachers were accused of trying to push the Church out of education. Notably, all the Church provided here was control – the labour came from the lay teachers the money which paid their wages from the state.

This all pre-dated the creation of the Free State in 1922 and continued thereafter. Contrary to popular liberal opinion, a Catholic curtain did not descend on the south after partition, the existing situation merely ossified. The largely Catholic and very conservative Cumann na nGaedheal government had no interest in interfering with the role played by the Church in running schools and when it came to office, the Fianna Fáil government did likewise.

The state did have a problem, however. It was supposed to pay three-quarters of the costs of running the schools while local contributions would cover the rest. This was often short in economically deprived areas, which meant that in many working class areas of Dublin especially, the schools were cold and squalid. Health officers reported that the insanitary conditions broke health regulations and were likely to cause serious harm to children’s health, but asked again and again by successive governments to pay the money needed for the upkeep of schools, the Catholic church refused. When the INTO suggested that the solution would be for the government to pay the full amount, it was accused of trying to push the Church out of its natural sphere and introduce state socialism. Its attitude towards buildings showed a Church which wanted all of the power without any of the responsibility, and displayed a callous disregard for the welfare of the children and the people who taught them. The issue remained a problem well into the 1950s. The Church protected its role more zealously, in the context of the cold war but also watching the growth of the welfare state in the UK. After it had managed to dispense with the Mother and Child scheme, it continued to fight against full state funding of schools. As Cardinal D’Alton observed it ‘it has long been the considered view of the Bishops that if the building, maintenance, heating and cleaning of the schools were taken out of the hands of the managers, the ownership of the schools by the Church and the right of the managers to appoint and dismiss teachers would also soon be lost.’

For the last two-hundred years, in primary education especially, the state has provided the vast majority of funds and personnel for education. To suggest that we would not have an education system without the work of the Catholic Church is false. Rather, what the Church has tended to do was to demand control of a system but using state funds to run it, wielding power but without living up to its responsibilities.