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The historical legacy of education in Ireland

It is important to reflect on the history of Irish education, in order to understand how it affects us today, and to see how it can inform the future development of education in Ireland.

It is evident that, throughout history, education has always been important to Irish people. I have been reflecting on the illegal Hedge Schools that were founded to combat the Penal Laws, and provide education to children of non-confirming faiths. People at the time recognised the great importance of education. Looking back on it now, we can see that the Hedge Schools were an important factor in the survival of Irish cultural identity. As Akenson says, by “preserving some semblance of learning [they] could preserve themselves from cultural extinction”.

Hedge School in Ireland. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Education of girls in 18th century Ireland

In 2019, the Department of Education and Skills reported that over 90% of schools were under were under Catholic patronage. As a society, engagement with the Catholic church has lessened, yet one of the major institutions of our society is still very much connected with the church. I attended an all-girls convent school and, as such, I am interested in looking at the role that these schools have played in society with respect to the education of girls.

Throughout the development of Irish education in the 17th and 18th centuries, students experienced a gendered curriculum at school. This was largely due to education being seen purely as a means to a vocation. As girls were more likely to marry and raise children, and boys were likely to go into trades or into agricultural work, they did not receive the same education.

In 1775, the pioneering Irish nun Honora ‘Nano’ Nagle founded an Irish congregation devoted to the education of the poor. Early critics of girls education in Ireland criticised the emphasis on needlework and other, more domestic, skills. It was seen that their education lacked the rigour and status of male education. However, at the Presentation schools, the girls learned industrial skills so that they would have the ability to earn an income, in addition to reading and writing.

Nano Nagle. Source:

Establishment of the national school system

The Presentation Sisters went on to play a crucial role in the provision of education to Catholic girls prior to the establishment of the national system. With the implementation of this state-funded education system in 1831, education for Irish girls continued to develop significantly.

The first national school system in Ireland was established in order "to unite in one system children of different creeds". However, it was used as a means for religious denominations to grow their base in Ireland. At this time, the Catholic Church positioned itself as a partner of the state, in the establishment of schools. Today, the Catholic Church continues to be the dominant patron body of Irish schools, with over 90% of schools under Catholic patronage as of 2019.

Teachers and pupils of Rathgormack National School. Circa 1910. Source:

Development of the teaching of Irish language

This new national system of education placed no particular emphasis on Irish language or culture. As a result, it was heavily criticised for its part in neglecting the Irish language. In fact, Coolahan identifies the national school system as being an important factor in the decline of the Irish language.

With the introduction of the Intermediate Education Act, the Irish language became officially recognised by the education system. However it was still a periphery subject and it was not until 1900 that it could be taught during school hours.

In 1934, the Department of Education made immersion education compulsory. The State considered the anglicising policy in primary schools to be the cause of the decline in the Irish language. As such, it placed the burdened on restoring it in society on primary schools. Durkheim believes schools to be a key place for the transmission of culture. For a newly formed Free State, cultural identity was a high priority to be addressed. Chief executive officer for education in the Cumann na nGaedheal, Pádraig Ó Brolcháin said they would strengthen the “national fibre by giving the language, history, music and tradition of Ireland, their natural place in the life of Irish schools”. However, the teachers at the time were not equipped with the levels of fluency required for this immersion. As a result, teacher training colleges began promoting a high competency and proficiency in the Irish language.

Primary schools are still a key promoter of the Irish language today. 1934, and the beginning of Department of Education’s conceited efforts to make Irish an important part of the curriculum, is only in our recent history. Throughout Irish history the Irish language has received stigma and persecution. Reflecting on this helps to understand what informs present day attitudes to it. The teaching of Irish has greatly improved since my time in school, and it continues to do so. However, many parents and grandparents of our students will have experienced sub-standard Irish language education. I believe this contributes to the negative attitude towards it in popular society. As teachers, we are responsible for developing a ‘grá’ of the language in new generations of Irish citizens. With that, society can move past the historical legacies and continue to embed the Irish language as part of modern Ireland.

Source: YouTube | Title: 'Speaking a second language: it's terrifying but wonderful'


I have found that looking at the history of education in Ireland has helped inform my understanding of the role of a teacher. Through examining how the role has evolved, as well as the key part it has played in Irish history, it is evident that teachers are a key part in shaping Ireland’s future. Through history we can see where we have failed, learn from our mistakes and make better judgements in the education of our future generations.


Reference List

Akenson, D.H. (2014). The Irish education experiment : the national system of education in the nineteenth century. London: Routledge.

Buachalla, Séamas Ó (1984). Educational Policy and the Role of the Irish Language from 1831 to 1981. European Journal of Education, [online] 19(1), pp.75–92. Available at: [Accessed 19 Mar. 2019].

Coolahan, J. (2012). Irish education its history and structure. Dublin Inst. Of Public Administration.

Department of Education and Skills. (n.d). Diversity of Patronage. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 May. 2020].

Durkheim, E. (2011). Moral education : a study in the theory and application of the sociology of education. Whitefish] Literary Licensing.

Hatfield, M. and O’Neill, C. (2018). Education and Empowerment: Cosmopolitan Education and Irish Women in the Early Nineteenth Century. Gender & History, 30(1), pp.93–109.

Ó Ceallaigh, T.J. and Ní Dhonnabháin, A. (2015). Reawakening the Irish Language through the Irish Education System: Challenges and Priorities. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education. 8(2):179-198

Ó Brolcháin, P. 1922. INTO (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation), Irish School Weekly, February 11,p.127. Available from the INTO Archives.

‌Raftery, D., Harford, J. and Parkes, S.M. (2010). Mapping the terrain of female education in Ireland, 1830–1910. Gender and Education, 22(5), pp.565–578.

Raftery, D., Delaney, C. and Bennett, D. (2018). The legacy of a pioneer of female education in Ireland: tercentennial considerations of Nano Nagle and Presentation schooling. History of Education, 48(2), pp.197–211.

Stanley, E. (1831). A 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. Available at: [Accessed 29 May. 2020].

Wall, M. 1969. The decline of the Irish language. IN: Ó Cuiv, B. (ed). A view of the Irish language. Dublin: Stationery Office, pp. 81-90.

Walsh, T. (2016). The National System of Education, 1831–2000. Essays in the History of Irish Education, [online] pp.7–43. Available at:


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