Is education a weapon of ideology?

In the last few years there has been an ongoing debate surrounding the nature and direction that our state run primary school system should go. Many people are calling for the continuation of a denominational nature, and as faiths that are relatively new to Ireland continue to grow, there are different types of national schools being opened and encouraged. The opposing side of this debate argue that education should be multidenominational, and the Educate Together system should be encouraged. Add to this a push for the establishment of more Irish speaking Gaelscoileanna, and the education debate in Ireland seems to be a complex issue, often played out in local areas.

In my own local area, Firhouse, the debate played itself out in the last year. There was a proposal for the building of two primary schools, a Gaelscoil and an Educate Together school, right beside each other. The proposals were heavily opposed, and have been postponed. While there is a demand for education in the area, the other question asked was is it necessary to build two schools with different ethos literally in the same field. Is it therefore appropriate to suggest that the building of schools adjacent to each other is a push from different interests to encourage their educational ethos, or alternatively not let the opposing ethos gain advantage in areas. Looking at educational provisions in this way, can this be considered as the use of schools within a wider clash of ideologies in society?

Courtesy of xkcd.

As a historical geographer focused on the origins of the national education system an interesting question that occurs is to see if this is a new question or has it happened before. More precisely have schools with a different ethos opened close to each other as a challenge between ideologies. Well the modern debate centres about the different ethos’s apparent within the national education system. What is interesting to note is that when national education was first introduced in 1831 it was meant to be non-denominational. The principle behind it was that it would unite children of different creeds in the same classroom, and therefore unite the nation. On the introduction of the system Daniel O’Connell said that he ‘looked upon the proposed change as the commencement of a new era in Ireland.’ Within 15 years the national education system was supplying over 3,000 schools and was educating close to 400,000 children in the country.

In practice however, the system was never non-denominational, as from the start it was seen that in most cases schools were attended by children exclusively from one faith. There was also a large element of national schools being established by one denomination, namely Catholics, as it was just a few years after Catholic Emancipation. The establishment of national schools run by the Catholic clergy often occurred in areas with other schools, such as Protestant Scriptural Schools. The result was that some quarters in Ireland saw the national education system as providing Catholics a medium in which to compete with the educational provisions in existence, and thus challenging the various educational ideologies already occurring in the country.

Extract from an interview with Richard Murray, Anglican Dean of Ardagh, 1837.

Perhaps the best example of the building of Catholic run national schools as part of an ideological conflict was on the Island of Achill in Mayo. In 1831 Edward Nagle established a Protestant missionary colony on the Island near the settlement of Dugort, which included a school. The establishment of a proselytising mission created tension between the colonists and the local people. The tension was fanned by the Catholic clergy, including the Archbishop of Tuam John McHale. The clergy commenced a campaign against the mission, which included violent acts against those travelling to the colony.

Extract from an interview with Thomas McNulty, Bible reader at Achill Mission, 1837

A part of this campaign was the building of schools as competition to the colony school. There were four national schools built on the Island, exclusively attended by Catholics. There was one national school built less than a kilometre away from the missionary settlement itself. Edward Nagle continuously complained about the behaviour of the national school masters towards the colonists, and stated that the schools were established with the overt objective of challenging his school, ‘I entertain no doubt upon that [the national schools were set up in opposition], inasmuch as other villages greatly needing schools were left without any.’ This was further seen when the teacher of the Dugort national school was immediately dismissed when he converted to Protestantism.

A map of Dugort, Achill, Co. Mayo, showing the distance of the competing schools.

The building of schools of different ethos in close proximity to each other is far from a new phenomenon. Schools have been, and still are, proposed to be built in such a way that they are in direct competition with schools with different ethos. Is this just a case of supplying diversity to certain localities? Or is it a manifestation of an underlying fear of the different ideologies gaining an advantage over each other? Is this why there have been a disappointing number of Catholic schools which have been slow to shift the patronage of schools towards more diverse ethoses. Extending this, it can be suggested that in the past and in the present, the use of education and schools are an element in the armoury of much wider ideological battles that are occurring within Irish society.

Authored by Kevin Lougheed, PhD student, Geography Department, TCD


One thought on “Is education a weapon of ideology?

  1. I’m interested in what the opposing ethos’ were in your particular area. As far as I’m aware both Firhouse Educate Together and Gaelscoil na Giúise are multidenominational schools – the as opposed to only Catholic schools already in the area.

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