Do Australian Catholic schools have an Irish history?

By Eoin De Bhaldraithe OCist

Eoin De Bhaldraithe OCist, Bolton Abbey, Co. Kildare, Ireland, explores the history of the separation of Catholic schools from the state system in Ireland and how this may have influenced the history of Australian catholic schools.

In the volume of The Swag for Summer 2021, a writer states that ‘the epicentre of evangelisation has moved from the parish to the schools’. Perhaps, he says, ‘the epicentre has always been in the schools’. Here I would like to offer a short history of schools in Ireland from which the Australian schools have descended.

In 1831 the government took the matter in hand. Edward Stanley was the Chief Secretary for Ireland and would later be Prime Minister as 14th Earl of Derby. This was some thirty years before similar legislation was passed in England. Stanley explained that the practice of reading the scriptures without note or comment was obnoxious to Catholics. The aim of the new education will be ‘to unite in one system children of different creeds’.

Marist College Ashgrove, msa.edu.au

The two archbishops of Dublin agreed to sit on the Board and they were to be the pillars of the system. On the day the schools opened, a ‘lesson’ was displayed which was to be taught in every school; it was composed by Richard Whatley, the Church of Ireland Archbishop. James Doyle, Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin (JKL) was pleased with Whatley’s ‘Lesson’ and commended it to his clergy in a circular as the schools began in 1831. Later Doyle spoke as follows: I do not see how any man can think that peace can be permanently established, if children are separated at the commencement of life on account of their religious opinions.

That was how he saw it from a political point of view. Then he deals with the effect of separation on the children themselves:

I do not know of any measures that would prepare the way for better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age, and bringing them up in the same school, leading them to commune with one another and to form those little intimacies and friendships which subsist through life. Children thus united know and love each other, as children brought up together always will, and to separate them is I think, to destroy some of the finest feelings in the hearts of men.

Doyle believes that the separation of children is against the very order of nature. When we read those words it is surprising how far we have departed from his ideals. These are words ‘that will not go away’, they remain as a judgement upon us today.

The National Board of Education

We have a good account of how the commissioners worked together. Whatley wrote Lessons on the truth of Christianity. Murray, bound by his magisterium, objected to the first two chapters. Rev James Carlisle, the Presbyterian on the Commission, took it in hand and produced a new edition that won the approbation of Murray. It is very likely that as they met regularly, they grew more closely together as we see happening in ecumenical meetings in our own day. Carlisle argued for an undefined general Christianity and so could not be accused of being sectarian. It was then published by the Commission and could be used in all schools. Next, they published Scripture Lessons. It comprised four volumes and could be used for common religious education. In many respects the work was simply an edition of the Bible with the confusion removed. It was almost complete agreement on the whole of Christian doctrine and taught to Catholic and Protestant children together even in ‘Protestant Ulster’. The books were of high quality, were popular around the Empire and in 1861 were the most widely used school books in England.

Marist College Canberra

Irish people educated before 1960 will have heard strong statements about the impossibility of a ‘common denominator Christianity’; yet here it was: begun in the 1830s and abolished in the 1860s!

Archbishop Murray of Dublin put great pressure on Edmund Rice to get the Christian Brothers to join the national system, and was very angry when Rice refused to do so. Among other things they objected to the Model Schools which were for teacher training.

Enter Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen was born in Prospect in Co. Kildare. His father was friendly with the Quakers in Ballitore, so Paul had to walk a mile to get to school. There he learnt the elements of Latin and Greek as the Quaker ideal was to get pupils to the stage of being able to read the New Testament in Greek.

In 1850 he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh but two years later came to the much more important See of Dublin. He reacted against common education when he came to Dublin and he also opposed government plans for universities in Dublin, Cork and Galway, calling them ‘godless colleges’. He openly stated his objection to the Scripture Lessons and to Evidence of Christianity in a pastoral just one year after he came to Dublin. He put pressure on Whatley who felt himself constrained to resign from the Education Board,

Separation of the schools

An all-out attack on the Model Schools was begun in 1862. The new policy is best seen in his attack on the Model School in Athy about five miles from where Cullen was taught alongside many Protestants in Ballytore. The Brothers and Sisters of Mercy were dispatched to counteract the School. Cullen imposed a ban of excommunication on any Catholic who sent children there and was soon able to announce that not a single Catholic remained in the School. In fact, this discredited all the Model Schools.

To help us to grasp the extent of the change involved, we may remember that Murray told a government inquiry that there could be no possible objection to a Protestant teaching secular literature to Catholic and Protestant children together. Later Cullen was to say that ‘keeping company continually with Protestant children and teachers [weakened] the faith of the Catholic child’. Joseph Doyle has detailed, blow for blow, how Cullen broke down the National system and obtained almost a full denominational system. Here I will comment on just one point.

Ten or fifteen years ago the British Government tried to get the Catholics in Belfast to agree to have the two teacher training colleges on the same campus. It seemed to be an obvious economy for any government and yet the Catholics were able to thwart the plan.

Apparently, Cullen’s fear of contamination by contact with Protestants was still alive and well.

By this time the proselytising campaign in the West of Ireland had made many converts. It is generally agreed that at least 5,000 native speakers were converted in Connemara. It was open territory as there were no National Schools there. This was the main factor in turning Cullen against any kind of contact with Protestant teachers. Desmond Bowen, a Canadian clergyman (Anglican) came over to investigate it all and left us the remarkable book, Souperism: Myth or Reality dealing mainly with counties Galway and Mayo but also telling how JKL began his campaign of ‘hatred of tithes’ in his parish of Graiguenamanach. This was followed more recently by Soupers and Jumpers, an astonishing account of what happened when Archbishop McEvilly began the fightback in Connemara.

When George Mitchell and his international team came to negotiate the Belfast Agreement, their first report claimed that the arms possessed by each community in Northern Ireland were only ‘a symptom of a larger problem: the absence of trust’. Many people came to tell the commission why the other side could not be trusted, and for this they used ‘arguments steeped in history’.

One Sunday morning in 2010, I took the risk of walking up the Shankhill and down the Falls Road. Later, I had a dream that I was accompanied by JKL. I showed him the huge iron gate at the bottom of the Shankhill, which we call the ‘peaceline’. It was still closed at weekends. I reminded him of his words on separate education. He said that he foresaw the difficulties but he never thought that separation could be so complete and thorough. His advice, of course, was that we must get back to the joint education of the early days.

Of this the School in Athy remains a model of what should have been for the whole country.

From The Swag, magazine of the Australian Council of Priests, with permission.