Girls and Boys…  (Heritage Week 2016 Series)

This is the sixth in the series of daily posts to the Disused School Houses blog to mark National Heritage Week 2016 (August 20th- 28th). Heritage Week is a multifaceted event coordinated by The Heritage Council that aims to aid awareness and education about our heritage, and thereby encouraging its conservation and preservation.

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. – Winston Churchill

With the establishment of the Nationals Schools Act in 1831, there was an upsurge in the construction of school buildings across Ireland. I touched on this briefly a few weeks ago with a few paragraphs explaining why I think there are so many abandoned national schools scattered across the rural Irish landscape. Of course there were plenty of school buildings in Ireland prior to the 1831 Act, but after 1831, and particularly from the latter part of the 19th century onward, many school buildings were constructed to a standard design by the Office of Public Works (OPW). The architecture of these buildings reflect many of the social paradigms of the 19th and 20th century, and below I have included some brief notes relating to segregation by gender, the accepted canon in the majority of national schools in Ireland through this time.

Where resources and architecture allowed, multi-room school buildings generally divided their pupils, initially by age (with infant girls and boys being taught together), before the older school children were divided by sex. Where possible, girls and boys were taught in separate classrooms, or even separate school buildings.

The gender-segregated nature of many Irish schools is part of the legacy of the denominational origin and control of education since the 19th century. However, even today, Ireland is unusual in a European Context in that a large number of schools are still single-sex institutions at both primary and second level (42% of second level students attend single-sex schools, the majority of these being girls (Lynch 2004, 84).

In terms of extra-curricular activities in the past, music and arts were traditionally encouraged to a greater degree in single sex girls’ schools, while sports (particularly field and contact sports) were of greater importance in boys’ schools. (Ibid., 85). However, even before looking at the differences in how girls and boys were educated in Irish national schools in the past, gender segregation it is often immediately obvious and reflected in many of the OPW’s ‘to standard’ designs of the period.

It was not uncommon for many schools to have separate doors, or even separate schoolyard entrances for boys and girls. Often, a plaque over the doorway identified the boys’ and girls’ doorways. Where there were separate entrances, more often than not there were separate cloakrooms inside.

Esker More National School Co. Offaly 1963

The schoolyard further enforced gender segregation, with a dividing wall often running down the centre of the play area to ensure that boys and girls would not mix during lunch times.

Affane-Sluggara National School, Co. Waterford - Segregated schoolyard

Within the building, older girls and boys were taught in separate classrooms. If the building did not have multiple classrooms, often a folding screen divided a single classroom.

Laughil, Co. Longford 1937 Classroom

It is worth bearing in mind that these architectural features were only a reflection of the differing education received by boys and girls. For boys, the turn of the 20th century saw the introduction of a dramatically different programme and a modern approach to national school education”. In addition to the ‘three R’s’, inspectors’ reports draw attention to the additional subjects taught – physical drill, drawing, object lessons, singing, geography, grammar, history, shorthand, and book keeping (Coolahan 1981, 100).

For girls, the intensive syllabi of instruction included cookery and laundry lessons for the older girls from 1910 to 1922. Inspectors checked the cookery and laundry rolls, and usually made a note of the number of lessons given e.g. These classes were discontinued after 1922, when – under the newly-established Irish government – curricular emphasis changed in favour of the teaching of Irish language. Notes from an inspection at Labasheeda National School in Co. Clare include some of the following observations:

“I am glad to see a number of big boys attending and learning useful additional subjects such as shorthand and book keeping” (F. M. Hollins, 8th February 1911).

The Observation Book for the girls school refers to cookery & laundry, needlework, singing, geography, history and drawing, as well as the ‘three R.s’. The last comment relating to needlework was written in the Observation Book during the general inspection of 18th September 1914 by F. M. Hollins:

“Needlework was satisfactory, all suggestions have received attention”.

There was a shift in emphasis in the 1960s from education as being a social expenditure to one of investment in the individual and society as a whole, and an economic boom, facilitated increased investment and interest in education. Increased contact with organisations such as the UN, UNESCO and the OECD removed the insularity that had characterised Irish educational policy since the 1920s. and facilitated a growing realisation of the need to invest in education for Ireland to compete on an increasingly international stage. However, although gender-segregation is much less common today the architecture of many school buildings which are still in use, still reflected the former division. Certainly, the majority of the schools that I have photographed echo the past paradigm of firm gender segregation. Now seen as archaic and out-dated, was there ever any merit to this canon, or was it simply another reflection of denominational control of the Irish Education system through the decades and centuries. I’d love to hear your opinions.



Coolahan, J. (1973). A Study of Curricular Policy for the Primary and Secondary Schools of Ireland 1900-1935, with Special Reference to the Irish Language and Irish History.

Coolahan, J. (1981) Irish Education: its History and Structure

Lynch, K. (2004) Equality and Power in Schools: Redistribution, Recognition and Representation







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