Women in Irish Education through the 19th and 20th century.

This is a short blog post to mark International Women’s Day, March 8th 2017. It gives an all-too-brief overview of the role of women, both as teachers and pupils in the Irish Education System through the 19th and 20th century.

The history of formal education for Irish women has been characterised by a dichotomy: should a girl be educated for the private sphere and a dutiful subservience, or should she be educated for independent thought and paid employment? Nonetheless, Ireland’s long history of patriarchy is matched by an ongoing evolution of its women’s movements. The first wave of the Irish women’s movement dates from the mid-19th century, with the franchise secured for women in 1918 while still under British colonial rule. First-wave feminists played a role in the nationalist movement, but their demands were later side-lined during the construction of a conservative, Catholic, post-colonial Irish state. In the 1970s, the second wave marked a critical period of radicalism and consolidation, with important gains on issues of violence against women and women’s reproductive rights.

Whiddy Island National School, Co. Cork c.1930 – male teacher and female teaching assistant 

Through this time however, professional opportunities for women were, realistically, greatly restricted. Nonetheless, Irish girls and women of all social classes, were leaving home to take part in public life – work, schooling, buying and selling, activism and entertainment. National school teaching was considered a great career opportunity for girls from skilled working-class and small-farming backgrounds in Ireland. On-the-job training was sometimes paid, and scholarships were increasingly available. Thus, the burden on low-income parents was bearable.

Unlike other positions in the Civil Service at the turn of the 20th century, National school teaching was a lifelong job; the marriage bar was only introduced in 1933 for those qualifying on or after that date. At this time, the National Board put great emphasis on teacher training; Ireland was not short of teachers or schools as anyone could open a school and expect a modest income. The figures below indicate the exponential growth in the opening of national Schools through the 1830s and 1840s in Ireland:

Year             No. of Schools in Operation
1833             789
1835             1106
1839             1581
1845             3426
1849             4321

This work was considered suitable for women whether spinsters or widows. If they knew how to read and write, they were considered equipped to teach.

The teachers were at first treated and paid like domestic servants or unskilled labours and they had to approach the parish clergyman by the servants’ entrance. Their teachers’ pay was from the Board minimum, ranging from £5 a year to £16. These low figures can be explained by the supposition that at least half the teacher’s salary would be paid from local sources. In 1858 the National Board claimed that it was paying 80% of teachers’ salaries, and an inspectors told teachers that if they wanted more they should apply to their own managers. This ignored the fact that the manager could dismiss a teacher at a quarter of an hour’s notice (National Teacher 18 May 1900). It was recognised on all sides that teachers would have to supplement the basic allowance. Predictably, all this was blamed on the Government, not the local managers i.e. the clergy.

In Second Level Education, the standards of education in boys and girls secondary schools rose in the second half of the 19th century especially after the passing of the Intermediate Education Act (1878) and the admission of women to universities following the opening of the Royal University in 1880. So by 1900 candidates for teacher training would have passed the Intermediate Leaving Certificate at about the same standard of university matriculation. By 1900 half the newly appointed teachers had been to a training college; the other half had been monitors or pupil teachers. The latter could normally be only assistant teachers, though in a two-teacher school that was an important office, often involving teaching all the girls (Irish Teachers’ Journal 20 Oct. 1900).

However, as with most systems and institutions in Ireland through the 19th and 20th century, the Church were dominant and controlling. The Catholic bishops refused to accept a training college not controlled by themselves with the result that in 1900, seventy years after the National School system was established, only 48% of the national teachers had received any formal training (Church of Ireland Gazette 24 Aug. 1900). As early as 1856 the Sisters of Mercy in Baggot Street, Dublin, made efforts to give short courses to women teachers, but the six-month course was dismissed by the Powis Commission on Education as totally inadequate. In 1870 it recommended the allocation of public money towards private (denominational) training colleges. In 1883 St Patrick’s Training College for men and Our Lady of Mercy Training College for women were opened and recognised, but had to support themselves. Government assistance was allowed in 1890 (Warder 24 May 1902).

By the 1950s, female teachers out-numbered male teachers 2:1. All this time, and into almost the present day, pay for teaching was not equal between women and men. The extracts below from the 1949-50 Department of Education Statistical Report show the great discrepancies between the salary of a male teacher and a female teacher (note the absence of a salary for a married ‘Woman teacher’ – at this time, women who worked in the Civil Service were required to leave work after marriage):

Through the 19th and 20th century all primary schools were church-run. The overwhelming majority were managed by the Catholic parish priest, the rest by the local Church of Ireland parish. Successive education ministers reiterated their support for, indeed insistence on, church control of education. This ‘Catholic ethos’ had a dreadful impact on the education of girls. Only a tiny layer of girls were allowed to aim for higher education. Most were taught to read and write, sew, cook and pray. Women were educated to be wives and mothers. This education began from the day they started school. As late as 1985 the curriculum at primary level stated that:

Separate arrangements in movement training may be made for boys and girls. Boys can now acquire skills and techniques and girls often become more aware of style and grace…while a large number of songs are suited to boys, for example, martial, gay, humorous, rhythmic airs. Others are more suited to girls, for example, lullabies, spinning songs, songs tender in content and expression

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