In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, 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 twentieth century, national school teaching was a lifelong job; the marriage bar was introduced only 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: anyone could open a school and expect a modest income. This work was considered suitable for women, whether single or widowed. If they knew how to read and write, they were considered equipped to teach. Furthermore, the business of education was thriving through the 19th century; 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
The teachers were at first treated and paid like domestic servants or unskilled labourers and they often had to approach the parish priest via the servants’ entrance. Their pay was from the Board minimum, ranging from £5 a year to £16. These low figures can be explained by the informal understanding that, once appointed to a teaching post, a teacher could expect further contributions gifted from local sources. In 1858 the National Board claimed that it was paying 80 per cent of teachers’ salaries, and inspectors told teachers that if they wanted more they should apply to their own managers (i.e. the clergy). This ignored the fact that the manager could dismiss a teacher at a quarter of an hour’s notice. 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.