This is the second 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.
Twenty-Sixteen marks the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland. The 1916 Rising represented the first ‘major ‘ demonstration of force since the United Irishmen’s Rising of 1798. Already this year there have been many events across the country to commemorate the centenary.
However, this blog post is not so much concerned with the political wranglings and social upheaval during the period. Instead, I would like to take a brief look at the national school system and what everyday school life was like in Ireland in and around the turn of the 20th century.
During the drawn-out process of establishing the Irish State in the early decades of the 20th Century, the government of the time inherited an already established primary education system. The Education Act of 1831 established the Board of National Education, and approval was given for a national system of education in every part of Ireland, partially paid for by the state. The role of the National Board was originally regarded as supplementary, providing inspection, approval, training, additions to salaries, and cheap books and requisites. It was hoped that in a given district the local gentlemen, businessmen, and clergy would not only provide the buildings, but would also partially pay the teachers, raise money for school perquisites, but also devise courses suitable for local needs.
According to the 1831 Act, he two legal pillars of the National School system were to be (i) children of all religious denominations to be taught together in the same school, with (ii) separate religious instruction. There was to be no hint of proselytism in this new school system. The new system, initially well supported by the religious denominations, quickly lost support of the Churches. However, the population showed great enthusiasm and flocked to attend these new National Schools.
In the second half of the 19th century, first the Catholic Church, and later the Protestant churches conceded to the state, and accepted the “all religious denominations together” legal position. Where possible, parents sent their children of a National School under the local management of their particular Church. The result was that by the end of the 19th century, the system had become increasingly denominational, with individuals choosing to attend schools primarily catering to children of their own religion. However, the legal position de jure, that all national schools are multi-denominational, remains to this day though in actuality, the system unfortunately functions much like a state – sponsored, church – controlled arrangement (this is an argument for another day).
The number of schools was not static. In 1899 there were 8,670 schools in operation under the Board. Today that figure is approximately 3160, less than half of what it was over one hundred years previous. Up until the 1950s, small multi-grade schools continued to be established throughout Ireland as part of the education infrastructure. But with an improvement in rural transport and the growing availability and popularity of motor cars, the need for small local schools that children could walk to was lessened, and larger schools covering greater catchment areas were favoured. During the period 1966-73, the number of one and two teacher schools was reduced by c.1,100. For this reason, small one and two room abandoned school houses are almost ubiquitous across the rural Irish landscape.