Riches of Clare: Erasmus Smith Medals

Clare Champion, Friday, September 20, 2002

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the Clare Museum charts the county's history over 6,000 years using authentic artifacts. Here Tomas Mac Conmara tells the story of the Erasmus Smith medals…

These silver and gold plated Erasmus Smith medals were awarded to FCW Griffith and Gideon De A W Griffith, pupils at Ennis Grammar School in 1888. We know nothing of the two Griffith boys who were awarded these medals, but much is known of the man these medals were named after and the impact he had on education in Ireland

Erasmus Smith was born in Leicestershire in 1611. An alderman of the City of London, he became an army contractor in 1650 at the height of the Cromwellian wars (1649-53) in both Scotland and Ireland. As a member of the Company of Grocers and a trader he supplied the Cromwellian army with cheese, oats and flour. Like many others like him, Smith was awarded land in Ireland under the Settlement of Ireland Act of 1653. He expanded his holdings and eventually held estates in counties Limerick, Tipperary, Galway, Sligo, Louth, Westmeath and Dublin.

Unlike his counterparts who exploited the native population, Smith was driven by his Christian ideals and the belief that ignorance made the Irish unruly. It was with these motives that in 1669 he founded The Erasmus Smith Trust, confirmed by Charter of Charles II, which appointed, "governors of the schools founded by Erasmus Smith Esq".

According to the Erasmus Smith Archive in Dublin, the Charter states that there should be 32 Governors, including several bishops and archbishops and the Provost of Trinity College Dublin. Their task was to use the money raised from the estates to establish five grammar schools and schools for the children of tenants of the estates. Revenue was also put to other charitable uses including scholarships to Trinity College Dublin. Thanks to the trust, grammar schools were established in Tipperary, Galway, Drogheda and Ennis. In addition to the children of tenants on Smith's estates, 20 poor children could also be admitted. These schools promoted the British government's policy of converting the Irish population to the reformed faith, and Catholics were encouraged to attend these schools but were required to receive instruction in the Doctrines of the Established Faith.

In terms of subjects taught, the emphasis was placed on the teaching of Latin, Greek and French grammar as well as algebra, arithmetic and literature. The children of the poor tenants were provided with at least the rudiments of reading, writing and counting. The scope of the trust was extended in 1723 and over 200 "English Schools" or "Erasmus Smith Schools" were developed in each of the 32 counties. The first of these was in Valentia Island, Co. Kerry and the last was in Ardee, Co. Louth.

Ennis Grammar School was established at College Road in 1773 at the cost of £1200, and the fine Georgian building can still be seen there today. The various land acts of the 1880's hit the mainly Protestant patrons of these schools hard and a number of them closed, including Ennis in 1890 when the Ordnance Survey took it over. Indeed, a large amount of the Governors estates transferred ownership following the Irish Land Commission, and other parts were sold off in the Twentieth Century.

In its short existence, Ennis Grammar School educated many later prominent Clare people who went on to contribute to society in Ireland and overseas. One such example was "Honest" Tom Steele, who was educated at the School and later graduated from Trinity College Dublin, thanks to an Erasmus Smith scholarship, as did many of his classmates. "Honest" Tom is just one of thousands who profited from the generosity of Erasmus Smith, who died in 1691.

View the Erasmus Smith Medals

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