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Education in Clare by Joe Power

Ireland in olden times was known as the land of saints and scholars. Whatever about saints, Co. Clare has produced more than its fair share of scholars and Clare has been prominent in many educational developments. Over many centuries great changes have taken place in education at primary and post-primary levels, and today education is available to all. In earlier times, however, education was reserved for a very privileged minority who could afford to pay for it. In pre-Christian times the Druids and Fili had enormous power in Celtic society. Their power derived from the knowledge they possessed. All their lore was committed to memory. By recitations and incantations the Druids exercised their authority and they were feared and respected. One early manuscript records how 'Trad, son of Tassach, by his craft of druidical enchantment, banished his father-in-law Daelbeth out of the land of Tradraí.'

During the Middle Ages education was in the hands of the religious orders. The monks, nuns, friars, and cannons of the various religious communities of Clare provided a scholastic type of education at such places as Ennis Abbey, which had a school for Franciscan novices as early as 1375. Large numbers of scholars attended Franciscan schools in Ennis and Quin Abbeys. According to McCurtain, upwards of 600 scholars, many from France and Spain, studied at Ennis in the 14th century. The Augustinian Canons of Clare Abbey also catered for the education of young men. The Cistercians of Corcomroe Abbey were also great teachers. One important medieval documents relating to Clare is the 'Caithréim Toirdealbhaigh' (The Wars of Turlough). This manuscript was written by John Mac Rory McGrath probably between 1345 and 1360. He may have been a member of the distinguished ecclesiastical family who provided several abbots of Clare and Bishops of Killaloe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Significantly, Fr. Michael O Cleirigh, one of the compilers of the 'Annals of the Four Masters', spent some time at Ennis Friary, copying and studying records. During his time in Clare he consulted Conor Mac Bruodin about the history of Ireland. The educational function of the friars was terminated abruptly with the Reformation and suppression of the monasteries in the 16th century.

Brehan and Fili

Outside of the Church there was an older knowledge which was jealously guarded by its owners. In Gaelic society some of the most learned men were the brehans and fili; historians and physicians. The knowledge of these wise men was usually inherited from their fathers. The O Dálaigh kept a school of history and poetry at Finnavara near Ballyvaughan in the 13th century. Michael Keating, one of the Four Masters, recorded that John O Maelcoury, one of the O'Mulconrys of Ardkyle near Sixmilebridge, was the chief teacher in history of all the men in Erin in his time. He lived from 1600-1660 and was Árd Ollamh of Erin. The O'Davorens were renowned as Brehans and their law school at Cahermacnaghten was widely known. Séamus Mac Firbhis, the most learned authority on Brehan law, attended this school in the 16th century. The Mac Clancy's of Kilfenora were Brehans and Ollamhs for the Uí Briain, kings of Thomond, while the Mac Bruodin, who lived near Mount Callan, were historians for the Uí Briain. The O Troithigh of Kilfarboy were also well-known ollamhs of history. The O'Hickeys of Broadford and Killaloe acted as personal physicians over several centuries to such noble families as the Uí Briain and Mac Conmara. One manuscript in the National Library of Ireland entitled 'The book of the O'Hickey's' was written in 1489 and had cures for many common ailments. All these learned families held lands free of rent from the ruling Uí Briain and other chiefs, in return for their services. However, with the collapse of Gaelic society in Clare during the turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries the status of the brehons and fili and other learned professions was undermined as English laws and customs replaced the Gaelic ways.

Penal Times

During the Penal times of the 17th and 18th centuries, Catholics were forbidden to teach and Catholic schools were illegal until 1782. Rich Catholics sent their children abroad but the majority of children got no education. There were schools in the county but these were for Protestants. In 1731 there were 10 charter schools in the county. These were primary schools which were usually beside the Anglican church building or minister's house. The school masters were paid about £2 a year and fees ranged between 1 shilling and 2 shillings a term. While there were some free places at these schools open to Catholics, few Catholics attended.

There was one secondary school in the county in the early 1700's. This was established at Killaloe as a diocesan grammar school. It was founded in 1707 and survived until 1823 when the school was closed and amalgamated with Limerick grammar school. Average attendance at this school was about 20 pupils. A second grammar school was set up in Ennis in 1773. This was the Erasmus Smith College, endowed by the Erasmus Smith Foundation (one of ten such schools in the country). Mr. Marcus Patterson, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland - an Ennisman - was instrumental in bringing this school to Ennis. By 1778 there were 80 pupils (52 boarders) and 12 of these held scholarships (6 of these were Catholics). Its best known headmaster was Dr. King who was in charge from 1832 to 1862. During his time a wide variety of subjects was taught including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, French, German and maths. Ennis College, as it was known, closed in 1891, but the imposing building is still in educational use.

Hedge Schools

Banned by the Penal laws from keeping a school, some Catholic teachers defied the laws and operated illegally as 'hedge-schoolmasters'. They maintained a furtive existence and were usually itinerant teachers, not risking prolonged stays in any area for fear of being denounced and imprisoned. Poor Catholic children attended these schools and were given a rudimentary education in the 3 R's. Teachers were paid usually by food and lodgings, perhaps a few pence per pupil. Andreas Mac Curtin kept a hedge school at Cloonanaha (Inagh) during the first half of the 18th. century. Under Grattans Parliament Catholics were granted permission to teach in 1782. From this date teachers openly advertised their services and opened schools, though many of these were still regarded as hedge-schools. Some of the best known teachers of this era included John Lloyd of Tulla, Stephen O'Halloran, Thomas O'Miochan of Quin, Peter O'Connell of Killimer, Darmody of Ennis, Donagh Rua McNamara of Cratloe, Eugene O'Curry of Carrigaholt and Brian Merriman of Cranny. Dr. McMahon, bishop of Killaloe established a charity school at Chapel Lane Ennis in 1791 for the education of poor Catholics.
Hely Dutton in his "Statistical Survey of County Clare" (1808) described hedge-schools as follows; 'The common country schools have generally between 20 and 100 pupils each, boys and girls mixed, they are usually kept in small dry cabins. No respectable man would suffer the hardships the masters endure, when the remuneration is so very inadequate to a task so irksome. . . . as the cold and damp conditions keep the children home in winter, the master during this season goes from house to house and teaches the children for his diet. Reading, writing and arithmetic are taught in these schools'.

Ennis Academies

Some of the newer schools were more attractive to the wealthy. For instance Mr. Cole's English and French Academy at Arthur's Row, Ennis, under the patronage of the bishop of Killaloe, opened in 1807. Young gentlemen were taught English, French, geography, writing and arithmetic in preparation for University or for the Royal Military College at Marlow. Another educational establishment in Arthur's Row was Mrs. Keane's boarding school for ladies, c. 1810. Boarders paid 20 guineas per annum and 2 guineas entrance fees. Each young lady was required to bring 6 towels, one pair of sheets and a spoon. Other fees of the school included music, 2 guineas a quarter and 1 guinea entrance fee; dancing, 3 guineas a year and 1 guinea entrance; writing and arithmetic 2 guineas a year and half a guinea entrance fee; washing, 3 guineas a year. The total cost of educating these young ladies was over 40 guineas a year. There was only one month's vacation at Christmas and no summer holidays!

Educationalists and Prosletysers

In January 1812 the distinguished educationalist Mr. Joseph Lancaster was invited to Ennis by Sir Edward O'Brien to give a lecture on his system of education. In March 1813 a meeting of the Friends of the Lancastrian System of Education was held and it was resolved that the town of Ennis would benefit by an extensive school in a central situation, open to children of every religious denomination. Subscriptions of £250 were promised, a committee was formed and decided that the school should be located in a former theatre in Cook's Lane, Ennis. William Spence, the first headmaster, received £60 per annum. The school opened in November, 1814, but apparently closed in 1817. A controversial system of education was introduced in 1806 following the foundation of the London Hibernian Society. This was a notorious prosletysing society and many of these schools were set up throughout the county in the 1820's and 1830's. One of these schools was established in Cook's Lane, Ennis. This school was used as the meeting place of the Clare Auxiliary Bible Society and the Clare branch of the British Reformation Society, both prosletysing societies. Mr. Synge, the noted Dysart prosletyser was a member of both societies. Mr. Edward Synge a land agent was a religious fanatic who held the view that bible study should be the core of any school curriculum. He founded 3 schools, with the help of the London Hibernian society, at Dysart, Rath and Corofin. Fr. Murphy, the parish priest of Corofin, denounced Mr. Synge's schools as prosletysing centres. Tenants were threatened with eviction if their children were withdrawn from school. Fr. Murphy won the educational battle of Dysart when Dysart school house was burnt in 1826, Corofin school was burnt in 1829 and Rath school was closed. Mr. Synge left the district.

Other notorious prosletysers were the Keane brothers, Marcus and Henry, of Beech Park Ennis. Acting on behalf of the Irish Church Missions, they established bible schools at Doonaha, Kilballyowen and Kiltrellig during the years 1850-'52. Fr. Meehan, the local parish priest, stoutly resisted these schools and he set up free Catholic schools in opposition to them. Fr. Meehan was reputed to have put a curse on anyone who dared attend the bible schools. Faced with this formidable priest, few children attended Keanes' schools. In still other schools of the 1820's and 1830's, evangelical societies such as the Kildare Place Society and the Baptist Society where the Bible was read without comment. These types of schools were located in many of the larger towns of Clare e.g. Ennis, Kilrush, Clare Castle, Newmarket, Ennistymon, Mountshannon, and Sixmilebridge. The Catholic clergy were naturally suspicious of these 'bible' schools too, and so Catholic schools were usually set up in opposition. They were often located in Catholic chapels.

The Christian Brothers

A significant Catholic response to the actions of the prosletysers was an invitation extended to the newly founded order of Christian Brothers to establish primary schools in Clare. The Brothers set up their first school at Ennistymon in 1824, followed three years later by a second school at Ennis. The third Christian Brothers' school was founded at Kilrush in 1874. The Brothers were the first religious order to open schools in the county since Reformation and Penal times. While the Christian Brothers catered for poor Catholic boys, the Ursuline nuns were invited to educate the girls. Three Ursuline nuns came from Limerick in 1829 and opened a primary school at Lifford House, Ennis. Over 200 pupils were on the rolls including about 30 boarders. The Ursuline nuns left Ennis however in 1839 never to return.
Attendance at all these primary schools, whether Hibernian Society, Kildare Place, Baptist, Anglican, or Catholic was by no means free. Fees were relatively low however, ranging from 1 shilling to 5 shillings per quarter term, the 'bible' schools were often free when they were under joint patronage e.g. of Kildare Place and Baptist societies. Teachers earned between £10 and £15 per annum. Still, the vast majority of children went uneducated, as their parents, the cottiers or landless labourers, could hardly afford a penny a week for each child's education.

The Ralahine Commune School

A novel educational venture was begun with the Rahaline commune in 1831. In order to encourage children of the commune members to attend school, all the costs of food, clothing and education were to be paid for by the commune until the children reached the age of 17. "No punishment was inflicted on the children, beyond being sent home or kept for a time from the school, which was felt as a deprivation of pleasurable amusement . . . free from fear of harsh punishment, the children were natural, open and truthful in expression."

All children from the age of 9 upwards were to be taught a useful trade. Furthermore an infant school was set up for all children over 2 years old, freeing the mothers for work in the commune. This 'kindergarten' was the first in the country. Adults were also taught to read. Unfortunately, this unique experiment was doomed within two years due to the bankruptcy of the commune's landlord, John Scott Vandeleur in 1833. The 23 children of the Ralahine community school had participated in a unique non-denominational education system. This Owenite community might, if given a chance to develop, have proved a most interesting educational model.

The National School System

A radical and fundamental change in primary education occurred as a result of the Stanley Education Act of 1831. The national school system as we know it today evolved from this act. By this act, free education of a non-denominational character was introduced. Another feature of the schools was that instruction was through the medium of English, with Irish being forbidden even in Gaelic speaking areas like west Clare. Furthermore, Irish history was not taught, the children being instructed only in English history. But at least the schools were free and they were acceptable to the different religious groups. Now education was open to all children, especially the poor, and by the middle of the century there was a national school in every parish. Primary education was made compulsory in 1891, when children were legally obliged to attend school until the age of 14.

Some of the national schoolmasters were outstanding teachers. Conor Mac Dermot, the headmaster at Cooraclare N.S. was awarded the distinguished Carlisle and Blake on 3 occasions and Cooraclare school was considered the best in Ireland in 1869! The pupils of Cooraclare won scholarships for University or qualified for positions in government services in great numbers during his time.

Model Schools

Yet another type of school found in Co. Clare was the Model Agricultural School. Two of these schools were founded in Clare, one at Belvoir near Sixmilebridge and the other at Sallybank near Broadford. Both of these schools were supervised by the National Commissioners of Education. In all, only 12 of these schools were established in Ireland and Belvoir Model School was the first of its type in the country. It was built in 1830 and lasted until 1866. The prime motivator and chief patron of the school was David J. Wilson of Belvoir, a local landlord. He was one of three patrons, the others being Henry Butler of Castlecrine and Thomas Studdert of Kilkishen. Besides being taught reading, writing and arithmetic students were also instructed in animal husbandry, tillage, pig and poultry management and horticulture. A farm was attached to each of the schools, Sallybank had 8 acres, while Belvoir had 12. In 1851 Sallybank had 20 pupils, four of whom were free, while Belvoir had 24 pupils of whom 6 held scholarships. Belvoir school was closely linked to its main patron David J. Wilson and the school closed shortly after his death. The Sisters of Mercy came to Ennis in 1854 and over the next few decades opened schools in Kilrush, Tulla, Kilkee, Spanish Point, Killaloe, and Lisdoonvarna. They catered for girls' primary education and also kept boarders. Dr. James Ryan, bishop of Killaloe was responsible for many of these foundations.

Secondary Education

While primary education seemed to be adequately catered for by the middle of the 19th century, there was a growing need for secondary education for Catholic children, especially boys. A Catholic college was opened in Bindon St. Ennis in 1866. This school later moved to Springfield House, before St. Flannans College was built in 1881. This was the diocesan college, a junior seminary where intending priests studied before admission to Maynooth. Dr. James Ryan, Bishop of Killaloe was the chief instigator of this project. Besides preparing young men for service in the Church, St. Flannan's also trained youths for the professions, the army and the civil service. About 100 boys were enrolled, two-thirds of whom were boarders.

Due to the introduction of the Intermediate Education Act of 1878, some of the other primary schools in the county branched out into providing secondary education. They had an incentive to do this, as schools received grants on the basis of Inter-Cert results. Still, secondary education only attracted a minority of children.

Vocational Schools

After independence in 1922 one of the first educational decisions of the Free State was to make the study of the Irish language a compulsory subject. Another important development was the Vocational Education act of 1930 allowing for the setting up of schools offering technical education as opposed to the more academic secondary schools then available. The first V.E.C. school in the county was opened in Kilrush in Sept. 1936. Besides Irish, English and maths, subjects such as domestic science, woodwork, metalwork, rural science and a commercial course were taught, with evening classes also being provided in some of these subjects. A new Group Certificate examination was introduced. Ennis Vocational School opened in 1937 and other V.E.C. schools followed in Miltown Malbay (1939), Scariff (1944), Ennistymon (1957), Kildysart (1964), Kilmihil (1966), and Kilkee.

Other secondary schools in Clare which were established this century included, Cahercon Convent, St. Caimin's, Scariff, St. Anthony's Kilkee, St. Senan's Killaloe. The Colombian Fathers founded a novitiate at the former Scott property, Cahercon house in 1922. Within a few years they were replaced by Colombian sisters who kept a high school from 1938 to 1948. The Colombian sisters sold the property in 1962 to the Salesian sisters who established a secondary convent there. In 1938 St. Senan's privately run secondary school was opened in Killaloe, while St. Caimin's private secondary school was opened in Scariff in 1963.

Since the 1960's many profound changes have taken place in education at national and county level. In 1966 the first comprehensive school in Ireland was opened in Shannon, Ireland's newest town. The Comprehensive, has been used as a test centre for curriculum development, is co-educational and non-denominational in character, and offers a wide range of academic and technical subjects.

Free Education

1967 was a seminal year in Irish education with the passage of Donagh O'Malley's Free Education Act, providing free secondary education for all children, and University scholarships were provided for all who achieved 4 or more honours at Leaving Cert. This was followed by the free transport scheme for children more than 3 miles from school. These revolutionary changes, combined with the raising of the school leaving age to 16, had as profound an effect upon secondary education as Lord Stanley's Education Act had upon primary education after 1831. Within a short period the numbers attending secondary school mushroomed. Other structural changes have occurred too in recent times. Co-education was always a feature of primary education especially in country schools. However from the late 1960's changing attitudes towards mixed education have seen the evolution of many co-ed secondary schools. The Salesian nuns began in 1968. Since then, the Mercy nuns of Tulla, Spanish Point and Killaloe have co-education. Even such bastions of male education as the Christian Brothers, Ennis (now Rice College), and St. Flannan's College have begun to accept female students. In the 1990's only 2 boarding schools remain in Clare, St. Flannan's for boys and Salesian Convent, Cahercon for girls. Amalgamations of secondary schools have occurred. In Scariff, the Vocational School and St. Caimin's Secondary were united in 1968 to form a Community College. In 1989 Kilkee Vocational School and Kilkee Mercy Convent were amalgamated to form St. Joseph's Community college. Miltown Vocational School closed down in the mid 80's and the Mercy Convent in Spanish Point went co-ed to accommodate the pupils. In 1968 St. Senan's private secondary school in Killaloe merged with St. Anne's Convent to form a community school in Killaloe. Another community school was established in Shannon town in the mid 1980's to cater for the rapidly expanding population. A fusion of 3 separate schools, C.B.S. Convent and Vocational school has taken place in Kilrush to form a Community School there. The divisions between vocational and secondary schools are being slowly eroded with the development of community-type schools.

Up to the 1960's the majority of secondary teachers belonged to religious orders, nuns, priests and brothers. By the 1990's the vast majority of secondary teachers were neither clergy nor members of religious orders. Lay teachers are now in charge of many schools in the county. Even male lay teachers are in charge of Mercy Convents like Tulla and Spanish Point. Also today both male and female teachers are common in all secondary schools, unthinkable before the 1960's.

More developments have taken place at primary level too. There are four all-Irish schools, Gaelscoileanna, in the county, and one all-Irish secondary school. There is also a Steiner school in East Clare. St. Clare's special school caters for children with disabilities and another school in Ennis is dedicated to the education of children of the travelling community.

While the Vocational Educational Committee (V.E.C) has pioneered adult education in Clare with evening classes in practical subjects, at many vocational schools, they are now offering Leaving Cert courses to adults who never got the chance to study in the past. Also, the Clare Adult Literacy Centre at Springfield, Ennis under the aegis of the V.E.C. has been filling a void in education. The V.E.C. was also prominent in the development of the Shannon School of Hotel Management which, since the 1960's, has acquired an international reputation. One other profound change in education in the 1980's which has affected all pupils was the decision to abolish corporal punishment by the Minister for Education Mr. John Boland in 1983. 'Spare the rod and spoil the child' was an accepted educational maxim of the past, nowadays 'Mol an tóige agus tiochfaidh sé/sí' seems more appropriate to modern educational theory and practice.

So, education of a comprehensive nature from primary to secondary school seems likely to be available to all Clare children in the near future. The abolition of fees for university courses in 1996 has opened up third level education to more pupils. The dreams of the educational pioneers attached to the Ralahine commune in the 1830's and the aspirations of the architects of the modern Irish state 'to cherish all the children equally', may soon be realised.


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