James Connolly


The Re-Conquest of Ireland


Chapter VII
Schools and Scholars of Erin

Ireland of old was styled the ‘Land of saints and scholars’. It would be an ungrateful and thankless task to inquire to-day what proportion of saints she is able to rear upon her shores after seven centuries of British civilisation, and a century and a half of Anglo-Irish capitalism. Under such conditions saints do not grow in any noticeable numbers, and except in the homes of the poor, where patient self-denying mothers pinch and starve themselves in order to rear their families, or in workshops where women and girls toil at starvation wages that they may be able to keep from the door the wolf of want, and its still more ferocious companion, the hyena of temptation, the saints of latter-day Erin do not seem to exercise a very appreciable influence upon her social life. Certainly the latter-day minstrelsy and oratory of Erin seeks first for their subjects of eulogy, not Erin’s saints but her politicians – a fact that is in itself a sufficient commentary upon the present outlook of the Irish people upon the importance of saintship.

But if it is difficult, if not impossible, to trace the saints of modern Erin, it is not impossible, nor even extraordinarily difficult, to understand the provision made for the production of scholars. And as we are considering the material left in Ireland, or shaping itself in Ireland for the re-conquest of Ireland and the establishment here of a social and political system guaranteeing freedom, and opportunities of development for all, it is incumbent upon us to consider what provision is now made for the physical and intellectual growth of the Irish workers – these workers who have to bear the burden of the present system, and whose children will have to build and shape the future.

Latter-day investigators have set beyond all doubt the truth that in Ancient Erin the chief and clan held in most repute were they who most esteemed and fostered the schools for the teaching of the wisdom of the day; and that even long after the Norman invasion the Irish schools and scholars continued to shed a lustre upon Gaelic civilisation, and to redeem Erin from the imputations her would-be masters so persistently strove to cast upon her native life. But with the consummation of the Conquest already noticed in these pages, the education of the Irish became an offence against the law, a price was put upon the head of a schoolmaster and he was hunted as eagerly as the wolf and the priest. Still the hunger for learning persisted, and overcame in many cases the evil laws and penalising decrees of the conquerors, and on lone mountain sides, in the midst of almost trackless bogs, and at the back of hedges, Irish boys and girls strove to snatch, illegally, the education denied them by their masters. Needless to say, however, under such conditions, education could not be universal; it was, on the contrary, only the few who could snatch some crumbs of learning in the midst of difficulties so appalling. Upon the great majority such conditions necessarily imposed ignorance as an inevitable result. For the Protestant minority schools were provided, by private enterprise and with the encouragement of the Government, but without any systematic oversight and regulations, and indeed with occasional lapses into irregularities almost unthinkable to the modern mind. A historical instance of this kind formed the subject of a fierce discussion in the Dublin House of Commons of 1790, during the term of what is known as Grattan’s Parliament. There was then in Dublin a Foundling Hospital to which children from all parts of Ireland were sent by zealous philanthropists, and by many zealous people who were not philanthropists. Protestant orphans and Catholic children, whose parents had been tempted by hunger to surrender them to proselytisers, that they might not die of hunger before their eyes, were continually being despatched to this Foundling Hospital. The unhappy fate of these poor Irish waifs was thus told in Parliament by Sir John Blaquiere:–

The number of infants received in 1789 was 2,180, and of that number 2,087 were dead or unaccounted for. In ten years 19,367 children had been entered upon the books, and almost 17,000 were dead or missing. The wretched little ones were sent up from all parts of Ireland, ten or twelve of them thrown together in a kish or basket, forwarded in a low-backed car, and so bruised and crushed and shaken at their journey’s end that half of them were taken out dead, and were flung into a dung-heap.

That last touch “flung into the dung-heap” is characteristic of the thought and practices of the ruling class of the time. The children were only children of the poor, and the poor – whether Protestant or Catholic – were only esteemed, perhaps are only esteemed to-day, by the rich, as in Kropotkin’s words, “mere dung to manure the pasture lands of the rich expropriator”.

Such scandals as the above were, of course, in their concentrated awfulness, exceptional, but in a very real sense it was typical of the abuse that followed inevitably upon the political and social system of the day. A Government based upon property, and denying the rights of the common people, must produce an administration of society which, in all its ramifications, will embody injustice. Brilliance of intellect it may have, great genius it may show, rare fruits in philosophy, art, science will blossom out of it, but, without democracy, it will remain a torture-house for the labourer, a prison for the hearts and hopes of the poor.

Between the institutions such as we have quoted amongst the Protestant minority, the illegal, but secretly tolerated, schools of the Catholics of the same period, and the National Schools of to-day, there stretches a great period of time – a period marked by many and far-reaching changes in the political situation. But in our treatment of the schools for our Irish children there is not to be observed any such radical or fundamental change as the development of the democracy would seem to warrant. On the contrary, that seems to be the one ground from which the public guardianship and responsibility, welcomed elsewhere, are here most resolutely forbidden to enter. Public responsibility, indeed, is admitted in a half-hearted form, but the right of control, of guardianship that goes, or should go, with responsibility is bluntly denied, and its assertion treated as a veritable attack upon the basis of public morality. Hence we do not find that the progress to be noted in other branches of public life is to be found here. The National Schools of Ireland have ever been left in the rear of progress, a menace to the health of the pupils and teachers, unsightly and dangerous products of a low standard of civic conscience.

A few quotations from impartial authorities upon the points we have noted will serve to illustrate how, in our own generation, the administration of schools still retains more than a flavour of the bad old anti-democratic days, with its contempt for the poor.

In the year 1900 The Lancet sent a Commissioner to investigate the sanitary conditions of the National Schools of Dublin. Of one of the schools he wrote:–

Schoolrooms dark and ill-ventilated; gas burning in the daytime; no recreation ground; no break from ten till two o’clock; no lavatory for the boys; manure heaps against walls of schools; dark brown liquid manure oozing from it forming stagnant pools, saturating unpaved porous ground; emanations from school garbage, dust heaps, black mud, fish heads, offal, &c., in the lanes and yards about.

In the year 1904 the Medical Officer of Health of the City of Dublin ordered his Sanitary Inspectors to investigate the sanitary conditions of the National Schools. Their report was embodied in his Report of the State of Public Health for that year, and shows that the general sanitary condition of the city schools was truly deplorable. When it is remembered that habits of cleanliness or uncleanliness contracted in childhood tend to root themselves in our natures, it will be understood how great an influence for evil such a school environment must have been to the children unfortunate enough to have been subjected to them. Such reflections will help to explain the deplorable apathy of many of the tenants of the Dublin slums, and their heart-breaking acquiescence in the continuance of conditions so destructive of the possibility of clean living. The report in question states that the English Board of Education requirements in the line of sanitary accommodation for schools, and the detailed reports of the Dublin inspectors show, that the Dublin schools seldom reach one-half of the standard necessary in the interests of health and decency. In some schools, for instance, St. Patrick’s, Lower Tyrone Street, attended by 144 pupils, boys and girls, the w.c.’s were open to and used indiscriminately by boys and girls alike. We believe this school is now being demolished, it is to be trusted that the majority of its fellows will soon share the same fate.

In the same year as that in which The Lancet Commissioner reported on Dublin, a report to the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland dealing with Belfast, states of the schools in Newtownards district:–

After what has been said of the character of many of the houses and premises, it is not to be wondered at if sickness prevails to a large extent and epidemics spread rapidly. Ballymacarrett District is low-lying, and not an easy place to drain thoroughly, but the school-houses, no doubt, help the work of disease. I can count up fourteen monitors who have retired through ill-health, and have, I imagine, all since died. Two young monitresses employed in an overcrowded school have died within little more than a year.

Nine years afterwards, the Inspector for Belfast No.1 District was constrained to say in his Report to the same Commissioners upon the same subject:–

It is a pity, where so many agencies are at work making for the health of the people, that little children almost at the threshold of existence should be thrust into over-crowded rooms where their young blood is slowly poisoned.

How great this overcrowding is, and how bad its effects upon the health of the children, as well as upon their ability to benefit by the education provided, may be surmised by the following excerpts from the above-quoted Reports for the year 1909-10. Mr. Keith, the inspector, declared:–

Serious cases of overcrowding continue to occur. One city school supplies space for 291 children. At one visit I found 386 present. In one of the rooms, with accommodation for 47, 107 infants spend their school-days. At another school, where there is accommodation for 232, 324 children were in attendance, whilst 73 pupils were taught in a room for 44 and 116 in a room for 47. Part of the time, about 50 of the 116 referred to were taught in a tiled unheated passage, and this occurred on a snowy day in winter ... In another school 103 children were given a conversational lesson in a room 16 feet by 15 feet, accommodation 24. In this room 49 babies spent their school-days ... At another infants’ school an unheated room 10 feet by 10 feet is used as a class-room. There the children have to endure one of two evils in the winter, either to perish with cold if the door is left open, or to inhale vitiated air if it is shut.

On visiting a school in September last, I found 37 pupils (boys and girls) under instruction in a small yard. Sixteen boys were sitting on the tiled floor of the yard, and two others were sitting with their backs to the door of one of the out-offices. The teacher thought this preferable to crowding the children into a class-room that is no better than a den.

The Report cites 43 schools in which the numbers present are always grossly in excess of the accommodation. The figures for the first ten will suffice:

































The bearing of the capitalist system upon the problem of educating the young is shown in this statement of the Belfast Inspector:–

The cost of sites is a difficulty to be reckoned with in Belfast. I was informed that a rood of inferior building ground cost the promoters of a school about £500.

Five hundred pounds to be paid before Belfast can secure a rood ‘of inferior building ground’, upon which to erect a school to educate its children; and the landowners, who exact this tax upon enlightenment, are the political leaders of the people whose children’s education they obstruct. One is inclined to wonder if it is only greed that impels the landed classes of Ulster to make such demands, when asked to provide land for educational purposes, or has the fear of educating the masses nothing to do with it? In two reports we find the attitude of the richer classes of Belfast thus strongly commented upon and condemned. In 1909-10:–

Again, the well-to-do classes in Belfast take very little interest in the schools ... The condition of many of the schools presents a powerful contrast to the phenomenal progress made by the city in so many directions.

In 1911-12:–

It is a pity that a city, in many respects so progressive, with “pride in its port and defiance in its eye”, should have to look calmly on, while its children are either cooped-up in ill-ventilated class-rooms or left to face the perils of the streets.

Bad as are the conditions in Dublin, and hardly as they bear upon its working class, it is certain that Belfast pays so heavy a price for its ‘prosperity’ as to make one wonder if, after all, that prosperity is not too dearly bought. None acquainted with the lower-paid working class population of the two cities can have failed to note the extraordinary prevalence of illiteracy in Belfast as compared with Dublin. This illiteracy exists despite compulsory school attendance, and can only be accounted for by, first, the rapid growth of the former city, and second, the fact that the textile industries of Belfast depend upon women and child labour, making any real family life impossible, and any real control of young children ineffective amongst the mill population. Both these points are brought out in the last quotation we shall make from the Report of the Belfast School Inspector for 1911-12. He says, page 104:–

There is no doubt that a great many Belfast children do not attend school. The local schools may be overcrowded; the parents may remove so frequently that their children escape notice; factory life brings about a state of affairs which reduces parental influence to a minimum; some parents seem to have ceased to consider themselves responsible for the upbringing of their children. When the children are old enough, they get on half-time in the mills, and are then obliged to go to school. At a recent visit to a school attended by half-timers and other pupils, it was noticed that there were 104 half-timers in Standards I and II. These children were all over 12 years of age. Where were they between the age of 6 and 12?

To this evidence of the Inspector may be added the fact that half-timers really learnt nothing during the days they attend school, as, mixing with adults at work teaches them such habits of bravado and recklessness of speech and conduct as make them the despair of any and every teacher, and make their presence fatal to the discipline and educational value of the entire establishment.

To this picture of the result of the congestion of Belfast and the squalor of Dublin may be added a third, that of the depletion, the emptying of the rural districts of Ireland, and the awful loneliness that is gradually descending upon the once happy homes of the Gael as the capitalist system sucks the life’s blood of the race. In Sligo we are told by the Report:–

There are some places where there are no children. Those who in the past did not emigrate, but remained at home, have grown up; and, confronted by the difficulty of subsistence, have never married.

In other places the young men and women emigrate year after year, and there are none left to help on the farm except the children, who are, therefore, kept away from school.

The problem presented by the schools is a problem that can only be settled in one way – viz., by the extension to those institutions of the democratic principle, and all that principle implies. We have had, ever since the establishment of the National Schools, an attempt to perform, by a mixture of bureaucracy and clericalism, what can only be accomplished by a full and complete application of democratic trust in the people. In order to cater to the rival churches the question of school accommodation has been left to the zeal of the various denominations, with the result that there are at least ten small schools where one large one could more efficiently and economically meet the requirements of the district. Instead of the magnificent public schools of American, Scottish or English towns we have in our cities squalid, unhealthy, wretched abominations, where teaching is a torture to the teacher, and learning a punishment to the taught. Where the democracy, functioning through a representative public body, would supply a competent staff of well-paid teachers, and splendidly-equipped, heated and lighted buildings, the present system of despotically-controlled education gives us a staff of wretchedly-paid teachers with no rights, but with duties continually increasing. These unfortunates are condemned to carry out the most important functions of modern society, in buildings totally unsuited for the purpose, badly ventilated and drained, and in most instances totally unheated save at the expense of the unfortunate head of the teaching staff.

The democracy of Ireland, amongst the first of the steps necessary to the regeneration of Ireland, must address itself to the extension of its ownership and administration to the Schools of Erin.

Whatever safeguards are necessary to ensure that the religious faith of the parents shall be respected in the children, will surely be adequately looked after by the representatives of a people to whom religion is a vital thing. Such safeguards are quite compatible with the establishment of popular control of schools, with the building and equipment of schools that shall be a joy to the scholar and an inspiration to the teacher, and with such a radical overhauling of the curriculum as shall ensure full recognition for the deeds and ideas of the men and women whose achievements mark the stages of the upward climb of the race, as their failures to achieve mark the equally important epochs of its martyrdom. When such Palaces of Education shall replace the torture houses at present doing duty as schools, when such honoured and loyally-paid teachers shall replace the sweated sufferers of to-day, and when such records as the progress of human enlightenment and freedom replace the record of royal, aristocratic and capitalistic feastings, slaughterings and dishonourings of the poor as pass muster for history at present, Erin may once more have reason to be proud of her scholars.


Last updated on 15.8.2003