The politics of Irish education, 1920-65, Sean Farren, (Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast, £16.50)

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

This is a thought provoking study. Sean Farren provides us not only with an insight into developments in the schools in both Northern Ireland and the Free State/Republic of Ireland, but shows the extent to which the schools were used by political and church powers to cultivate a particular, one-dimensional type of nationality, culture and religion. Through the perspective of the schools the work provides an excellent insight into the objectives and aspirations of the wider political and social milieu in Ireland. The book very much underpins the centrality of the education system in forming national identities and as a litmus test for the type of society which has formed it. The McPherson education bill of 1919, for example, ‘brought the underlying divisions in Irish society as a whole to the surface’, while in Northern Ireland the controversy surrounding the 1923 Education Act posed ‘a question mark over the very existence of Northern Ireland itself’.
It is in these contexts of the education system forming the theatre in which issues of national and religious importance were played out, that Farren explores curricular issues both North and South. What he terms ‘cultural issues’ dominated curricular developments in both jurisdictions. The needs of nationalism and Catholicism in the South and of unionism and Protestantism in the North were more important in shaping what children learned than any intellectual considerations. While recognising the important role of cultural and religious issues and values in the curricula, Farren, in this eminently balanced and positive work, suggests that the miasma of moral and cultural elitism sacrificed the intellectual needs of the child. In the Republic, for example, this was evident as late as 1954 when the Council of Education’s report on primary education claimed that the twin aims of the primary school were cultivating faithfulness to God and reviving the Irish language. A similar emphasis may be seen in Northern Ireland (and independent Ireland) in the way history was interpreted and taught in the schools.
The role of the Catholic church in the education system in independent Ireland is discussed in detail and from a number of perspectives. Again Farren uses the schools as the conduit through which we may learn of the role of the official Catholic church in the wider society. The following comment regarding its role in education may equally be applied to other spheres of life in which the church wished to involve itself: ‘Once the church had spoken, its words were to be received as sufficient for all loyal Catholics and those who dared criticise what the church had said placed themselves in the “enemy” camp’. It is clear that this influence effected not only the curriculum: Farren relates, for example, the church’s reluctance to change the managerial system of national schools in the 1940s to the point of frustrating departmental efforts at improving school buildings, many of which were in dire need of restoration.
Indeed one of the fascinating areas raised by the book is the ‘synthetic’ relationship which certain people and groups tried to cultivate in the post-independent era between Catholicism and linguistic nationalism. While Catholicism and the Irish language have been traditionally presented as the pillars of Irish nationhood, this study begs further questions about the relationship between both, and in particular the extent to which the churches new-found enthusiasm for the language in post-independent Ireland was a marriage of convenience, use of the Irish language being seen as a method of minimising the immoral influences of English dance, cinema and literature.
The book is firmly rooted in contemporary national and international events and trends. Farren explains the nationalism of school geography and history texts in post-partition Ireland in the context of the increasingly ‘intense nationalism’ being experienced throughout Europe in the interwar period. Similarly Farren explains the ‘new light in which both education and training began to be viewed by policy makers’ in the Republic in the context of preparations by government for the free trade conditions of the EEC.
Perhaps it is because of the great breadth and depth of analysis of the complexities of education north and south in the context of wider societal and political demands and necessities, that this work does display a certain hesitancy when dealing with some issues. This is particularly evident when dealing with independent Ireland. For example, the author seems unsure of the extent to which the schools were the sole unit in the revival of Irish: page 113 speaks of ‘many other initiatives’ while page 193 says that ‘the schools operated in a vacuum’, the latter being far closer to the truth. Similarly, in discussing the formulation of the curriculum of the national schools in the Free State, and the ensuing Catholic and nationalist slant, Farren talks about ‘official Protestant non-participation in the [First] National Programme Conference’. What he doesn’t say is that the Catholic Headmasters Association, the Catholic Clerical Managers and the Christian Brothers all turned down invitations to attend.
However, these are small issues in the context of what the book achieves. Paying generous tribute to other historical analyses of the education system, Farren himself, by virtue of his probing, detailed, multi-faceted study, has earned his place among the standard texts.

Adrian Kelly


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