Education: 1500 to 1690

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Education: 1500 to 1690

The official policy of the colonial government in late medieval Ireland dictated that there should be strict segregation of the Gaelic and English educational systems, but in practice there were points of overlap. In Gaelic Ireland the caste of literati, including judges, medics, and poets, operated a system of apprenticeship through the "bardic schools" which ensured the hereditary nature of traditional learning. In some of the towns, particularly in the south and the west, the populations that were mainly of English origin appear to have had access to these schools. As elsewhere, the church (which was also divided into English and Gaelic zones) exerted a powerful influence over education through monastic and parish schools. Cathedral schools functioned in, for example, the Dublin foundations of Christ Church and Saint Patrick's.

A salient feature of pre-Reformation education was the expanding role of lay institutions and individuals in the provision of schooling. Through their power of appointment of chantry chaplains (priests employed to sing or say mass in endowed chapels) supernumerary to the diocesan clergy, lay people ensured the availability of priests who could be expected to teach as well as to celebrate mass for deceased benefactors. Besides endowing large religious guilds with many chantry priests, wealthy families established colleges, which, while not formal academies of learning, nevertheless supported a number of chaplains to instruct youths, even if only in singing and choral techniques. Aristocratic and gentry patronage of these and other forms of schooling was evident in the late medieval period, while in the boroughs such as Dublin, the civic corporations began to establish municipal schools. In the towns there also was training through the apprenticeship system, which was organized by the trade and craft guilds.

As part of a burgeoning humanistic movement for social and cultural reform, an act for "the English order, habit and language" was passed in the Dublin parliament in 1537, the first state measure for education in Ireland. In the context of King Henry VIII's assertion of royal sovereignty in church and state, its purpose was to foster English civility throughout as much of the country as could be made responsive to governmental authority. The key educational provision was for the setting up of primary schools in every parish for the teaching of English language and culture, and also "Christ's religion" (which meant the pristine religious practice of the early Christian church, or, more simply, real Christianity). Although there was little or no success in implementing the legislation in Gaelic Ireland, the response was positive in some areas of the Englishry, but lack of resources and the impropriation (or lay possession) of many parishes mitigated the effects. Because the act coincided with the coming of the ecclesiastical Reformation to Ireland under Henry, the impulse toward educational reform that underpinned it tended to be confused with the campaign for religious change. A small minority of leaders in church and state who were charged with implementing Protestantism beginning in about 1549 were enthusiastic about a pedagogical initiative through the medium of the Irish language, possibly with the aid of the printing press. The strong majority view in the Church of Ireland, however, was that the principles of the reformed religion should be inculcated as part of a program of anglicization. Thus the 1537 act came to be invoked in the succeeding decades to justify the teaching and preaching of the gospel exclusively in English.

Initiatives in Second- and Third-Level Education

The failure of the Protestant Reformation to embrace the world of Gaelic learning alienated the older Irish population, but reformers with Old English backgrounds pinned their hopes for social and religious advancement on a proper system of state-sponsored second- and third-level education. The impetus for the act for the erection of diocesan grammar schools in 1570 came mainly from this sector of society, since its members were influenced by the Erasmianism or moderate Christian humanism of the mid-sixteenth century. Already the extralegal activity of Catholic schoolteachers in some of the southwestern boroughs (including members of the Society of Jesus, who also aspired to the foundation of a Catholic university) was eliciting a popular response. The challenge to the state authorities was to devise an educational structure and curriculum that would counteract the agents of the Roman church while retaining the loyalty of the Old English. The measure that emerged from Parliament was for secondary schools jointly regulated by church and state to be founded in each Irish diocese. The measure's supporters argued that the new schools would eventually provide a student body for a university in Ireland that would in turn be a seminary for a Protestant ministry.

This scheme proved to be problematic for a number of reasons. Few diocesan schools emerged as a result of the legislation before the seventeenth century. The bishops, in whose interest it was to promote academic reform as well as evangelization, were reluctant to pledge their scarce revenues to the establishment of schools. The conservative Old English elites in town and country became alienated from the Anglican Church by the 1570s and 1580s, identifying it with the newly arrived English agents of radical constitutional and social change. This lay leadership that might have been expected to be supportive of state educational initiatives possessed extensive ecclesiastical revenues and property rights, and began to channel these resources into an alternative Catholic system of religious practice and schooling. Nor could agreement be reached on the site and nature of a university for Ireland that might have canalized all the reforming impulses, social, cultural, and religious. By the time that internal Protestant divisions were resolved to allow for the foundation of Trinity College in 1592, there was already a vibrant system of second-level Catholic schools and an emergent network of seminaries on the continent.

Protestant and Catholic Educational Systems

By the late seventeenth century there were two educational systems operating in Ireland, reflecting the polarized nature of politico-religious ideology. On one side was the official Anglican educational sphere, radiating out from Trinity College and incorporating municipal schools, diocesan schools, and the newly established royal schools in the plantation settlements in Ulster. On the other was the unofficial but ubiquitous Catholic nexus, transcending diocesan and county boundaries, and molding itself to the contours of urban and county society. This system of schooling was for much of the century not clandestine—teachers and their patrons made arrangements quite openly for the tuition of pupils. There was even a short-lived Jesuit-run Catholic university in Back Lane in Dublin in the 1620s that was closed by agents of the state government in 1629. Some mixing of the religious groups did occur within the educational sphere, however. For example, the Dublin municipal school was under Protestant control in the early seventeenth century, but of its 122 pupils in 1622, 43 did not attend Church of Ireland services. Since 1610, 100 of its graduates had gone to Trinity College, but 160 went overseas, several returning as Catholic priests. And in the 1610s the graduates of Isaac Lally's school in the diocese of Tuam were going on to both the Protestant Trinity College and to the Catholic Irish college at Salamanca.

Salamanca and other continental colleges provided pedagogues who returned to Ireland to supplement the catechesis of the burgeoning Counter-Reformation. Though technically outside the law, this unofficial schooling played a powerful part in securing the majority of the population for the Catholic cause, in part at least because it enshrined the use of the Irish language in its secular and religious curricula. The dominance of the Catholic educational system thus restricted the influence of the Protestant one to a mostly New English minority community during the Stuart period.

SEE ALSO Annals of the Four Masters; Irish Colleges Abroad until the French Revolution; Smith, Erasmus; Trinity College


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Colm Lennon

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Education: 1500 to 1690

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