Friday, February 07, 2014

Religion in Schools

First published in the Western People on Monday.

A cold and deathly chill must have run down Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn’s spine when he heard that even the Association of Catholic Priests reached for the trusty crozier and came out swinging.

There is a thing in politics called playing to the constituency and, difficult though it is to look into the heart of another, this is almost certainly what the Minister was up to when he suggested last week that teachers should spend less time teaching religion in national schools and more time teaching English and Maths.

The Minister was responding to complaints at the Irish Primary Principals Network annual conference that the curriculum was overloaded, and shot for what he must have thought an open goal at the time.

Now, when the most liberal wing of the Irish Church is giving him the business, the unfortunate Minister must surely feel more like Paddy Cullen in that infamous moment of the All-Ireland Final of 1978. If the Minister knows who Paddy Cullen is in the first place, of course.

This is a minor skirmish in the larger national battle, as the country re-organises itself for the post-Catholic reality. One of Ruairí Quinn’s stated aims as Minister for Education is to give parents more choice in their children’s education by having the Catholic Church hand over schools to non-Catholic patrons, but he’s meeting no small amount of resistance in this regard.

Why this is so is harder to understand. It may be residual loyalty to the fallen Faith, or it may be general terror of another quango terrorizing the land, or it may be some other thing. But it is an interesting moment in the country’s history, as a page slowly turns.

The Irish Education System began in 1831 when Lord Stanley, who would later become Prime Minister of Great Britain as the Earl of Derby, wrote a letter to Augustus FitzGerald, Duke of Leinster, proposing that His Majesty’s Government establish an Irish Schools Board. Stanley was Chief Secretary for Ireland at the time, and his idea was that children of all denominations should be educated together with no regard paid to religion.

Or at least, only a biteen of regard. Just a hint, like. In the early years of the scheme, the schools taught “common Christianity,” which was based on either a piece of Scripture or a lesson on Bible history, from texts chosen by the Commissioners of the Irish Schools Board.

The Catholic hierarchy split on the Schools issue, with both sides of the divide represented by two of the major figures of the time – Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin, and John McHale, Archbishop of Tuam, and after whom McHale Park is named.

Archbishop Murray was twenty years older than Archbishop McHale. Having lived through the penal laws and Catholic Emancipation having only recently been passed, Murray was an advocate of softly, softly diplomacy. He didn’t much care for Stanley’s idea, but he thought it better than the hedge school and therefore viewed it as progress.

Archbishop McHale, by contrast, loathed Lord Stanley’s idea and made no secret of that loathing. McHale’s issue was that the schools were an insidious effort to convert the Irish to Protestantism, and that was not going to happen on McHale’s watch.

One hundred and eighty years on, this seems a strange stand-off. But the entire history of Ireland, the nature of the state and our long and difficult history with our nearest neighbour, at once our best friend and worst enemy, all centers on differences of religion.

Why has there been so much strife between countries as similar as Ireland and Britain? Why couldn’t the Irish get with the program, just as the Welsh and the Scots had? The Normans invaded Ireland, but they invaded England first! That’s how it works! Why couldn’t the Irish get that?

The answer is religion. The Scots and Welsh embraced the Reformation. The Irish clung to the Faith, through the Elizabethan Plantation, Cromwell, the Flight of Earls and the Penal Laws. And now in the 1830s, having stuck it out this long, they were going to lose the Faith by stealth through a schools system where texts were chosen by someone other than the Church itself? Not on your Nelly.

It was a long struggle for McHale, but he won in the end. The Catholic Church held its first Synod in Ireland in two hundred years in Thurles in 1850 where it said it wasn’t one bit happy with the Schools Board, and by 1869 McHale’s victory was complete. The Irish Church condemned mixed education and their condemnation was ratified from Rome by Pope Pius IX.

McHale had already banned the English schools in his own diocese as soon as he could, and brought in religious orders to found Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Tuam instead. After 1869, this was the case all over Ireland. The Church of Ireland saw which way the wind was blowing, and set up their own schools with just as much fervor.

Fifty years later, when Ireland had rejoined the nations of the world, the new governments knew that the sectarian divide was a time bomb, not least if the sectarian seed were planted so early as at primary school age. They made it a priority to reclaim education as the preserve of the people, rather than the church.

Ah no. They didn’t do any such thing. It could be because Irish governments soon realised the country was broke and were grateful that someone, at least, was educating the children. Or it could be that there was an ugly and disgraceful Catholic triumphalism about the early years of the state, and successive government of the Free State and the Republic thought Church-controlled schools the natural order of things.

Who knows? All we can be sure of now is that we have an educational system at primary level based on historic distrust between two religions that no longer have much, if any, influence on the people. And that’s without even mentioning the Tuiseal Ginideach…