Entrepreneurial spirit stifled by education

Column: Ireland’s education system reflects its legacy as a predominantly rural society with little first-hand knowledge of industry and technology

Donegal  construction workers photographed in 1910. The Catholic church was the main provider of ‘superior schools’ at the time, and its priority was to educate future clergy.

Donegal construction workers photographed in 1910. The Catholic church was the main provider of ‘superior schools’ at the time, and its priority was to educate future clergy.


In this column last week, Dan O’Brien turned to history in an effort to explain why Ireland is not a nation of great entrepreneurs. He highlighted the centuries-long curbing of property rights, because of the penal laws, suggesting that this prevented the creation of a strong Irish merchant class; and the uninterrupted 120 years of population decline up until the 1960s, which, he claimed saw those with the most initiative leaving Ireland.

I wish to add another possible explanation as to why indigenous business has underperformed compared to its peers in western Europe. This relates to the evolution of Irish education in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Irish people had access to almost universal primary schooling even before the Famine, through the national schools, and in ‘pay schools’, more popularly remembered as hedge schools. These schools provided basic literacy and a knowledge of English. By the 1850s, Sir Robert Kane’s Museum of Irish Industry was offering courses in pure and applied sciences to Dublin apprentices, and some Christian Brothers in larger towns taught applied courses such as technical drawing and navigation, skills that equipped students to work in a variety of businesses.


But the Catholic church was the main provider of ‘superior schools’, and their priority was to educate future clergy, so a classical curriculum was dominant. Middle-class families and farmers who aspired to see their sons enter professions such as medicine, law and religion were attracted to these schools. This emphasis on a classical and literary education was reinforced by the 1878 Intermediate Education Act, which provided indirect State funding for schools, in the form of payments based on pupils’ examination results.

Classical subjects

The highest grades, and therefore the highest payments, tended to go to classical subjects that were cheaper to teach than pure or applied sciences because they did not require labs, workshops and teachers who were qualified in science. Many Christian Brothers’ schools which had concentrated on more practical subjects changed to a more academic curriculum to take advantage of funding.

Irish education did not change significantly after independence, other than to add compulsory Irish. The vocational schools, which were established in the 1930s, tended to concentrate on continuation subjects – reading, writing and arithmetic – plus domestic economy for girls and some agricultural science for boys. The cultural ethos of the time emphasised Ireland was a rural, agrarian country, and until the 1950s, rural vocational schools were dissuaded from offering commercial subjects lest pupils would be tempted to leave agriculture.

The 1960s is fondly remembered as the decade when free secondary schooling was extended to all pupils. A new emphasis on industrial expansion resulted in radical proposals to transform Ireland’s education system to support the needs of a more industrial economy. Ministers for education Patrick Hillery and George Colley wanted to create a network of State comprehensive schools, offering a broad academic/applied curriculum up to age 16. There were also plans for a technical leaving certificate, which would be taught in regional technical colleges.

But Donough O’Malley’s announcement in September 1966 that free secondary schooling would be introduced within 12 months left no time to change the system. Most of the additional pupils were enrolled in traditional secondary schools, and plans for a technical leaving certificate were quietly shelved.

Secure jobs

At the time, most parents wanted their children to follow a traditional academic curriculum, because this was seen as offering secure jobs (in the civil service) and high status. When the National Institute of Higher Education in Limerick opened in 1972, offering a range of courses geared towards business, many Limerick parents regretted the fact it was not a traditional university, offering courses in law and medicine; these were all added later. The institutes of technology have also come under pressure to offer programmes in law, accountancy and architecture – reflecting a continuing preference for recognisable professional careers.

These preferences reflect Ireland’s historic legacy as a predominantly rural society with little first-hand knowledge of industry and technology, and an education system, much of which was created without State assistance. Understanding our history will not provide solutions to contemporary problems, but it may help focus attention on some of the critical issues. Let the debate continue.

Professor Mary E Daly is a member of the UCD School of History and Archives and has carried out extensive research on the economic and social history of modern Ireland