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There was an admirable and consistent parallel focus on special needs, educational disadvantage and poverty

Kindling the Flame: 150 years of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation by Niamh Puirséil – striking the right balance

A measure of the INTO’s resilience is that it had 7,000 members in the North by 2017

The strength of the now 150-year-old Irish National Teachers Organisation– the longest and largest established teacher’s union and the only one organised island wide – was forged over decades. Class, religion, gender, politics and partition all weave their way through this lively history and Puirséil, a professional historian and highly regarded author of the Irish Labour Party 1922-73, has written a book that is well researched, accessible and fluent. Despite Puirséil’s family connections to the organisation (her father is a former president; my parents, too, were active members) this is not a vanity birthday publication; there are plenty of criticisms, the occasional withering put down and numerous reminders that the union was not without existential difficulties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in stark contrast to its status today, with 45,000 members.

Tom Garvin has noted that in the 19th century teachers “experienced a curious mix of power and powerlessness”. That characterisation remained relevant for decades; while deeply influential in the classroom, one of the key rules for national teachers in the mid 19th century was to “abstain from controversy”. Following the initiatives of philanthropist Vere Foster and the Dublin Teachers Association in 1868, however, it was clear that the issues of the status of teachers and the excessive power of their managers required assertiveness, resulting in the formation of the INTO with Foster as its first president.

Links with politicians and bishops were crucial especially when it came to one of the most enduring themes of this INTO story; reacting to arbitrary dismissals, including the sacking of Bridget Carey in Carlow in 1892 after 20 years teaching service by a “petty vexatious priest”, who then proceeded to victimise her until she ended up in an asylum after a breakdown. The INTO central executive acted belatedly but at least its eventual intervention meant that from then on a Bishop’s assent was needed for any such dismissals. By 1898, however, relations between the INTO and the bishops had broken down, partly due to the INTO’s “pride and poor judgement” in alienating their most important ally, Catholic Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin.

In the early 20th century, deputations to London were the order of the day to seek, amongst other things, wage and pension reforms, with mixed results. David Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1910 characterised Irish teachers as “plodding all their lives to teach on behalf of the empire at a wage which a navvy would refuse”; at that stage there were 6,298 female and 5,744 male members.

At the outset of the Irish Free State the Irish Teachers Journal confidently expected that “the Ireland of the future will honour the calling of the teacher” but the INTO was faced with wage cuts, snobbery and ministers and members who deferred to the Church on education. Following a work stoppage in 1933, The Irish Times declared, “teaching, although a noble profession is not, in the last resort, an essential trade”. There was also a marriage bar from 1934 – female teachers had to give up their jobs after marriage – which the Bishops refused to oppose due to what Puirséil suggests was a “crude combination of sexism – albeit of its time – and petty resentment with no evidential basis”. But it is suggested the INTO did not oppose the marriage bar trenchantly enough; in 1942 there was only one woman on an executive of eleven. General secretary T J O Connell insisted the INTO did not want a “sex war” but there was a cohort of more militant female members emerging.

The post-war focus on pay led to the 1946 teachers’ strike that lasted seven months. Archbishop John Charles McQuaid initially supported it but his later intervention ultimately ended it. While it finished in defeat and deepened fault lines between Dublin and the rest of the country it did not stop the INTO promoting educational welfare as evidenced by the Plan for Education in 1947 with its focus on equality, Irish as a medium of instruction and the school leaving age, but Puirséil makes the point “it fell on stony ground”. Minister for Education Tomás Derrig simply had no imagination, or in his own words, “There is no duty on to me to philosophise on education matters.”

Many battles the INTO fought were much longer than they had to be because of such political lethargy. Fine Gael’s Richard Mulcahy made this extraordinary admission: “I often feel ashamed of myself to think I was in the department of education for two periods of office and I ask myself, what did I do there?” As Puirséil spikily adds: “His FF counterpart might have asked himself the same question.”

Another big battle was for a common pay scale between primary and secondary teachers; it is remarkable that, in historian John A Murphy’s words, so much “time and vehement energy should have been devoted to preserving a salary deferential” by the secondary teachers’ union, the ASTI, due to a mixture of snobbishness and insecurity. It was a battle the INTO ultimately won, but other issues stubbornly persisted; another notorious dispute centred on Ballina with a Marist Brothers takeover of a school in 1956 after the lay principal retired. Three ministers for education would not intervene because “the state recognises the managerial system” and as the Bishops saw it, they had “the right and authority to do what they wished to do in school control, staffing and education matters generally”.

The INTO in the early 1960s may have been “in muscular form” but there was also the “shabby and unedifying” treatment of John McGahern, fired from his teaching post because of his fiction writing and unsupported by the INTO, while from 1972 until April 1978 there was not a single woman on the Executive. Fiona Poole broke with convention by forcing an election for the post of president in 1978 at a time when the INTO’s magazine suggested, “working mothers are to be admired but mothers working with their families are to be admired most”. Nonetheless, the smear campaign against Poole, because of her marriage break up and involvement in the Irish Family Planning Association, won her more votes than it cost her and in 1982 Catherine Byrne was appointed equality officer, the INTO the first of the trade unions to have a full-time equality position.

What of the 1990s and beyond? Puirséil rightly exercises caution in not attempting to bring the same in-depth analysis to recent decades but highlights attacks on teachers and the public service, controversy over religious ethos, technology, sex education and whether the INTO modernised “at the expense of its strength as an organisation”. Education and administrative reforms were relentless during the Joe O’Toole era but did the leadership become too close to the seat of government at the height of social partnership and were deals done with enough transparency? Those questions can be debated but one measure of the success of the INTO’s strategy was that Irish teachers were the third best paid in the OECD in 2008 and there was an admirable and consistent parallel focus on special needs, educational disadvantage and poverty. As Minister for Education Noel Dempsey put it “within 10 or 11 minutes of a meeting with the INTO we ended up talking about education and children even if it started with pay and allowances”.

A crucial part of the INTO story is the fact that it remained an all island union. Puirséil devotes considerable attention to this and rightly so. There were many difficulties with comprehending northern colleague’s problems; they too faced hefty pay cuts in the 1920s and 1930s and were victims of the abuse of power and the lack of a full-time dedicated Northern secretary was problematic. There was a big recruiting challenge with only 1,288 members in 1951; John Duffin, Belfast stalwart of the INTO, felt the need to say in 1957 “if you are sick of us tell us . . . you are always pointing the finger and wondering what is our next dangerous move”. With direct rule from the early 1970s education administration became exceptionally centralised; the INTO in the North also had to cope with the existence of a rival union in the form of the Ulster Teachers Union. But a measure of the INTO’s resilience is that it had 7,000 members in the North by 2017.

This book does justice to the difficulties, achievements, mistakes and triumphs that have made the INTO a towering trade union and illuminates the implications of excessive religious control of primary schools as well as skilfully excavating the politics of education. It also underlines how, historically, the INTO has, more often than not, struck a balance between the interests, pay and conditions of its members and serving educational and by extension societal progress. Its first president Vere Foster has been described as one whose work was characterised by a vibrant humanity and a disregard for the pretensions of class; those themes are also at the heart of the INTO’s history.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD and an ‘Irish Times’ columnist. His next book, ‘On the Edge: Ireland’s Offshore Islands, A Modern History’ will be published in September by Profile Books.