Fintan O’Toole: Ireland’s education system was rigid and violent

Brutality lingered as a set of attitudes long after it was banished as official practice

In June 1927, when the State was itself in its infancy, the great pioneer of child-centred education, Maria Montessori, visited Waterford. She stayed for a weekend with the Ursuline nuns and then spent a morning at the Quaker-run Newtown School.

Montessori's methods were being put into practice there. According to a brief report in The Irish Times she was impressed: "She was particularly interested in the artistic productions of the children of about nine to 12 years of age, declaring them unique, so far as her experience went. Russia was the only place in which she had seen work in any way resembling the efforts of the Waterford children."

Ireland, it seemed, could be at the forefront of progressive ideas about who children were and how they should develop. If we were to take this moment on its own, it would seem to make sense as a concrete expression of the ideas about childhood that were present in the DNA of independent Ireland.

One of its icons, Patrick Pearse, was an educationalist whose views about the need for children to be at the centre of their own education, strongly articulated in his essay The Murder Machine, were heavily influenced by Montessori.


“The main objective in education”, Pearse insisted, “is to help the child to be his own true and best self.”

And this idea of the child as an independent person with his or her own rights and needs was at the heart of the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, whose radicalism in addressing children as citizens of the Republic (not "future citizens") is the inspiration for The Irish Times's No Child 2020 campaign.

The radical thinking about childhood in the Democratic Programme is likely, in turn, to have been influenced by the most widely read socialist thinker in the English language, the Irish playwright Bernard Shaw. In 1914 Shaw had boldly compared the treatment of children by adults of that of blacks by whites; in both cases, he argued, there was "a denial of political rights".

Long before the notion of children’s rights was anywhere enshrined in law, Shaw argued that the child’s “rights, being those of any other human being, are summed up in the right to live . . . And this right to live includes, and in fact is, the right to be what the child likes and can, to do what it likes and can, to make what it likes and can, to think what it likes and can . . . The right to liberty begins not at the age of 21 years but of 21 seconds.”

In February 1934, Maria Montessori returned to Ireland to examine trainees graduating from a six-month course in her methods. While in Dublin, she visited St Ultan’s infant hospital in Charlemont Street, another institution animated by a belief in the dignity of all children.

Fierce attacks

It, too, had impeccably nationalist credentials – its founders Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen had both taken part in the 1916 Rising as members of the Irish Citizen Army. Again, it would seem that the progressive idea of childhood deeply embedded in the founding principles of the State was acquiring some reality.

And yet, this second visit by Montessori to Dublin in 1934 was the occasion for a series of fierce attacks on her by the most influential figure in the Irish educational establishment.

Fr Timothy Corcoran was a Jesuit priest and professor of education at University College Dublin. He was also the principal adviser in the field to the new State. Joseph O'Neill, secretary of the Department of Education, was in awe of Corcoran and wrote that: "In the reconstruction of the Irish State, he was from the beginning the master builder in education."

Corcoran launched a passionate attack on Montessori and her idea that education should be centred on the child rather than on the teacher. He insisted that children’s natural folly must be driven out by “the rod of correction” and controlled by “authoritative direction”.

He raged in print at her emphasis on the child’s freedom to learn, her scorn for systems of punishment and reward, and her undermining of the need for rigid control from above. He described her claim that her methods were rooted in Greek and Christian philosophy as “an astonishing specimen of braggart blasphemy”.

Here we have, in very concrete terms, two utterly different ways of thinking about children in the new Irish State.

On the one hand, some Catholic religious orders like the Ursulines and the Dominicans, as well as some non-Catholic groups like the Quakers, were highly receptive to Montessori’s ideas that children are independent creatures with imaginations of their own that can be developed in a structured but nurturing environment.

On the other, the mainstream Catholic Church, speaking through Corcoran, (the historian Brian Titley calls him the church’s “watchdog” on educational matters and thus “the most influential figure in shaping the education system which emerged in the new Irish State”), regarded all of this as blasphemy. Children were to be understood as dangerous bundles of instincts needing to be tamed by discipline, authority and the threat (often the daily reality) of violence.

It should be stressed that Corcoran’s views were not definitively Catholic – the Ursulines and Dominicans obviously thought differently. Nor indeed were they distinctively religious. There was also at this time an international trend for pseudo-scientific “behaviourism” in which children (including infants) were to be “trained” as if they were dogs or horses. A generation of mothers was being instructed in Britain and the US that infants and toddlers must not be kissed and cuddled and that comforting them when they cried merely bred self-indulgence.

Tragically dominant

The fact, nevertheless, was that Corcoran’s ideas were tragically dominant in the new State and they derived their power from the overwhelming influence of an authoritarian institutional Catholicism. The education system was indeed rigid, top-down, exam-dominated and extremely violent.

For working-class children, it had its penal colonies – the industrial schools – to serve as a warning. They were the extremes of the system, but very much part of it. Physical assaults on children (sanitised as “corporal punishment”) were part of the school system until 1982 and were not made a criminal offence until 1996.

This brutality lingered as a set of attitudes long after it was banished as official practice. The most revolutionary thing about the Irish revolution – its promise of a transformation in the way children were both thought of and treated – was not merely unfulfilled. It was actively traduced.

The State reinforced the barriers against progressive thought about childhood even when they were being dismantled in other countries. A new nation became one of the most grotesque upholders of the old ways and generations of children suffered accordingly.

If the State, like the child, is to “be its own true and best self”, it has to overcome that shameful legacy and rediscover the joys of its own infancy.