An Irishman's Diary


AS THE Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, established by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, considers the future of primary school management, it is timely to look back at the life of an eccentric churchman who has been called “Ireland’s head schoolmaster”.

 Richard Whately was professor of economics in Oxford in the 1820s. He had made his reputation with two great tomes, Elements of Logic and Elements of Rhetoric, which were widely used as university texts. He was an unorthodox teacher, disliking rote learning, always challenging his students to think for themselves. Instead of the conventional gown, he wore a long white coat and beaver hat and was nicknamed “the white bear”. He was relatively liberal in his views – a latitudinarian, as the term then was – and seemed destined to see out his days in academia.

It came as a surprise to all, not least Whately himself, when he was offered the position of archbishop of Dublin in 1831. It was known that he supported Catholic Emancipation, opposed evangelicalism and had relaxed views about observing the Sabbath.

He sympathised with Catholic grievances, especially over the issue of tithes, and was well aware of the siege mentality of the minority Anglican Church. He wrote to a friend: “I have been called to the helm of a crazy ship in a storm.”

Whately’s appointment coincided with the issuing of the “Stanley letter”, the document which became the blueprint of the national school system, as detailed in An Irishman’s Diary of April 4th, 2011. He was one of the seven commissioners on the board of education, and collaborated particularly well with his Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Daniel Murray. The historian Donald Akenson believes that “the Whately-Murray axis was the foundation stone of the Irish national education system”, as without their cordial working relationship it might not have survived its early trials.

Whately’s personality and behaviour did nothing to win over his critics. He was pompous and overbearing, and had little patience with lesser minds. He debated rather than conversed and always had to have the last word. Puns, quips, riddles, word-play and aphorisms were the stuff of every gathering, and the experience could be excruciating for his colleagues.

An ill clergyman asked Whately for permission to go to New Zealand for the sake of his health and received the reply, “By all means go to New Zealand; you are so lean that no Maori could eat you without loathing.” Irritated by another prattling cleric, Whately posed the question, “Pray, sir, why are you like the bell of your own church?” After receiving some polite response, Whately said: “No, it is because you have a long tongue and an empty head.”

This quip from Whately gained wide currency: “Why cannot a man starve in the great desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But how did the sandwiches get there? Noah sent Ham and his descendants mustered and bred.”

His personal eccentricities caused outrage in social circles. He had a habit of contorting his body in unusual ways, particularly his legs. The chief secretary, Lord Morpeth, described his behaviour during an official discussion: Whately “stuck his legs in the air and was very much occupied with hitting flies on his head.” At a dinner once the provost of Trinity was sitting next to Whately and was alarmed to find that archbishop’s foot was practically in his lap.

In spite of controversies over policy, the national schools expanded dramatically. Almost all Catholic bishops were in favour of the new system, and almost all Protestant bishops were against it. As an enthusiast for the schools, Whately was an isolated figure within his own community, not for the only time in his career. It cannot have been a comfortable experience for him, but it is a telling sign of his stubborn, principled independence of mind. This quality of courageous leadership was his outstanding characteristic.

The national schools were originally intended to be multi-denominational, and applications made jointly by Protestant and Catholic clergy were particularly encouraged. Young people of both religions were meant to attend classes together, but to have their specific religious instruction separately, outside school hours. Whately saw a unifying role for mixed, rather than denominational, education. However, as the system evolved, it became highly denominational and has remained so. The present forum, chaired by Prof John Coolahan, is now set to recommend radical changes in management structures.

Whately also wrote a series of primary school textbooks, and one of them, Easy Lessons on Money Matters, became a bestseller and was translated into many languages, including Irish, Maori, Armenian and Japanese. Whately was a prodigious writer of theological and philosophical tomes, but these short books sold so widely that he later said “all my best books are the little ones”. One of his few successful initiatives was in Trinity College Dublin, where he endowed the Whately chair of economics, and he is recognised as the founding father (and the funding father) of economics in Ireland.

In 1852, Paul Cullen succeeded Archbishop Murray, and a series of bitter conflicts led to Whately’s resignation from the Education Board in 1853. Deeply disillusioned, he became reclusive, and when his health failed, he refused medical treatment, trusting in homeopathy instead. His last years were tragic and his death came in 1863. He was buried in the crypt of Christchurch, and there is a fine memorial to him in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

The actor Kevin Whately – Insp Lewis of TV fame – is a direct descendant of the archbishop, and it is appropriate that many of the fictional detective’s inquiries take place in the environs of Oxford, where the spirit of his extraordinary ancestor still hovers.