Lessons from history – An Irishman’s Diary on Donogh O’Malley

Introduction of free secondary education was a key moment

Generations of Irish people have reason to be grateful to an Irish politician who was born 100 years ago on January 18th. His name was Donogh O'Malley and he was the minister for education who introduced free secondary education for everyone in Ireland up to the age of 18. By doing so, he opened up opportunities for so many people that had been closed to them up to that time.

From Corbally, Limerick, he was one of eight children born to civil engineer Joseph O'Malley and Mary Tooher. Educated at Crescent College in Limerick, Clongowes Wood College in Kildare, and UCG, he qualified as a civil engineer. He was an accomplished sportsman, playing interprovincial rugby, swimming for UCG and Munster, and representing Ireland at amateur soccer.

When he turned to politics, he brought some features of the sporting life with him, including a fondness for socialising and drinking. The latter got a grip on him and made it more difficult for him to make his way in politics.

He had been interested in politics from student days and was elected to the Dáil for Fianna Fáil in Limerick East in 1954, topping the poll in that and in the three subsequent general elections that he contested. He quickly established himself as a witty, capable, outgoing but unpredictable politician, being threatened with expulsion from his parliamentary party for public drunkenness in 1957.


However, he was extremely popular with the electorate in Limerick city. Elected to the city council in 1955, he won more votes than any other candidate and became senior alderman, a feat repeated five years later in the local elections. He was mayor of Limerick in 1961, his older brothers Desmond and Michael having previously held that office, but he resigned on becoming parliamentary secretary (equivalent to a junior minister today) to the minister of finance in October that year. His responsibility was for public works and he oversaw an extensive programme of school building and drainage, as well as establishing a scheme for national monuments.

For long having an interest in journalism, he cultivated journalists' company, which contributed to his growing reputation as an effective politician; his ability to come across well on the relatively new medium of television also helped in this regard. He was part of a new generation of young Fianna Fáil ministers, and he and Charles Haughey and Brian Lenihan became known as the "Three Musketeers". They socialised widely in hotels and restaurants in the company of businessmen and others; indeed, one Irish Press journalist ascribed to O'Malley the introduction of the mohair suit to Irish politicians. He had no qualms defending the use of political patronage.

A strong supporter of taoiseach Seán Lemass’s expansion of the Irish economy through public spending and attracting foreign direct investment, he was made minister for health after the 1965 general election.

His 1966 White Paper, "The health services and their further improvement", led to the abolition of the dispensary system and the creation of regional health boards. He also improved the lot of student nurses and junior hospital doctors, much to the horror of the Department of Finance, alarmed at the increase in government spending.

In July 1966, he became minister for education. He was well aware of how few Irish children went on to secondary school and the consequent loss of human resources and, at a National Union of Journalists seminar in September 1966, he announced the government would be introducing free secondary education for all children, with a free school-transport scheme for children living in remoter areas.

It is not clear whether he had Lemass’s prior approval for the public announcement but the initiative is one of the boldest ever undertaken in Irish political history and certainly one of the most far reaching.

His 1967 plan for the merger of UCD and Trinity College was strongly opposed by both universities and came to nothing but it led to cooperation between them and the weakening of the ecclesiastical ban on Catholics attending Trinity.

At the end of 1967, he announced the establishment of nine regional technical colleges, which broadened Irish third-level education and moved it beyond a mainly academic focus.

He died from a heart attack on March 10th, 1968, and his death caused widespread shock and sadness. In 1951, he had married Dr Hilda Moriarty (to whom Patrick Kavanagh addressed his famous poem On Raglan Road); they had a son, Daragh, and a daughter, Suzanne.

Donogh O'Malley's premature death caused him to be compared to Michael Collins and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

It cannot be known how much more he would have achieved in public life had he lived longer but it cannot be denied that his contribution to the future progress and development of his country was significant and generations look back with gratitude to him for the way their lives were enriched and made better by the education they received thanks to his initiative.