1940s Education in Ireland

Eamonn De Valera, c. 1918–1920. Photo Wikipedia

The Minister of Education in Ireland for the 1940s period was originally the same one as the in the 1930s period, Thomas Derrig.
Derrig was Minister of Education from 1932-1939, where he was replaced for short amount of time by Eamonn De Valera. Derrig returned as Minister of Education from 1940-48. Thomas Derrig was a founding member of Fianna Fáil and was one the national executives for years after this. He was born in Westport, Co. Mayo, and he was the son of a carman and a seamstress. He attended the CBS in Westport and won a scholarship to study commerce in University College Galway. Derrig was heavily involved in the nationalist movement, and it caused him to be arrested multiple times before the creation of the Irish Free State. After Derrig was released from one of these arrests he returned to his education and received a Bachelor of Commerce from University College Galway and went on to become a headmaster in the Ballina Technical School during the Civil War period. After the Civil War, Derrig returned to his position as headmaster in Ballina however this did not last long as Derrig soon resigned, refusing to sign a Declaration of Allegiance to the Irish Free State. Derrig then went on to move to Dublin and became a teacher in the Christian Brothers School located on North Richmond Street and studied here to also get a higher diploma in education (Dempsey, 2009).

Richard Mulcahy during the Civil War (Maxwell, 2013)

Thomas Derrig’s replacement was Richard Mulcahy who served as Minister of Education from 1948 to 1951 and he was the one that implemented the most legislation during the 1940s in comparison to Derrig. Richard Mulcahy was born in Waterford in 1886 and his father was a post clerk. Mulcahy was educated in the Christian Brothers Schools in Mount Sion and Thurles. He left school at the age of sixteen years old to join the post office with his father. For most of his education, he was self-taught. He applied to get a diploma in engineering, which he did, and he took night classes in Bolton Street and Kevin Street. This was short lived due to the post office refusing to let him take a three-year absence when he was offered a scholarship to study in the College of Science. Mulcahy was heavily involved in the Nationalist movement much like Thomas Derrig, however Mulcahy was more involved in the fighting in 1916 which earned him a very good military reputation that ultimately led to him being announced as the IRA Chief of Staff and his introduction in the new Irish political sphere post-Civil War (Fanning, 2009).

Primary School Education in the 1940s

Rutland Street School Dublin Confirmation photo, late 1930s/1940s (Pinterest)

 Curriculum
There were many calls for the reform of the primary curriculum by the INTO that seemed to fall constantly on the deaf ears of government circles. This was due to the government seeing education as form of cultural nationalism and they weren’t very particular about the way it was taught and that they were only interested in the result, this could be seen from a statement that Eamonn De Valera made to the Dail Eireann in 1943 when he said,

‘I am less interested in the teacher’s method of teaching than I am in the results he achieves, and the test I would apply would be the test of an examination’ (Walsh, 2005: 260).

In 1941 the INTO issued a Report of Committee of Inquiry into the use of Irish as a Teaching Medium to Children whose Home Language is English due to the consensus of infant teachers believing that teaching through Irish inhibited the child intellectually, caused the child to repress their urge of expression, and that it was causing some children to become mentally or physically damaged (Walsh, 2005: 261). In 1948, the Revised Programme for Infants was introduced. This programme was like the ideologies that were advocated in the 1900 Programme, with it campaigning that, the aim of the Infant School is to provide the atmosphere and background in which the child’s whole personality may develop naturally and easily. It should therefore take cognisance of the child’s interests, activities, and speech needs, and utilise them to the full in aiding and directing such developments (Walsh, 2005: 261). This new programme aimed to help equip the young children of Ireland with a fluent command of the native language by making Irish the primary language in infant classes. The teachers of these infant classes embraced the programme with varying degrees of enthusiasm as they appreciated the positives aspects but also highlighted that there was a lack of
resources that would allow the programme to be achieved successfully.

 Lived experiences of primary school students in Ireland

Primary school children in Ireland had very different experiences of education in the 1940s, in comparison to the experiences of primary school children in current times. This difference can be attributed to the lack of access to education for many people living rurally to the schools in their locality.

Harsh Reality of School Life in 1940s Ireland | Irish BEO

Mary in the recording above, interviewed by her granddaughter Emer, detailing her experiences of her schooling in St. Joseph’s National School Carrabane during the 1940s (IrishBeo, 2009). She discusses how she began school at the age of four in 1940 and would have to be carried over the fields by the older girls in the school because of her size. She also discussed how that during the summer months they would go barefoot and that during the winter months they would have to wear their boots. Mary also detailed how she would experience corporal punishment from her teacher, with her saying that he would keep ‘lashing them and lashing them’ and saying that he would say ‘I will make you’ when they misbehaved. She also discussed her experience during the war years, saying that they would never get tea they could only drink milk. This portrays World War II affecting quite a lot of countries, even with Ireland being neutral the country was still negatively affected by the war.

Figure 2: Ration books from 1944 (Costello, 2015)

When discussing her teacher and Irish, Mary said that he was a very good Irish teacher with him being very good at teaching it and that he taught them many Irish songs. This supports the continued promotion of the revival of the Irish language that had been introduced time and time again in the education system ,that can be seen especially during the 1940s through the Revised Programme of Infants, 1948.

Secondary School Education in the 1940s.

 Curriculum
Secondary schools in Ireland was of two types, vocational state-controlled schools or church affiliated schools that were private and fee paying. Vocational schools were classed as the ‘poor man’s or poor woman’s secondary schooling’ with them providing two-year courses that would prepare students for work or further technical studies or training. All secondary schooling however had a core curriculum that had the compulsory inclusion of Irish language and literature, and the rest of the curriculum maintained the same curriculum of grammar schools in Britain that focused on classical languages and literature, with little to no emphasis on the study of sciences (O’Reilly, 2012: 242).

A statement showing the governments idea that education was what was needed to revive the Irish language and culture is found within a speech by Eamonn De Valera that he made during the height of the Second World War. The statement is that, the ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed about, would be the home
of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, while fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose fields would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that men should live (O’Reilly, 2012: 244).

Overall education in Ireland seemed to be constantly controlled with the idea of Nationalism that conquered the Irish political sphere after the creation of the Irish Free State in the 1920s and this was even furthered by the enactment of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which saw Ireland now being declared as a republic in 1949.

Written by Amy Clarke, Intern at the Museum of Childhood Ireland, Músaem Óige na hÉireann, March 2024.

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