Education in 1920s Ireland

With the Irish Free State just coming into the Irish political sphere after the centuries long control by the United Kingdom, there needed to be a reconfiguration of the educational system within Ireland. This started with the creation of the Department of Education, which was formed on the 26th of August 1921, with Eoin MacNeill as the first minister of education. It was established as the Department of Education in 1924.

Figure One: Eoin MacNeill, age 43 during the 1911 Census. (Central Statistics Office,

Eoin MacNeill was the co-founder of the Gaelic League and was an avid supporter of the reintroduction of the Irish language into the education system, to preserve Irish culture and Heritage. He served as the first minister of education from 1922-1925, with John M. O’Sullivan being his successor in 1925 (Legal Blog). As Minister of Education MacNeill was inactive and this was due to his belief that the Church should oversee education and not the state. The main legislation that MacNeill set while in office was the pattern for the state education policy which lasted in the system until the 1960s and his principal legacy was the implementation of Irish as a compulsory subject.

Figure Two: John M. Sullivan, Minister of Education 1925-1932 (O’Shea, 2021).

John M. O’Sullivan was the Minister of Education from 1925 until 1932. He was educated in multiple prestigious schools, first attending St Brendan’s College in Killarney, then going on to attend the private Jesuit secondary school, Clongowes Wood College, and later studying in University College Dublin (UCD), University of Bonn and Heidelberg University, where he was awarded a PhD. In 1926, he was presented with the Second National Programme Conference by the I.N.T.O., which he accepted and then moved to make that the national curriculum. The Conference proposed changes to include a higher and lower course in Irish and English languages, which were to be taught depending on the linguistic capabilities of the teachers and students.

The Department of Education’s aim as declared to the government in 1925 was, ‘to work with all its might for the strengthening of the national fibre by giving the language, history, music, and tradition of Ireland their natural place in the life of Irish schools’ (Walsh, 2016: 5).

Education in both primary and secondary school education in 1920s Ireland was constrained by gender and by class and this could be seen within the curriculum, sports, and attendance demographics for boys and girls.

Primary School Education in the 1920s.

 Curriculum

Figure 3: Tulloha National School 1927, Courtesy of Fr. Shine Ed., Bonane, A Centenary
Celebration (

The image displayed shows that this school had a majority male attendance, a regular occurrence around Ireland at the time. In the 1830s, the National School Initiative was introduced in the United Kingdom and Ireland (Coolahan, 1981: 4). This initiative saw the creation of schools that would be controlled by a state body that intended to operate a education system that would be non- denominational that allowed children of all denominations to be educated together in secular subjects and that there would be separate arrangements made for when education regarding the different denominational tenets needed to be taught (Coolahan, 1981: 5). The state supported National School System intended to provide education to poorer classes of children and since its introduction into Ireland there was an impressive increase in attendance at these schools. For the 1921-1922 school year, the average enrolment in National schools was 497,761 and then in 1925-1926 school year, the average enrolment jumped to 518,002 (O Raifeartaigh, 1959: 43). The first National Programme Conference delivered a minimum programme that aimed to introduce mandatory subjects and when introduced in 1922, it was framed politically along the nationalist lines that were prevalent in the post-civil war period and was clearly unaware of the interests and abilities of the children attending these schools. It caused there to be a restriction in subjects such as English, Maths, History and Geography, needlework, and drill, and there was more of a focus on the teaching of the Irish language, with it to be taught one hour a day (Walsh, 2016: 6). This curriculum developed further by the second National Programme Conference in 1926, the programme’s main changes that were introduced, included higher and lower-level classes for students studying Irish and English languages and the allowing of teaching some English in the infant classes (Walsh, 2016: 6). Within curriculum documentation, the concept of a child stayed consistent in the 1920s and the 1930s with the definition being, ‘a child who needed to be filled with knowledge, to be moulded into perfection by strict discipline and the amassing of vast quantities of factual data’ (Walsh, 2016: 6).

 Sports

The subject that we now know as Physical Education was known as Drill in the early 20th century and in 1901, physical drill was being taught in 97.1% of primary schools in Ireland (Curran, 2021: 47). The status of drill as a mandatory subject was a heavily discussed topic
within the National Conference programme and it came down to a vote in 1925 between eleven conference members that resulted in a vote of 9:2 in favour of making the subject optional (Curran, 2021: 51). It is argued that this was due to the fact that there was not enough teachers to teach Drill as a subject and that even if there was enough that the teachers were either too old or too physically unfit to teach the subject, making it possibly the least taught subject in the schools. Something that definitely negatively affected the physical health and wellbeing of children attending primary school in the 1920s. The only schools that taught Drill as a subject were larger schools that were found within larger cities or towns in Ireland and the regarding smaller schools it was said that, ‘in a typical small school in the country … the atmosphere of the school is not suitable for the purpose of carrying out instruction in physical training’ (Curran, 2021: 53). This caused there to be a lack of physical education in Ireland for children.

 Attendance demographics for Boys and Girls

Ireland while being quite a liberal country still had its patriarchal system and education was not exempt from this. It could be seen clearly with the attendance of girls in primary school education in comparison to boys. There is extraordinarily little data regarding girls attending primary school but there is statistics regarding girls attending primary school and studying for their Intermediate Certificate, which was 136 girls that were attending seventeen primary schools (hÓgartaigh, 2009: 41).

Boys in primary school education in comparison to girls has clear differences seeing as they made up the majority of students and the majority male student enrolment could be seen much more clearly in rural areas.

Figure 4: Dromintee National School, c. 1923-24 with only male pupils (dú,
Secondary School Education in the 1920s.

 Curriculum

Secondary school education first began with the Intermediate Certificate that ties in with the primary school education for many children in the 1920s. Today the Intermediate Certificate is the equivalent to the Junior Certificate that is taken by third year secondary school students. The secondary school curriculum like the primary school curriculum changed with the development of the Irish Free State. This was a necessary reform since the second level education system being in a chronic state and that education provision needed to be rectified and addressed. This was an issue that was clear reported in a report by the Intermediate Education Board in 1920 by stating, ‘the whole edifice of secondary education in Ireland is toppling to destruction’ said the commissioners as they pleaded for better financial support for secondary education’ (Donovan, 2024: 3). A key feature of the Irish Free State government until recent times was its extremely close relationship with the Catholic Church and this was seen with the creation of Preparatory Colleges. The Preparatory College’s role was to educate young people with the necessary skills to become a secondary school teacher, with a four-year course that would be based on the Irish language, there were seven of these Catholic colleges and one that was Church of Ireland (Donovan: 12).

Figure 5: A needlework lesson in the teacher training college in the Training College of Our Lady of Mercy, Carysfort Park, Blackrock, Co. Dublin (National Library of Ireland on the Commons, 2020).

Gaelicisation was another key feature that was seen in all forms of education in the Irish system, while it was more prominent in the primary school system it was also present within the secondary school education system. Pádraig Ó Brolcháin was the Chief Executive Officer of the primary school system and he stated in his report, The Gaelicising of Ireland, ‘When the Training Colleges have been completely Gaelicised it is to be expected that the Primary Schools will gradually pass from the present almost unilingual-English stage through bilingualism to a unilingual-Irish stage in which Irish will be the normal speech of pupils and teachers in the classes, play-grounds, etc’ (Donovan: 14).

This meant that the secondary schools of Ireland were encouraged to continue the legacy of the Gaelicisation of Ireland after the primary schools through the teaching of Irish to the children of Ireland. This caused Irish to be a mandatory subject in the Intermediate Certificate exams from 1928 (Donovan: 25)

The curriculum of secondary schools was like the grammar school curriculum elsewhere and was restricted to those of more middle-class and upper-class backgrounds, in comparison to those in the working class. In 1932, only 60% of children went on further than primary school education (Donovan: 26). Overall, the numbers in the participation of students that sat the intermediate Certificate was 2,903, and 995 sat the Leaving Certificate in 1925 (ORaifeartaigh: 45).

 Attendance Demographics for Boys and Girls

There were clear differences in the statistics for boys and girls attending secondary school education and this was due to boys being more likely to attend secondary school than girls because girls were supposed to live up to the modest expectations of women at the time. A majority of second level schools were intended to prepare children to go on study to become teachers within the Preparatory Colleges that were suitable for their religion and gender, such as the Training College of Our Lady of Mercy in Blackrock, Co. Dublin. There was a total of 136 female students attending seventeen primary school preparing for their Intermediate Certificate and eighteen were preparing to sit their Leaving Certificate from a primary school.
While in comparison, only one boy sat each exam from primary school. This was possible due children being able to attend primary level schooling until the age of 16 and from there it was possible to train as a primary school teacher, something that was more accessible to those in lower economic classes (Ó hÓgartaigh: 41).

Figure 6: One of the girls only secondary schools established by the Loreto Sister, Loreto

Loreto Convent in Fermoy, was established in 1853, catering to both junior and senior students that could have been day students and borders (Loreto Secondary School, Fermoy). It was not until further years that education became more accessible to female students and
students of lower socio-economic background due to legislation that was introduced in the latter years of the twentieth century.

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

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[online] Flickr. Available at: Raifeartaigh, T. (1959). Changes and trends in our educational system since 1922. [online] Available at: .
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School Buildings in the 20th Century. [online] Available at: Walsh, T. (2016). 100 years of primary curriculum development and implementation in Ireland: a tale of a swinging pendulum. Irish Educational Studies, 35(1), pp.1–16. Doi:

  • Who was appointed as first minister of education?
  • His principal legacy was the implementation of —– as a compulsory subject. 
  • The Department of ———- aim as declared to the government in —- was, ‘to work with all its might for the strengthening of the national fibre by giving the language, ——- , music, and ——— of Ireland their natural place in the life of Irish schools.’
  • In the 1830s, what Initiative was introduced in the United Kingdom and Ireland?
  • Within curriculum documentation, the concept of a child stayed consistent in the 1920s and the 1930s with the definition being, ‘a child who needed to be filled with knowledge, to be moulded into perfection by strict ———- and the amassing of vast quantities of factual —-.
  • The subject that we now know as Physical Education was known as what in the early 20th Century?