Education in 1930s Ireland

Education in the 1930s in Ireland under the leadership of Thomas McDerrig, a Fianna Fail TD who was the Minister of Education from 1932-1939

Figure 1: Thomas Derrig, Minister for Education from 1932 to 1939 (Dubhghaill, 2022).

Thomas Derrig was the Minister of Education from 1932 to 1939. Derrig was one of the founding members of the Fianna Fail and remained as a national executive for many years after this. Originating from Westport, Co. Mayo, he was the son of a seamstresses and a
carman. He went to secondary school in the CBS in Westport and won a scholarship to attend University College Galway, where he studied commerce. Derrig was heavily involved in the Nationalist movement in Ireland and was arrested multiple times for his involvement, one of which was during the 1916 Rising when he was arrested and imprisoned in Frongoch, in Wales. In 1919, Derrig graduated from University College Galway with a Bachelor of
Commerce. During the Civil War period while being the headmaster of the Ballina Technical School, Derrig was the commandant of the Westport battalion and the West Mayo brigade for
the Irish Republican Army (Dempsey, 2009). In July 1924, Derrig returned to his position as headmaster in the Ballina, however, he soon resigned due to him not wanting to sign the declaration of allegiance to the Irish Free State. From here Derrig decided to move to Dublin and become a teacher in the CBS North Richmond Street, where he got a higher diploma in education. Derrig’s political views clearly effected his role as the Minister of Education, and this could be seen in the education system of the 1930s in Ireland.

Primary School Education in the 1930s.

 Curriculum

Figure 2: The Girls attending the Clarecastle National School’s official opening 1935 (Barry, F. et al., 2007: 16).

Figure 3: The Boys attending Clarecastle National School in 1935 for the official opening of the school (Barry, F. et al., 2007: 16).

Primary School education in the 1930s did not change much in the curricular subjects in comparison to the education system in the post-Civil War decade, which was led by Eoin MacNeill as the Minister of Education originally. However, that does not mean that it was not
the subject to debate in the Dail Eireann, an example of one these debates is the question brought up to the Minister of Education, Thomas Derrig, by the TD, J.J. Byrne, the question being if the Minister of Education would state the amount of primary school students that would qualify for the Primary Certificate Examinations in 1931, the number of students that presented themselves, the number of primary certificates awarded and then the number of students that failed the Primary Certificate. This was answered by Mr Derrig with him stating the following: “The Primary School Certificate Scheme is intended for children who have completed at least the sixth standard course for national schools. The number of pupils enrolled—sixth and higher standards— on the 30th of June 1931, was 46,508. Such of these pupils as had not already obtained the certificate in previous years were eligible to compete at the examination in 1931. 9,198 pupils sat at that examination and certificates have been awarded to 7,120, while 1,902 failed to pass the examination” (Oireachtas, 1932). From this statement, it can be understood that there were 46,508 primary school students, which were in the equivalent of sixth class in today’s primary school standards, and there was a massive decrease from this figure for students that attended and passed these examinations. Derrig would also go on to state that there needed to be more of a revival of the Irish language and culture in the teaching of education in Ireland with him specifically stating that: The heart and core of all our work in the creation of a National State must be the revival of the national language as the spoken language of the people, for in the Irish language lies enshrined for us the genius of our race. If we lose our language, we lose our national heritage. In its songs, its prayers and its proverbs are expressed the Gaelic soul of our people (Donovan, 2024: 22). This pressure to have Irish more prevalent had been present in the implementation of the education to the children of Ireland after the creation of the Irish Free State and for many years after. The main piece of legislation for primary school education that was introduced under Thomas Derrig, was the Revised Programme of Primary Institution in September 1934 (Donovan, 2024: 23). This Revised Programme had the compulsory subjects of Irish, English, Arithmetic, Music, History and Geography for senior standards, and for girls it was compulsory to do needlework. For the non-compulsory subjects it depended on the availability in the specific subjects, for example in larger boy’s schools Algebra and Geometry were available. The allowance for English to be taught in infant classes “was no longer permitted” if the teacher was capable of teaching through Irish alone (Donovan, 2024: 23). The word ‘Kindergarden’ was completely wiped from the programme for the infant classes and drill was now the word to be used when describing games in the infant class, this was to help fasten the pace of the progress in teaching Irish and in the spread of teaching through Irish (Donovan, 2024: 23).

This modification to the programme for the primary school curriculum would remain for the next three decades and was there only to promote the revivalist aims of the Irish Free State and Gaelicisation.

 Corporal Punishment

In current times, corporal punishments relationship with schools across Ireland over the years has become increasingly discussed both academically and publicly and this is due to multiple court cases and allegations that have come out over the years that are being taken more seriously now. The 1930s are no exception, there was one case that was more current to the 1930s that was based upon the lack of following the corporal punishment rules that had been set in place that showcase how corporal punishment should be conducted. These rules were the following,

  1. Corporal punishment should be administered only for grave transgression [never for failure in lessons (this last phrase was deleted in 19331 and added again in 1946)].
  2. The Principal Teacher only should inflict the corporal punishment. An interval of at least ten minutes should elapse between the offence and the punishment.
  3. Only a light cane or rod may be used for the purpose of inflicting the corporal punishment. The boxing of children’s ears, the pulling of their hair, and similar ill treatment are absolutely forbidden, and will be visited with severe penalties.
  4. No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment.
  5. Frequent recourse to corporal punishment will be considered by the Department as indicating bad tone and ineffective discipline (Maguire and Cinnéide, 2005: 639).

Figure 4: A copy of ‘Instructions regarding the Infliction of Corporal Punishment in National Schools’ from Leamy School in 1925 (Reddit, 2022)

A case of corporal punishment that went against these rules was the case of when a group of parents in Currane, Co. Mayo in 1929 wrote to the Department of Education complaining about the principal and two other teachers from the local national school with allegation of
numerous violations of the corporal punishment regulations. With this letter there was a treat that the parents would withdraw their children from the school if the Department of Education did not address the situation. Three weeks later there was no change and 120 students out of the 133 students in the school were withdrawn and the police started investigating the parents under the School Attendance Act, this was however stopped by the district justice and the Department of Education was called to have an inquiry. The Departments Divisional Inspector found that there were no problems in the running of the school, but he did find issues with the corporal punishment that the school were carrying out and he recommended the removal of the three teachers that the allegations were against. However, this never occurred due to the Deputy Chief Inspector declaring that the teachers should instead be fined for “non observance of the rules regarding the infliction of corporal punishment.” In 1932, the Department of Education concluded that ‘the failure of the teachers to observe the corporal punishment regulations in spirit and in fact was probably a temporary lapse on their part’ (Maguire and Cinnéide, 2005: 641). The whole investigation highlighted the ineffectiveness in addressing major complaints against corporal punishment and how little was done when they decided to investigate some of the allegations.

Secondary School Education in the 1930s

Figure 5: O’Connell School Boys, late 1930s ( – Now Ye’re Talkin’, 2017).

 Curriculum

Secondary schools in Ireland conducted two examinations for their students, the Intermediate Certificate and the Leaving Certificate. When Minister of Education Thomas Derrig was asked in the Dail Eireann in 1932 about the number of students that participated in both exams, both boys and girls, he responded with figures that were passed around the Dail. These figures are below (Oireachtas, 1932):

I Boys

No. Exd. No. who obtained Honours No. who passed without Honours

% %

Intermediate Certificate 2,504 38.1 34.5

Leaving Certificate* 954 45.3 32.0


No. Exd. No. who obtained Honours No. who passed without Honours

% %

Intermediate Certificate 1,738 39.5 34.1

Leaving Certificate* 625 51.4 29.9

II. Percentage of passes in certain subjects:

Subject Boys Girls

Mathematics 72.1 56.5

English 84.0 90.1

History and Geography 64.0 64.5

Irish 75.4 79.9

Science 76.4 74.7

Domestic Science — 82.3


Subject Boys Girls

Mathematics 74.1 54.9

English 92.3 94.6

History 73.1 75.1

Geography 79.8 87.1

Irish 93.6 97.2

Domestic Science — 99.2

Chemistry 84.1 75.0

Botany 0.0 93.6

Physics 84.3 100.0

Physiology and Hygiene 0.0 92.7

Rural Science 65.9 93.3

Applied Mathematics 83.9 0.0

All these figures open quite a lot of discussion about what secondary schooling was like for both boys and girls. For example, there was multiple subjects that were taught to girls but not to boys, such as Physiology and Hygiene, and Domestic Science. This could also be seen in subjects that were only available for male students and not the female students, such as Applied Mathematics. These differences in the provision of subjects regarding gender were caused by the patriarchal system that only allowed women to conduct what was classed as feminine roles, such as sewing, cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the home. However, even though the young ladies in 1930s Ireland were not able to do certain subjects that did not
mean that they did not do well in their exams even doing better overall in comparison to their male counterparts. This could be seen with the results in the Physics Leaving Certificate examination results, with 100% of girls passing the exam with honours in comparison to 84%
of boys passing their exams with honours. This highlights that even though they had many prejudices against them, they excelled in many of the subjects that they were allowed to do.


Overall, education in the 1930s in Ireland was not as developmental as years to come but it did showcase the changes that had been made to promote the Gaelic Revival and how the Department of Education needed to act on certain matters more than others, such as the implementation of corporal punishment in schools across Ireland, more importantly the allegations of incorrect use of corporal punishment by teachers.

Amy Clarke, March 2024. MoCI, March 2024


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and Stack, M. (2007). Memories in Black and White: Clarecastle National School 2007.
[online]. Available at:
content/uploads/sites/5/2021/01/Memories-in-Black-White-1.pdf. – Now Ye’re Talkin’. (2017). Old pictures from Dublin Schools c. 1930. [online]
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Oireachtas, H. of the (1932). Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. – Intermediate and Leaving Certificate Examinations. – Dáil Éireann (7th Dáil) – Wednesday, 27 Apr 1932 – Houses of the Oireachtas. [online] Available at:
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