Education in 1950s Ireland

The 1950s was a period of recovery and reorganisation across the world after World War II and Ireland was no exception. It was a time of economic hardship, mass unemployment, and an increase in emigration amongst young Irish people.

Figure 1: Sean Moylan, former Minister for Education, Fianna Fáil TD, and ex-IRA Commandant (MacGuill, 2015).

There were four Ministers of Education in Ireland during the 1950s and these were, in order of years, Gen. Richard Mulcahy (1948-1951), Sean Moylan (1951-1954), Gen. Richard Mulcahy (1954- 1957), and John Lynch (1957-1959) (, 2019).

Gen. Richard Mulcahy was Minister of Education from 1948-1951 and again from 1954-1957. Mulcahy was born in Waterford in 1886 and attended the Christians Brothers Schools in Mount Sion and in Thurles. His father was a post clerk. He quit formal education when he was sixteen years old to work with his father, however further  education for Mulcahy was self-taught, working towards a diploma in engineering, by taking night classes in Bolton Street and Kevin Street collages. When Mulcahy was offered a scholarship to study in the College of Science, unfortunately the post office would not approve a three year leave of absence which led to him being yet again hindered in education.

Richard Mulcahy was heavily involved in the nationalist movement of the early 20th century, including the 1916 Rising, which earned him his military reputation and led to him being the IRA Chief of Staff and his introduction into the new Irish political sphere after the Civil War (Fanning, 2009).

Sean Moylan was Minister of Education from 1951 to 1954. Moylan was born in Limerick in 1889 and was the eldest of five children. His father was a building contractor while his mother was a stay-at-home mother and homemaker. He was educated in Kilmallock, Co.Limerick and would later go on to become a carpenter’s apprentice in 1905, at the age of sixteen. This seems a coincidence in Ministers of Education (Richard Mulcahy also leaving school at 16 to work in the post office.)

His family were heavily involved in the republican movement with his grandfather being a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. As a result this caused  Moylan to be involved in republican organisations such as the GAA and Gaelic League. His republicanism became radicalised when he moved to Dublin in 1909 to work. When Moylan returned home in 1914, he joined the Volunteers and would later start up another branch in Cork, where he was elected captain. He evaded arrest during 1916 and became heavily involved in the reorganisation of the Volunteers and Sinn Féin.

During the War of Independence, Moylan went on to become one of the strongest guerrilla leaders as the commander of the second Cork flying battalion. In 1921, he was elected to the second Dáil for the eight seat Cork Mid, North, South, South-East and West constituency, and it was from here that Moylan left behind his soldier roots and became a politician (Kearns, 2009).

Figure 2: John ‘Jack’ Lynch, Minister of Education 1957-1959 (Fanning, 2010).

John or ‘Jack’ Lynch was the Minister of Education from 1957-1959. He was born in 1917 in Shandon, a working-class area of Cork city. His mother was a seamstress and his father a tailor. Lynch attended school at the St Vincents Convent, Peacock Lane, and the North Monastery CBS. It was in the CBS that he won a secondary school scholarship. Lynch was heavily involved in sports with him being, ‘interested in all sports, attending soccer and rugby matches as well as Gaelic football and hurling.’ In 1938, at the age of 20, Lynch was captaining both the senior men’s hurling and Gaelic football teams.

In 1936, he sat his Leaving Certificate, which led to him joining the civil service and him passing his entrance exams for the Agricultural Credit Corporation, the Electricity Supply Board, and teacher training college. When called to the bar in 1945 Lynch left all his future possibilities for a promising career in the Civil Service to become a barrister in Cork.

Resignation from the civil service made Lynch eligible to work in the Dáil and this was when Fianna Fáil approached him to run for the Cork by-election in 1946, something that he declined. It was not until the 1948 election campaign that Lynch became fully involved with politics, leading to him becoming Minister of Education, Minister of Finance, and then Taoiseach (Fanning, 2010).

Primary School Education in the 1950s.

In a video filmed in the 1950s at the Primary school in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, some of the primary school experience can be seen. It displays the students learning mathematics, Irish, geography and other subjects that were to be taught in the primary school curriculum.

There is a clear relationship between the church and education in the video with religious orders being in the majority as educators and teachers in schools, something that has been a prominent feature in schooling in Ireland since the beginning of the national school system and the creation of the Irish Free State.

Many primary schools in Ireland are located quite close to churches or religious institutions, an example of this is the Mercy Convent Primary School in Naas, Co. Kildare. The school was founded in 1839 by the Mercy order nuns and it is a Catholic primary school that continues to present itself through its mission statement,

‘To affirm the pupils’ basic goodness, to promote their dignity, to honour their fundamental rights and to develop their gifts to the fullest. To educate the children to live responsibly, with God’s help, for the fullness of life that God wills for them and for others; To convince and train the children to live knowing that their lives are worthwhile and have historical significance, that their every good effort advances the good of all. Through our whole curriculum we aim to promote the ancient conviction of Irenaeus, that ‘the glory of God is the human person fully alive’ (Mercy Convent).

The school is also located directly beside the Church of Our Lady and St David, which predates the primary school by a few years.

Figure 3: Mercy Convent Primary School, Naas, Co. Kildare.

The Catholic Church’s relationship with education in Ireland in the 1950s.

The relationship between church and education was seen in the types of schools in Ireland, such as industrial schools, private schools, and vocational schools. The Catholic Church had a heavy involvement with the industrial schools across the country, with there being fifty-one of these schools in the 1950s (Kennedy, 2019).

Figure 4: St Joseph’s Industrial School, Artane run by the Christian Brothers from 1870-1969(Wikipedia, 2024).

St Joseph’s Industrial school in Artane was the largest all boys industrial school in 1950 with 751 boys attending the school. The largest girl’s industrial school in 1950 was St. Vincent’s Industrial School in Goldenbridge in Dublin, with 148 girls attending the school.

Figure 5: St Vincent’s Convent and Industrial School, Goldenbridge, Co. Dublin, c. 1900s (Higginbottom, n.d.).

Industrial schools in Ireland are aspects of Irish education confronted today with them being highly controversial with scandals that have become known over the years.

These scandals include neglect, abuse, sexual abuse and more. Industrial schools were made up of working-class children and they were labelled as ‘detainees’. Names were not included in records, and they could only be identified as numbers. In many cases young girls in these schools run by the catholic church, ended up in other institutions run by them, such as the Magdalene Laundries.

In some cases, children of impoverished families were placed in the care of the catholic industrial complex for financial relief, but when these families wished to have their children returned to them in many cases they could not have them back. Fiona Kennedy discusses how her great-grandmother made an attempt to take her son, Kennedy’s grandfather, out of the industrial school in Tralee where he had been for two months. Ultimately she got him out but he was then placed back in to the school that day and then remained there for four years (Kennedy, 2022).

One child that experienced the catholic industrial complex from the beginning of his life was Joe McAveety. Joe was born in 1951 in the mother and baby home in Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath, where he remained with his mother for the first two years of his life. He was then placed in St Patricks Industrial School in Kilkenny at the age of two. Joe said that his time in Kilkenny ‘was not good, the nuns were very cruel to us boys.’ When he was ten years old, he was transferred to St Joseph’s Industrial School in Salthill, Co. Galway and his time here was much worse, with him labelling it as a ‘jail’ and that he was lucky that he survived the school. Joe was one of the many of the children sexually abused in Salthill, and it was not done by just one brother but multiple brothers.

He was also physically abused. He detailed one incident about when he was working with a tailor in Salthill. He was sent back ill and so he went back to the school and went to bed. When the brothers found out about this, they asked who gave him permission to come back. As he did not want his employer to get in trouble, he said ‘nobody.’ The next morning, he was told to go to a classroom and this is what Joe says happened to him,

‘I went to the classroom and as soon as I went in the door, they attacked me with sticks, a hurley stick and a leather. I got an almighty hiding. I was trying to put my arms up against my face, everything, they just beat the hell out of me’ (Ryan, 2021).

‘The brother whipped him until his back was bleeding, then gave him an orange to keep quiet.’ Ryan, Ó. (2021). 

The Industrial school’s downfall can be attributed to the victims who survived and bravely told their stories. These stories of sexual abuse and physical abuse have become known, stories like Joe’s, and have caused major investigations, not just into the industrial schools but also into other institutions such as the mother and baby homes and the Magdalene Laundries.

By Amy Louise Clarke, Intern at the Museum of Childhood Ireland, March 2024.

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