Education in 1960s Ireland

The opening of Ballymun Comprehensive School (O’Moore, 2015).

Life in the 1960s was influenced by the civil rights movement across the world, and by the ‘cold war’ of the United States and the Soviet Union. Ireland also experienced changes and civil unrest during this period. 

Northern Ireland witnessed the beginning of the ‘The Troubles’ with the sectarian divide between Protestants and Catholics. 

The 1960s, as a decade, was defined by cultural change and political instability. The period was also a period of economic stagnation with elevated levels of emigration and unemployment and little done by government to help rectify this.

Education in Ireland was not exempt from these ever-changing circumstances, with six Ministers of Education during the 1960s. These Ministers of Education were: Patrick J Hillery (1959-1965), George Colley (1965-1966), Donogh O’Malley (1966-1968), John Lynch (1968), Brian Lenihan (1968-1969), Padraig Faulkner (1969-1973) (, 2019).

Patrick J Hillery

Figure 1: Patrick J Hillery, Minister of Education and President of Ireland (1976-1990) (

Patrick J Hillery was the Minister of Education from 1959-1965, as a Fianna Fáil TD. Hillery was born in 1923 in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. His father was a prominent doctor who ran a successful GP practice in the Miltown Malbay area while also being the medical officer for Miltown Malbay and the coroner for West Clare. The family involvement in the the war of independence was mainly through provision of medical assistance for Irish Republican Army members. It appears that they had no further involvement in nationalist movements during the early twentieth century. 

Hillery was educated in Miltown Malbay National School before attending Rockwell College in 1935. In 1939, he went on to study medicine in 1939 in UCD and in 1947, he graduated as a Doctor of Medicine. Hillery noted in his later life how he was one of a minority whose parents were able to afford to send him to boarding school for his secondary school education and that few of his national school peers were able to attend secondary school at all. 

Hillery was minister for education for six years and he shifted the old views of the previous governments to a more progressive idea of education. He placed more emphasis on the preparation for employment and social opportunities, with the state providing more funding and filling in of the gaps in school provision. 

Hillery followed the ideas of the previous Minister of Education, Jack Lynch, by announcing that the government was committed to providing education for all children up until the age of fifteen. He also went on to renovate and rebuild primary school buildings. He also expanded the system of local government scholarships that allowed students to attend post primary schools. A key policy that needed to be addressed was the policy of teaching through Irish in national schools and Hillery began the shift away from this. In May 1963, Hillery announced that there would be a number of comprehensive schools founded by the state that would provide vocational-technical education in the western rural areas of the country where there was failure on the part of private institutions to create secondary schools. Donogh O’Malley, continued Hillerys work, his legacy (Maume, 2014).

Donogh O’Malley

Figure 2: Donogh O’Malley, c. 1967 (Slater, 2019).

Donogh O’Malley was a member of Fianna Fáil, and he was elected to the Dáil Eireann in 1954. He was born in Riverview, Corbally, Limerick in January 1921. His father was a civil engineer. His education consisted of attending Crescent College, Limerick, Clongowes Wood College, and then later University College Galway where he studied civil engineering. O’Malley was heavily involved with rugby, swimming and dog racing and he brought these sporting characteristics into his politics. It could be witnessed through his love for display, his sociable and outgoing nature, and his dislike for puritan introversion. In September 1966, O’Malley announced that the government would be making secondary school education free for all students up until the age of eighteen and that there would be free transportation provided to children located in remote parts of the country. 

This was not previously agreed on between the Department of Education and the Department of Finance and it caused private protests and debates between the two. O’Malley’s defiant act displays how he was pushing through the vested interests of the state and creating new reform. 

All of O’Malley’s work was built on the previous work of Patrick Hillery, who had pioneered for the creation of comprehensive schools, but this does not detract from O’Malley’s role as a catalyst in speeding change and taking down political obstacles in the need for education reform. 

In March 1968, O’Malley had a heart attack and later died in St. John’s Hospital, Limerick at the age of 47 (Maume, 2024). He was succeeded by Jack Lynch for a month and was then fully replaced by Brian Lenihan.

Brian Lenihan

Figure 3: Brian Lenihan Snr (McAllorum, 2011).

Brian Lenihan Snr was born in 1930 in Dundalk, Co. Louth and his father was a teacher, businessman, civil servant, and politician. His father was involved with the IRA during the War of Independence. Lenihan attended St Mary’s College Athlone, and then attended UCD where he received a BA in economics. He then went on to study law at the Kings’ Inns, Dublin. Lenihan followed his father’s footsteps and became a member of Fianna Fáil. Lenihan was heavily involved with Charlie Haughey and Donogh O’Malley and they were nicknamed the ‘Three Musketeers’ with Lenihan being the funny jester of the group. When Donogh O’Malley passed away suddenly Lenihan took over as Minister of Education (White, 2009).

Comprehensive Schools in Ireland in the 1960s

Initiated by Patrick J Hillery, there were multiple comprehensive schools built in rural areas of Ireland. These schools combined the curriculums of Secondary Schools and Vocational Schools. The creation of these schools aimed to bring together the more well-established academic style of education with the practical programmes of Vocational schools, to provide education in areas not previously easily accessible. He aimed to create equal opportunities through education regardless of economic or social backgrounds, and aimed for teachers to be leaders in curriculum change and further development (ACCS, n.d.). The first three Comprehensive schools built in Ireland were in Carraroe, Shannon and Cootehill and they were opened in 1966.

These schools were to have no selection at entry, and they were open to all classes and ability levels. The students who attended could sit the Group Certificate, which would include English, Irish, Maths and a handful of practical subjects. The group certificate would take two to three years (ACCS, n.d.).

Carraroe was an area with no secondary school catering to males and females. There was a secondary school for girls in the Tuam area but that was 75km away and not accessible to families of a lower economic status. The necessity for a post primary school in Carraroe was something that needed to be rectified and so it was proposed that there would be a comprehensive school built there. 

This school was originally opposed by the Catholic church, who only consented to the formation of the comprehensive co-educational school because it was an ‘extreme necessity’ (Delaney, 2021). 

It was in 1959 that a co-educational secondary school was established. Hillery wanted to expand this school and make it even more accessible to the young people of Ireland who wished to attend secondary school, and was detailed in a letter to Archbishop Walsh. This letter said the following:

To merit its name a comprehensive school it must offer a wide range of subjects, and it is the Minister’s intention that the comprehensive schools … shall offer courses in technical subjects, in science subjects and in academic subjects. This wide curriculum will demand a large teaching staff and sufficient pupils to establish three full classes, at least, in each year of the course. Thus, the minimum number required each year would be seventy-five, but to offset the drop-out at age fourteen an annual intake of about ninety would be most desirable.

We have examined the enrolments in all schools within a radius of ten miles from Carraroe … In all the schools within the area we found a total enrolment of sixty-three boys and seventy-six girls in the twelve to thirteen age range … it would be rash to assume that more than two -thirds would be willing to attend [Carraroe] … On the two-thirds basis about forty-two boys and fifty girls would be available annually. If the enrolment is to be confined to boys or girls, then the annual intake would be too low to warrant establishing a comprehensive school in the area (Delaney, 2021: 8).

This proposal caused the Catholic hierarchy hesitancy due to the fact that it would negatively affect the denominational relationship with the schools in Carraroe. It was eventually rectified when the Department of Education purchased land from the Presentation sisters for the site of the Comprehensive School in Carraroe. The school was then opened as a co-educational school.

Comprehensive schools alongside the work conducted by Hillery and O’Malley began the process of removal of the Catholic Church as the primary contributors of education in Ireland, all while making education more accessible to all social classes and academic abilities.

Written by Amy Louise Clarke, MoCI intern. April 2024.


ACCS. (n.d.). History of ACCS. [online] Available at: (n.d.). Patrick J. Hillery. [online] Available at:

Delaney, C. (2021). ‘There seems to be some misunderstanding’: church-state relations and the establishment of Carraroe comprehensive, 1963–67. Irish Educational Studies, pp.1–19. Doi:

Maume, Patrick. (2014). Hillery, Patrick John | Dictionary of Irish Biography. [online] Available at:

Maume, Patrick. (2024). O’Malley, Donogh | Dictionary of Irish Biography. [online] Available at:

McAllorum, A. (2011). Fianna Fail: A Nepotocracy. [online] Available at:

Moore, Kevin. (2015). Facebook. [online] Available at:

Slater, S. (2019). PROFILE: Limerick’s All Time Great – Donogh O’Malley. [online] Available at:

White, Laurence W. (2009). Lenihan, Brian Joseph | Dictionary of Irish Biography. [online] Available at: (2019). Ministers for Education from 1921 to date. [online] Available at: