Home Schooling the Irish Elite in the Eighteenth Century

By Rachel Wilson

In the era of Covid-19, home-schooling suddenly took on a new importance across the world, as schools were closed and parents and guardians found themselves expected to take on, or at least supplement, the role of teacher and play a more active part than usual in the education of their children. In the early eighteenth century however, learning at home was commonplace amongst the Irish elite. Boys might eventually be sent to a school, then a university, but their education began at home and girls rarely experienced any formal education outside the family residence, or residences. Unlike in 2020-21 however, Ireland’s wealthiest parents during the eighteenth century always knew that much, if not all of their children’s learning would take place in a domestic setting and they had the money and resources to make sure that their offspring received a robust and wide-ranging education.

The curriculum for the children of the upper orders encompassed an impressive array of subjects. Whether male or female, a child could expect to be taught reading, writing, arithmetic, history, foreign languages, dancing and of course, the religion of their parents. Other subjects were determined by gender. While girls learned needlework, music, singing and how to run a great household, their brothers might attend fencing lessons, or be drilled in the art of rhetoric[1] This assortment of subjects meant that the schoolroom was not the only site of learning in the house. Social events held in ballrooms, drawing rooms and even gardens were an excellent place to practise and showcase one’s dancing and conversation skills. Lady Mary Butler for instance, who was the daughter of the second Duke and Duchess of Ormond, was able, at the tender age of 13, to open the dancing at a ball in Dublin alongside the Earl of Abercorn in 1703.

Given the range of topics taught, no one person was wholly responsible for a child’s education. While a mother or female guardian could teach household management to her girls and direct children in how to behave at social functions, many other subjects and skills would be taught by a selection of tutors, usually male. Good teachers were a real find and in 1716 the countess of Kildare wrote of her disappointment on hearing that a dancing master named Mr Griffen was dead, ‘for he taught my nieces very well’. She was hopeful that she could employ his son for the same task however, ‘who they say teaches very well’.[2] Occasionally though, the hiring of a tutor could have unforeseen consequences. Emily, dowager Duchess of Leinster famously married her children’s tutor, William Ogilvie, in 1774 for instance, with whom she had been having an affair even before the death of her first husband the previous year

Given the prevalence of home schooling, much ink was spilt by so-called conduct writers anxious to advise parents as to how best to teach their children, or have them taught. In Dublin in 1740, Wetenhall Wilkes published a tract intended to direct his niece on how best to behave. It was entitled A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady and a flavour of its guidance for the education of girls may be gleaned by reading the contents list. It includes chapter titles such as ‘Piety and Virtue the foundation of Pleasure and Happiness’; ‘The Duties of a married Female’ and ‘Amusements, proper ones recommended’. The general thrust was that girls be educated, but always in such a manner as would ultimately make them more useful and acceptable to men. What was not desirable was an education which might allow them to surpass the males around them. To this end, another writer, George Berkeley, later Bishop of Cloyne, advised in his 1714 publication, The Ladies Library (which was previously attributed to Richard Steele and which it was claimed at the time had been written by ‘a lady’) that:

A young lady should never speak but for necessity, and even then with diffidence and deference. She should never talk of things above the common reach of her age or sex, however she may be informed of them by the advantage of her quality and education.

George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne (1685-1753)

Compare this to the advice given by Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield to his illegitimate son in the 1740s that a ‘weak’ man:

takes no part in the general conversation; but, on the contrary, breaks into it from time to time, with some start of his own, as if he waked from a dream. This (as I said before) is a sure indication, either of a mind so weak that it is not able to bear above one object at a time; or so affected, that it would be supposed to be wholly engrossed by, and directed to, some very great and important objects.

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Cheserfield (1694-1773)

Nowadays of course, we baulk at the sexist tone and advice found in these writings, but in the eighteenth century this was far from unusual and conduct manuals such as these could be purchased and kept in the libraries of Ireland’s great houses, to be pulled out as required and used as a reference tool during the education of the family’s children. Indeed their popularity is attested to by the often long lists of subscribers found in their opening pages.

Thankfully, three hundred years later, most of the world is now more enlightened than Wilkes, Berkeley and Chesterfield were and we can hope that during the home-schooling caused by Covid (and indeed within education more generally) girls and boys are now treated equally with regards to their curriculum and are afforded the opportunity to enjoy (or despise!) the same range of subjects as their peers.