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Wednesday 3 September 2014

Religion in schools - it was always a question of class

Published 24/04/2004 | 00:11

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Clerical orders came a step closer to withdrawing from Irish education this week when 13 congregations announced a joint trust. It's a far cry from the golden era of religious education when nine out of 10 pupils were taught by priests, nuns and brothers and the 'right' school was considered a social cachet. Mary Kenny reports

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I grew up at a time when nine out of 10 boys and girls were educated by priests, brothers, or nuns. The one-in-10 minority consisted of the Protestants (and a tiny handful of Jews) who, in Dublin, went to Alexandra College, Wesley or Andrews. And there were one or two Catholic secular schools - such as Miss Meredith's in Pembroke Road, and Sandymount High which was right next door to us in Dublin 4.

I think my mother tried to get me in to Sandymount High at one stage, but I wasn't thought brainy enough.

The school (now, alas, defunct) had a perhaps undeserved reputation for being anti-clerical. Teachers in Ireland sometimes were anti-clerical, as they resented the way the clergy dominated education; and, in rural schools, notably, the teachers often had to go cap-in-hand to the parish priest to receive their salaries. If they had crossed the PP in any way, he might keep them waiting, or treat them like some peasant farmer waiting upon the convenience of the big landlord.

Secular teachers have their time now, though. The clergy has vanished almost completely from education. This week, 13 congregations announced they would band together in a trust, which would oversee some 50 schools. The trust will initially be mainly composed of religious, but increasingly, lay people will take it over. This is simply accelerating a trend - that of 14,000 secondary school teachers in the State, fewer than 400 are clergy.

And then, in a move reminiscent of diminishing businesses merging, the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers are having talks about forming a joint corporation. As are the Mercy and Presentation nuns.

Nuances of class and social order - which always existed within the religious educational structure - are subtly preserved in that the Loreto Order will work in a trust alongside the Jesuits and the Holy Ghost fathers.

Defenders of the new arrangement may call it, as Tony Blair optimistically describes the European Constitution, "a tidying-up exercise". Social realists might be more tempted to see it as a huddling together of a dwindling band of survivors of an ancient regime.

Many religious themselves now take the view that in education, their job is done. For nigh on 200 years, generations of nuns, priests and brothers educated Irish Catholics who had scant other resources, or indeed opportunities, for education.

When great universities within the United Kingdom were still barred to Catholics - Oxford and Cambridge admitted women before they admitted Roman Catholics - the clergy was there. When the Irish found it difficult to penetrate the British Home Civil Service, the clergy advanced Irish Catholics in the Indian, Malay and Far East civil service.

The early graves of Irish religious lie all over Africa, where they perished from tropical diseases, and their martyred blood was spilt in China and the Far East. When Edel Quinn travelled in Africa, she was able to stop at Irish missions throughout, noting the extraordinary stoicism of some of the individuals. Dominican nuns had a rule that they were not allowed refreshment between meals and Edel saw Dominican sisters sweat throughout the torpor of a tropical day without so much as a glass of water for relief. They "offered it up".

And when they quit African education, they left it in mint condition. The entire schools system of Sierra Leone was set up by the Irish Holy Ghost Fathers, and at the moment of independence, it was regarded as excellent.

The Catholic clergy is also leaving Irish education in mint condition, and their endeavours have played no small part in the phenomenon of the 'Celtic Tiger', in making Ireland known as a country with a well-educated population. The clergy had their faults, like anyone else, and monopolies always need to be challenged. Yet overall, the religious served Irish education rather heroically, and it would not be out of place to erect a monument dedicated to their work over the centuries.

Of course, there was a pecking order within religious education, and in what remains of the system, there still is. In England, to have been schooled by the Benedictines is considered a real social cachet. Julian Fellowes, the award-winning writer of the movie Gosford Park, and author of a hilarious new novel, Snobs, is unfailingingly introduced as "Ampleforth-educated".

In Ireland, the Jesuits - now moving from Belvedere Place in North Dublin - were always said to put a particular gloss on a boy. A Jesuit boy may lose his faith, and yet he never quite ceases to be a Jesuit boy. James Joyce became an unbeliever, in the matter of God, but the mark of the Jesuits never left him. This was also true of his namesake, William Joyce, 'Lord Haw-Haw', who, in his condemned cell at Wandsworth, refused to take the Last Rites from a Catholic priest yet retained a lifelong sense of gratitude to the Jesuits of Galway who had developed in him his gift for languages.

Certain girls' convent schools were thought grander than others: in England, quite the grandest school to this day is St Mary's Ascot, where the last Dominican nuns are just now moving to a retirement home.

In Ireland, French orders like the Holy Child had tremendous status, while the proletariat were consigned to the Sisters of the Mercy and the Sisters of Charity. Yet, these orders had been set up, most charitably indeed, in the 19th century, deliberately to cater to poor girls - when no one else was bothering with their education. If they were sometimes harsh on individuals, their overall mission was remarkable.

Loreto, which I attended, always had a highly serious attitude to the education of women. My mother used to twitter away about the importance of marrying a rich man, but the nuns scorned such ideas: their educational purpose was to get these girls to pass exams. Dunces were told, in tones of despair, "you'll end up as a shop girl in Woolworths". Woolworths was definitely for the proletariat. Nuns sometimes had a streak of snobbery - simply because women have a streak of snobbery. Much has been written about the Christian Brothers and their alleged brutality, and among any group of men there will always be one or two whose testosterone goes into the overdrive of aggression, as well as one or two who cannot always contain their sexuality. Yet I have had wonderful letters from men who remember their Christian Brothers education with humour and gratitude. They recall the eccentrics as well as the disciplinarians.

A particular feature of a Christian Brothers education was the amusing nicknames given to the teachers, which would constitute a social study in itself. Maybe the Brothers should not have been asked to run industrial schools; and yet young offenders do need a tough regime - see how crime rates have soared now that soft psychology has replaced discipline.

If we are saying farewell to the religious in Irish education, we should do so, overall, with affection and thankfulness. Times change, and it's often right to move on. But it's also right to remember the fine things that have been done and the great sacrifices people have made in past times.

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