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Ireland - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceIreland - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education

HISTORY & BACKGROUND

The Republic of Ireland is the second largest British isle, covering 27,136 square miles and bordered to the northwest by Northern Ireland; in the past it went by the Irish Free State (1922-1937) and Eire (1937-1949). Eire is still used by many persons as their name of choice for Ireland, also causing some confusion outside the country's borders. The capital city is Dublin, containing one-third of the Irish Republic's population. During the second half of the twentieth century, the presence of so many fine higher education institutions in Dublin led to the renovation or restoration of many neighborhoods that had been reduced to slums. The predominant religion is Catholic. Ireland's 26 counties have been free of British rule since 1922, which has resulted in some educational changes, including great emphasis on the Irish language, literature, customs, and history.

Beginnings: Ireland's history began during the Mesolithic Era. Hunters from faraway British Isles and likely even southwest Europe first settled this island west of present-day Great Britain. The country began to show signs of civilized development in the Neolithic period about 4000 to 2000 B.C. A communal people, the language of these Pre-Celtic people has been lost.


Celtic & Roman Influences: Ireland's rugged beauty has always attracted settlers and conquerors. The best known of these were the Celts, likely hailing from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), known for their skills as goldsmiths and artisans. Shortly before the birth of Christ, Celtic was the primary language of the country under the ruler of Celtic chiefs. For hundreds of years, the Celts failed to develop a sophisticated form of writing other than a means of documenting family names.

In 54 and 55 B.C., Julius Caesar won some skirmishes with the natives he encountered in Britain. His documentary writing preserved his experiences, and schoolboys in England and America at one time translated them for practice. Caesar referred to Ireland as Hibernia, translated literally as the place of winter.


Catholic Church's Preservation of Scholarship: During the Middle Irish period, poets and scholars were trained at church schools, historians believe. The evidence comes from writings that survive as clues to the period. Irish tracts reveal that a mentor called a foster father tutored a pupil known as a felmac. Scholars were trained in Irish law, history, and literature, as well as in Latin.

These schools, by the fourteenth century, had changed. Instead of religious scholars acting as tutors, non-clergy scholars taught subjects, such as verse writing, to their pupils. Students of medicine learned from Irish texts that had been translated from English medical books.

After Caesar, the name most renowned and associated with Ireland is St. Patrick (circa 385-461). In addition to his many successes as a missionary, Patrick is said to have encouraged the preservation of the old warrior chants by having the words set down for posterity. Although the details of Patrick's life are blurred (partly because his own Latin writings show no mastery of the subject), he was a Brit whose father was a Roman bureaucrat and, while young, he was captured in Ireland and spent six years in slavery as a herder; he escaped and was schooled in Latin and theology, though precisely where is mere speculation. Patrick returned to Ireland in 432 and set out to convert to Catholicism the people whose nation he had come to love. One result of these conversions is that Ireland by the sixth century had several established monasteries that were havens for the preservation (and copying) of manuscripts, culture, and learning.

After an invasion by Norsemen in the eighth century, Ireland was under Viking influence until the Irish king Brian Boru fashioned an army that fought for independence. In the eighth century, the population with the name Gael then, replaced the term Erainn that had been the name for the people of Ireland. In time, the term Irish became applied to the people of this nation, even though the term was derived from a Welsh word meaning "savage." The natives, to distinguish themselves from the Viking conquerors, used Gael.

During the beginning of the Middle Ages, Ireland maintained a reverence for teachings of the Church and Church documents. In turn, the monasteries preserved the old Irish tales and accounts of heroes and everyday life. These clearly would not have survived had the monks not copied them into their manuscript books. Ironically, it was the Catholic nation's policy of putting no local ruler above the Pope in the Vatican that led to Ireland's longstanding domination by Great Britain. The only pope of English ancestry, Pope Adrian IV, in a political agreement, gave Henry II, the former Duke of Normandy (who gained control of England by invasion), permission to serve as overlord of Ireland. This decision to turn Ireland into a fiefdom was disputed by the Irish as an illegitimate transfer of power. Lands owned by the Irish were given to absentee landlords in Britain, creating a peasant class existing in woeful ignorance and poverty. In spite of Henry II's edicts maintaining that there existed separate areas of church and state, in Ireland even in the twenty-first century, that line of separation frequently dissolved.


Political, Social, & Cultural Bases: Just as religion influenced the daily life, social divisions, and political upheavals of Irish life for centuries, so too has it had a profound effect on education in the Emerald Isle. That very upheaval and strong allegiances to the Church interfered with the development of a unified system of education in Ireland.

In the late 1500s, coinciding with the growth of Protestantism in the country, non-Catholics had decidedly better schools. While Protestant diocese schools and "royal schools" set up by the Crown benefited the wealthier Protestant class, charity schools inadequately supplied the needs of the children of poor Protestants during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Catholic poor were largely ignored, their children termed urchins. One minister in 1712 said that when all the needs of the poor Protestant children were met, the schools then should try to assist the Catholic children. The charity schools were run by the Church of Ireland and were similar to those in Britain. Funding was supplied variously by parishes, landlords, clergy, and district governing boards.

The Church of Ireland was declared the state church in 1537 and remained so until 1870. In 1539, monasteries were declared dissolved, although it took some years for many to disappear. However, during much of the sixteenth century, nearly all areas of the country outside Dublin and areas of Northern Ireland were Catholic. The Crown brought Scottish settlers to Northern Ireland that were members of the Church of Ireland. During the closing years of the sixteenth century, the Church of Ireland made a conscious attempt to establish parishes in every county of the nation.

The royal schools were grammar schools started at the insistence of James I, the king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, who ascended the throne with the help of Elizabeth I. (Elizabeth, in 1587, executed his mother, Mary (Stuart) Queen of Scots, with no protest from James, after she was found guilty of plotting the death of Elizabeth). James, who authorized a version of the Bible still used today, was an erratic man who believed in the divine right of kings. These royal schools were started in the 1600s by Church of Ireland bishops, but perhaps because they were founded under coercion, had many deficiencies and poor supervision.


Higher Education History & Background: Like other political areas, higher education in Ireland has always had confrontations, although much less in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century. In 1591 (or 1592, as some claim), the oldest continuous university in the country, the University of Dublin was begun, with Trinity College as its only college. Throughout its history, the school's agenda and even curriculum displayed a marked Protestant orientation, though the state had a loosely enforced policy of giving no money for denominational higher education.

In spite of politics and religious rancor at times, Trinity, since the 1700s, has been one of Europe's respected institutions, highly competitive and fiercely proud of the highest academic standards. Its senior fellows ran the school as a sort-of personal fiefdom, and seniority among fellows, rather than scholarly accomplishment, was used to establish a pecking order. By 1792, the institution enrolled 933 students. The Catholic Church in Ireland entered the realm of higher education in 1851, establishing Catholic University with famed author and educator John Henry Newman as rector; Newman, a one-time Church of England minister who converted to Catholicism and became a Cardinal, was world famous for his book, The Idea of a University, and other writings. In 1883, it became the University College, Dublin, operated under control of the Jesuit Order (known also as the Society of Jesus). When all of Ireland was under British rule, Catholics in the nineteenth century were given first the Queen's University and then the Royal University of Ireland. But the government found it could not run a school catering to just one denomination, and Royal University became open to anyone passing entrance requirements.

Until 1970 when a long-standing Catholic boycott was lifted, Catholics tended to avoid enrollment at the Anglican-run Trinity College in Dublin, perhaps the best-known Irish university. Some Irish students of Presbyterian background also preferred to pursue their higher education in Scotland, rather than accept the dominion of the established faith. In truth, this religious atmosphere could not be escaped at Trinity since many prospective religious leaders of the Church of Ireland took their degrees here. After 1970, the student population became more diverse.


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