Wednesday, 2 September, 2020
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The people of Ireland have a strong history as educators dating all the way back to the time of the Isle of Saints and Scholars. As schools all over the world begin to return to some form of normality, let us look to the Irish educators and educational reformers of the past, both at home and abroad. 


Chronicles Insight - Irish Educators

Image: c1902 Miss Crowe and Mr Gildea with their pupils at Kilglass National School, Ahascragh, Co.Galway. Original owned by NLI.

Throughout history, many Irish teachers have travelled to other countries on migration schemes and missions. Even today, many Irish teachers at all levels take some time to work abroad either in traditional school settings, or as teachers of English as a Foreign Language.

Sister Catherine McAuley

Catherine McAuley was born in Dublin in 1778. After losing her father and mother, Catherine went to live with a wealthy family called the Callaghans. While staying with the Callaghans at Coolock House, Catherine became interested in helping the sick and the poor of the surrounding area. She then nursed both Mr and Mrs Callaghan through their later years. Her devotion to them was rewarded greatly. Catherine inherited not only Coolock House but the 20 acre estate that came with it. This income allowed her to finance her charitable ambitions. 

In 1827 Catherine opened a building on Dublin’s Baggot Street. The construction of the building was paid for by the Coolock Estate. It was established as the House of Mercy and quickly became an important fixture for the orphaned, the sick, and the poor of Dublin’s inner city. Catherine’s particular intention for the House of Mercy was that it would serve as a place of education for the many orphaned  and poor children in Dublin. She travelled to France to learn how the education system there was run so that she could implement similar frameworks in Ireland.

Just four years after establishing the House of Mercy, Catherine took her religious vows and became a nun. She and two other Sisters founded a new religious house, the Sisters of Mercy. Their main focus was that of education, and even after Catherine’s death in 1841, her Sisters continued to establish schools all throughout Ireland which are still operational today.

Catherine McAuley’s connection to the Irish education system is perhaps best demonstrated in the design of the pre-euro Irish currency. The five punt note showed a portrait of Catherine on one side, and on the other an image of children in a classroom. There are many schools throughout Ireland which bear her name, and a bronze statue of her stands outside her building on Baggot Street.

William John Patterson

William John Patterson was born in Coleraine, County Derry in 1832. At the age of 19 he migrated to America, settling in Ohio. As was often the case with migration at the time, he was following in the footsteps of his older brother Joseph who had made the journey two years earlier. Their parents also followed them three years later. 

William first settled in the town of Dayton, which was quite small when he arrived but saw a period of intense growth and development during his years there. Upon arrival he enrolled in the Carrollton school where he studied for two years before taking the teachers’ examination. He passed this with flying colours and was then employed in his first teaching position. This was the beginning of a long-standing career for William as an educator. He is known to have spent 40 years working as a teacher in the Montgomery district. He taught in a variety of schools throughout the region over the years and in 1890 he was appointed to his first position as a school principal. 

As for his family life, William married a girl from Castlebar named Anna Forde. The pair went on to bring nine children into the world. William was a prominent member of society in his adopted home. Not only was he a well respected teacher and principal, but he also involved himself in politics and worked with the local Sunday school. He served in the military and on the board of the county of examiners of teachers. 

The story of William John Patterson and his family is a clear example of how Irish migrants could assimilate into life in their new homelands, becoming cherished members of the community and making a valuable contribution to their newfound societies. 

Free Education for Irish Children

On the 12th of September 1966, The Irish Times published a speech that would change the face of Ireland’s education system. 

Donagh O’Malley was then the Minister for Education. He delivered an impassioned speech at a dinner held for the National Union of Journalists. He stated that from the start of the next academic year, secondary level education would be free of charge for all the children of the nation, regardless of their parent’s background or financial status. This was extremely controversial at the time, as until then secondary school had been prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of Irish families. 

An increase in the number of students staying in school after primary level meant that there was a decrease in emigration and an increase in the number of skilled workers in the country. Though the minister delivered his speech without consulting the Department of Finance, his work served to aid the economy to grow as the Irish workforce became more highly educated. His actions democratised education which until then had been a privilege of the wealthy and well-positioned. This was a huge turning point for Ireland, the importance of which cannot be overstated. 

More Stories to be Told

We know from the contributions of you, our members, that these stories are just a small sample of Irish educators at home and abroad. Was your Ancestor an educator? Or did your parents or grandparents speak of an Irish teacher or principal in your area that was particularly admired? Add them to the IrelandXO Chronicles and share their story with our global community.

Click on the images to learn more about the entries that inspired this Chronicles Insight.

William Patterson 1832

William Patterson 1832

Catherine McAuley 1778

Catherine McAuley 1778

Donagh O'Malley Free Universal Education Speech 1966

Free Universal Education 1966

If you haven't already added your ancestor, do so today and connect with people in their Civil Parish of origin and also those descended from the same place living all over the world today!