Physical Education in Irish Schools, 1900-2000: A History

by Conor Curran (Author)
©2022 Monographs XIV, 514 Pages
Series: Sport, History and Culture, Volume 11


This book is the first major examination of the history of physical education in Irish primary and second level schools in the twentieth century. Set within the context of major international developments in the subject, it examines its state in these schools prior to the partition of Ireland in 1921. It assesses the reasons why physical drill’s status was reduced in the Irish Free State’s primary schools in the mid-1920s and accounts for the failure to fully implement the Sokol system in the following decade. Despite the efforts of a number of educationalists and those in the media to draw attention to the subject’s neglect, it was not until the late 1960s that concrete action was taken to provide compulsory physical education in what had become the Republic of Ireland. However, following the foundation of the National College of Physical Education in 1973, problems remained, with the country’s schools still lagging behind those in many other European nations in terms of curricular time given to the subject by the late 1990s. In Northern Ireland, treatment of physical education was more closely aligned to developments in other parts of the United Kingdom, but progress was also slow in many schools.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 The Development of Physical Drill in Primary Schools in Pre-partition Ireland
  • Chapter 2 Physical Training in Pre-partition Ireland’s Second Level Schools
  • Chapter 3 Reduction and Disorganisation: PE in Irish Free State Schools, 1922–1937
  • Chapter 4 False Dawns: PE in Independent Ireland, 1938–1953
  • Chapter 5 Towards a Specialised Training College: PE in Northern Ireland, 1922–1953
  • Chapter 6 A Slow Struggle for Recognition: PE in the Republic of Ireland, 1954–1965
  • Chapter 7 Towards the Troubles and Beyond: PE in Northern Ireland, 1954–1972
  • Chapter 8 A Temporary Transformation: PE in the Republic of Ireland, 1966–1973
  • Chapter 9 A Difficult Period: PE in Northern Ireland, 1973–2000
  • Chapter 10 Struggling Along: PE in the Republic of Ireland’s Primary Schools, 1974–2000
  • Chapter 11 Unfulfilled Expectations: PE in Second Level Schools in the Republic of Ireland, 1974–2000
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

←vi | vii→


Figure 1.De La Salle Training College Waterford hurling team, 1910. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Figure 2.A physical culture exhibition in south-east Ireland in the early twentieth century. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Figure 3.Na Fianna Éireann Physical Culture Class 1913. Courtesy of Matthew Potter.

Figure 4.Blackrock College callisthenics, archery and gymnastics in 1866. Courtesy of Clare Foley.

Figure 5.Blackrock College cricket team pictured in 1866. Courtesy of Clare Foley.

Figure 6.Londonderry Academical Institute rugby team 1878–9. Courtesy of William Lynn.

Figure 7.Londonderry Academical Institution cricket team 1880. Courtesy of William Lynn.

Figure 8.Foyle College, winners of the Ulster Schools’ Cup in 1915. Courtesy of William Lynn.

Figure 9.Pupils at the CBS Waterpark, Waterford in 1908. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Figure 10.St Patrick’s College Armagh Association football team 1910–11. Courtesy of PRONI.

Figure 11.Victoria High School Derry hockey team, pictured in 1902 with the Ulster Ladies’ Challenge Shield. Courtesy of William Lynn.

←vii | viii→

Figure 12.Ursuline Convent Waterford gymnasium and students, 1908. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Figure 13.Handball at Good Counsel College, New Ross, County Wexford, 1931. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Figure 14.A Sokol display at Good Counsel College, New Ross, County Wexford, c.1930s. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Figure 15.Ball games at the Sisters of Charity Convent, Lady Lane and Spring Garden Alley, Waterford, 1949. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Figure 16.The Royal School Armagh cricket team c.1930. Courtesy of PRONI.

Figure 17.Portora Royal School boxers, 1928. Courtesy of Robert Northridge.

Figure 18.Foyle College Boat Club first team, 1939. Courtesy of William Lynn.

Figure 19.St Patrick’s College Armagh Gaelic football team 1927–8. Courtesy of PRONI.

Figure 20.St Patrick’s College Armagh PE class 1928. Courtesy of PRONI.

Figure 21.A school sports day in Northern Ireland in the 1920s. Courtesy of PRONI.

Figure 22.Armagh Girls High School hockey team 1933–4. Courtesy of PRONI.

Figure 23.Strabane Technical School c.1930s. Courtesy of PRONI.

←viii | ix→

Figure 24.Joan Burnett-Knight coaching netball to youth leaders at Balmoral in 1950. Courtesy of Sheelagh Watford.

Figure 25.Brackey National School team 1960, who featured in the Ardara Parish Schoolboys’ Gaelic Football League, established in 1959. Courtesy of John McConnell.

Figure 26.Indoor pursuits at Clongowes Wood College, c.1960s. Courtesy of Declan O’Keeffe.

Figure 27.Londonderry High School’s hockey first team, 1958. Courtesy of William Lynn.

Figure 28.King’s Scholars Rugby first XV 1967–8, consisting of Stranmillis College students, who won the McCrea Cup and were captained by Stewart McKinney. Courtesy of Mervyn Elder.

Figure 29.Swimming at the Royal School, Portora, in the late twentieth century. Courtesy of Robert Northridge.

Figure 30.Belfast Boys’ Model School Athletic team who won the 1959–60 Ulster Secondary Schools’ Athletic Championship. Courtesy of Mervyn Elder.

Figure 31.Foyle College Cross-Country team, with their headmaster, J. S. Connolly, in the 1966–7 season. Courtesy of William Lynn.

Figure 32.A vocational schools’ Gaelic football match in Breffni Park, Cavan, 1969. Courtesy of John McConnell.

Figure 33.St Eunan’s College Letterkenny, winners of the Ulster Herald Cup in 1969. Courtesy of John McConnell.

Figure 34.Methodist College girls’ rowing team, 1982. Courtesy of Laura McKinney.

←ix | x→

Figure 35.The Royal Belfast Academical Institution cricket first team XI, 1976. Courtesy of Sharon Casement.

Figure 36.The Royal Belfast Academical Institution soccer first team XI, 1996–7. Courtesy of Sharon Casement.

Figure 37.Brackey National School 1984 Donegal Gaelic football county finalists and south-west divisional champions. Courtesy of John McConnell.

Figure 38.The Donegal Vocational Schools’ team which won the Ulster and All-Ireland Vocational Schools’ championship in 1984. Courtesy of John McConnell.

Figure 39.A gymnastics display at Trinity Comprehensive, Ballymun, 1994. Courtesy of Paddy O’Reilly.

Figure 40.Sports day at Trinity Comprehensive, Ballymun, 1996. Courtesy of Paddy O’Reilly.

←x | xi→


This book could not have been written without the support of the Irish Research Council. In 2017, I was awarded a two-year Government of Ireland Postdoctoral research fellowship to conduct a study of the history of physical education in Ireland. This was undertaken through the School of Education at Trinity College Dublin. I would like to express my thanks to my supervisor, Dr John Walsh, who agreed to take on the project and assisted me with the application process. Dr Walsh’s advice was highly significant in my undertaking of the Fellowship and without his guidance, this study would not have been completed. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the staff of the School of Education during my time researching and teaching there, particularly Fiona McKibbin, Dr Michelle Share, Dr Andrew Loxley, Linda McHugh and Dr Andrew Gibson.

My wife Joanne and my family have also been very supportive throughout the writing of this book. Yet again, I am thankful to them for their encouragement of my passion for history and sport. I am also grateful to Professor Mike Cronin, who initially suggested that I undertake a study of the history of physical education in Ireland, and to Dr Seamus Kelly, Dr Conor Heffernan, Dr Tom Hunt, Dr Kristian Naglo, Professor Dilwyn Porter, Shane Supple, Aaron Ó Maonaigh, Seán McGourty, Mervyn Elder, Sheelagh Watford and Dr Julia Brennen for their support and advice.

Undertaking the research for this book meant numerous trips to archives. I am grateful to the staff of the National Library of Ireland in Dublin for their assistance, particularly to Berni Metcalfe and Glenn Dunne for granting me permission to publish a number of pictures from their collections. In Belfast, the staff of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland were as always very helpful, especially the Head of Public Services there, Stephen Scarth, who has assisted me in the organisation of a number of sports history-related conferences there over the past three years. In addition, I would like to thank Avril Loughlin and the Deputy Keeper ←xi | xii→of Records there for granting me permission to reproduce a number of PRONI’s photographs in this book. I also owe my thanks to William Lynn of Foyle College Archive, Sharon Casement of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Laura McKinney of Methodist College, Robert Northridge of Portora Royal School, Blackrock College archivist Clare Foley, Declan O’Keeffe of Clongowes Wood College and Paddy O’Reilly of Trinity Comprehensive who were all very helpful in providing me with a large selection of pictures. I am also very grateful to Seán McGeown of the Department of Education of Northern Ireland, and to the staff of Belfast Central Library.

I would also like to express my thanks to the staff of a number of educational bodies in the Republic of Ireland, particularly the Department of Education, the Secretariat of Secondary Schools and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. I am also grateful to the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Football Association of Ireland and the Irish Football Association for allowing me to access their archives. I am also thankful to the thirty-five teachers who took part in the interviews which feature in this book. I would also like to thank Professor Tom O’Donoghue for granting me access to his postgraduate thesis. Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Richard Holt and Professor Matthew Taylor for accepting my proposal for their sports history and culture book series and to Lucy Melville and the staff of Peter Lang.

←xiv | 1→


On the eve of the twenty-first century, physical education was a subject which still remained on the periphery of the curriculum in both primary and second level schools in the Republic of Ireland. In November 1988, Fine Gael politician Jimmy Deenihan, a man who had achieved sporting success as part of the Kerry senior men’s Gaelic football team in a career that spanned from 1973 until 1983, winning five All-Ireland medals amongst numerous other honours, described the subject’s treatment by the Irish government as ‘a national scandal’.1 Deputy Deenihan was a man with sport close to his heart and was a qualified physical education teacher. He had come through a new system which had been established in the early 1970s for those seeking qualifications in the subject.2 The foundation of the National College of Physical Education in Limerick in 1973, the first co-educational centre for training physical education teachers in the Republic of Ireland, had offered much promise.3 In addition, in a frenzy of enthusiasm which had largely dissipated within Irish political circles by the late 1980s, the Irish government had introduced a revised curriculum for primary schools which included a new system of physical education in 1971.4 While there were some curricular improvements in the early part of that decade, physical education continued to be neglected and this was laid bare in a number of European surveys carried out in the latter decade of the twentieth ←1 | 2→century as Ireland was regularly shown to be at the bottom of tables related to time allocated to the subject.5 Many Irish second level schools did place an emphasis on sporting success, with strong traditions of codes such as rugby, soccer, hurling and Gaelic football developing in numerous schools, but the place of PE in the curriculum was often neglected at the expense of sporting glory.6 It also developed an unfortunate reputation as one which was frowned upon by non-specialist teachers and was open to abuse in terms of pupil participation, particularly by students taking final examinations in subjects considered more worthy of academic prowess and more valuable for a future career path. It was not until 2017 that the Department of Education announced that physical education would be piloted as a Leaving Certificate examination subject in a number of secondary schools.7

Deputy Deenihan was not the only politician to win All-Ireland medals, but he was one of the few to push for the development of an adequate system of physical education in Irish schools. This reluctance on the government’s part to take physical education seriously contrasted to most other countries in Western Europe. The development of sport in Ireland followed patterns elsewhere to a certain extent, but there were also distinct differences. Christopher Young has noted the unique way in which codified sport grew in Ireland.8 In looking at how it developed differently there, he points to the arguments of Richard Holt. Writing in 2009, Holt stated that

British sport claimed proudly to be above politics, but it was permeated with imperial values and class distinctions. French sport was based on the British model but explicitly designed to strengthen France after her defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870. In Germany and more widely in continental Europe more attention was given ←2 | 3→to collective forms of gymnastic exercise than to modern sports. America invented a new national sport [baseball] and turned it into a business.9

As Holt has also noted, ‘Ireland picked its way through this maze, rejecting the monotony of mass gymnastics but also refusing to follow the dominant forms of British sport. It adopted amateur values but rejected the social distinctions that went with them.’10 The Irish public ‘embraced spectator sport but refused the American model of sport as commercial entertainment’ and ‘in doing so Ireland created a unique blend of the traditional and the modern’, with the Gaelic Athletic Association [GAA] emerging, after a rocky start, as the most successfully organised sporting organisation in Ireland by the early twenty-first century.11 Efforts to develop a satisfactory system of physical education ebbed and flowed over the course of the twentieth century, with the Irish government generally reluctant to invest heavily in sport for much of that period following partition in 1921.12

This book explores a major aspect of the daily school lives of children and teenagers who grew up in twentieth-century Ireland which has not yet received a full academic assessment.13 Set within the period from 1900 until ←3 | 4→2000, it is the first detailed study of the history of physical education across Ireland and examines why Independent Ireland’s governments neglected its place within primary and secondary schools for the greater part of the twentieth century. The state of PE in Ireland in the early twentieth century is assessed, and the factors which fostered, or discouraged, the implementation of this subject within Irish schools are examined. The reasons why Irish governments failed to establish PE as a compulsory subject within Irish schools until the 1970s are investigated, and a comparison of wider international trends, and more closer to home, with Northern Ireland, which is examined through separate chapters, is given. How PE became integrated into Irish schools and became accepted as a genuine subject worthy of teaching is established through an investigation of the role of the government, teacher-training bodies and educationalists in its development. This book also examines some of the educational experiences of retired and active primary and second level school teachers from the late 1940s until the early 2000s.

This monograph makes a significant contribution to the historiography of education while adding to the increasing range of academic writing on the development of sport in Ireland. It is also highly significant in terms of contemporary European Commission debates about obesity, health care, socio-economic accessibility and state-saving and whether or not sufficient time is being devoted to physical education within schools.14 While naturally there is some overlap with school sports and games, and these have been assessed at various stages throughout, it is important to state that this is not a history of school competitions. As the main focus is on mainstream primary and second level schools, it is also not intended to examine PE within Reformatory or Industrial Schools in this monograph. A dearth of space also means that the development of PE in Special schools is similarly not given the analysis merited, but it is intended to return to research this more fully at a later stage.

←4 | 5→

The Historiography of Physical Education in Ireland

Despite a growing awareness of the value of health, fitness and recreation within modern society, government policies towards physical education in Ireland in the twentieth century have not yet received a comprehensive historical examination.15 Mainstream texts on modern Irish history have generally failed to assess the development of physical education within Irish schools. Specialist works on education in Ireland fail to provide an in-depth analysis of the evolution of physical education.16 Most specialised studies of the history of Irish teacher-training colleges have also neglected to examine how the training of PE was dealt with in their assessments.17 An exception is David Fleming’s study of the University of Limerick, in which the author, in a detailed chapter on the early development of the National College of Physical Education [NCPE], which was later replaced by Thomond College of Education, notes that by the 1960s, ‘physical education was among the new subjects that the department wished to promote’ in schools.18 This decade is generally associated ←5 | 6→with the expansion of education in the Republic of Ireland.19 In particular, Fleming sees the Physical Education Association of Ireland [PEAI], established in 1967, and Captain Michael McDonough of the Irish Army, as key to the development of the subject in post-primary education.20 The work of John O’Callaghan on the GAA is also valuable in his examination of structures for the training of PE teachers immediately prior to and after the founding of the NCPE in Limerick in 1973.21

This book draws largely on research carried out for an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellowship on the history of physical education in Ireland which was undertaken by the author and builds on a small number of related studies of the subject previously published.22 The initial work of Thomas O’Donoghue is an important starting point for any examination of physical education’s history in Ireland. A chapter by Judith Harford and O’Donoghue on secondary school education prior to 1967 briefly re-emphasises the latter author’s earlier findings on physical education, noting that ‘from the 1930s, army and ex-army gymnastics instructors taught Swedish drill and put on drill displays for the public at annual school ←6 | 7→sports days’.23 Drawing on his M.Ed. thesis, O’Donoghue had examined the attempt by the Department of Defence to introduce the Sokol system of physical education into Irish schools in the 1930s in an article published in Irish Educational Studies in 1985.24 He has also looked at the Department of Education’s policies towards sport in the period from 1926 until 1948 in the International Journal of the History of Sport.25 He also sees the appointment of Captain Michael McDonough as inspector of PE in 1965 as key to its later growth in the Republic of Ireland, stating that it was not until then that ‘physical education re-established itself’ there.26

A number of unpublished postgraduate and doctoral studies have also shed some light on physical education’s development in Ireland in the twentieth century. Written in 1939, Ellen Cooney’s Masters dissertation is important in that it provides a contemporary account of the Sokol system of physical training and its impact on Irish schools.27 Joseph Moran’s 2013 postgraduate thesis is of note in that it mainly utilises interviews with a number of physical training instructors while also assessing a number of ←7 | 8→government files.28 Captain Michael McDonough, in his M.Ed. thesis, drew on an earlier analysis of the development of the subject in Ireland that he had conducted for the Irish government in 1965, which is useful given that this report does not now appear to be publicly available.29 While this is an important study, his thesis was written in 1980 and lacks a full examination of the archives now available to the researcher.30 Similarly, Michael Anthony Cotter’s 1978 study of physical education in primary schools after the introduction of the Revised Primary School Curriculum is important in highlighting that despite the subject being compulsory at that level by the late 1970s, issues remained, particularly regarding its full implementation and identity as a serious element of a school’s weekly structure.31


XIV, 514
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (January)
History Physical Education Sport Physical Education in Irish Schools, 1900-2000 Conor Curran
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XIV, 514 pp., 40 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Conor Curran (Author)

Dr Conor Curran (School of Education, Trinity College Dublin) has published extensively on the history of sport and society in Ireland. This is his fourth monograph and is the result of an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship he was awarded in 2017.


Title: Physical Education in Irish Schools, 1900-2000: A History
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