Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland

Charting a Century of Developments (1921-2021)

by Nóirín Hayes (Volume editor) Thomas Walsh (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection XIV, 284 Pages


This edited book explores the origins and evolution of the early childhood education and care (ECEC) system on the island of Ireland since the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. While the book acknowledges and celebrates the role of parents in caring for and educating their young children within the home, the key focus is on the provisions outside the home for children from birth to six years. It critiques the historical and contemporary provision under a number of key themes including curriculum, the policy and legislative landscapes, inspection and regulation, Irish language provision and professionalisation. Written by key experts and actors from the sector, it makes a unique contribution to the existing literature by bringing together in one collection a critical analysis of the key themes relating to the development of ECEC in Ireland. Moreover, signposts and signals for the future development of the sector are integral to the book.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of figures
  • List of tables
  • Foreword
  • Introduction (Thomas Walsh and Nóirín Hayes)
  • 1 Key actors and organizations in the development and evolution of early childhood education and care provision in Ireland in the twentieth century (Thomas Walsh)
  • 2 Mapping Irish policy development in early childhood education and care: A century of change? (Nóirín Hayes)
  • 3 Provision for early childhood education through the infant classes of primary schools (Maura O’Connor)
  • 4 Early childhood education and care provision through the medium of the Irish language (Máire Mhic Mhathúna and Mairéad Mac Con Iomaire)
  • 5 Early childhood education and care curriculum provision and the development of Aistear (Carmel Brennan and Arlene Forster)
  • 6 The road less travelled: The journey towards establishing a graduate-led early childhood education and care workforce in Ireland (Mary Moloney and Geraldine French)
  • 7 The history and work of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education (CECDE) (2001–2008) (Elizabeth Dunphy and Máire Mhic Mhathúna)
  • 8 The legislative and regulatory landscape for early childhood education and care in Ireland (Anne Egan and Sheila Garrity)
  • 9 An overview of the development of government regulation and inspection in the early childhood education and care sector in Ireland, 1921–2021 (Maresa Duignan and Fiona McDonnell)
  • 10 Provision for early childhood education and care in Northern Ireland, 1921–2021 (Noel Purdy and Diane McClelland)
  • Conclusion (Nóirín Hayes and Thomas Walsh)
  • Appendix
  • Notes on contributors
  • Index

←x | xi→


A noticeable feature about the development of early childhood education and care across the century has been the vibrancy, innovation and vision of people, mostly women. None of the events described in this book would have taken place without their enthusiastic participation, input and support over the years.

This book takes the reader on a historical tour of the origins and development of the key features and themes of the ECEC sector over the past 100 years. As I read it, I was taken back to the visit of Maria Montessori to Waterford in the 1920s and the vibrant Montessori provisions since that time. Indeed, the various chapters elucidate the complex relationship between the State and the ECEC sector over the decades, particularly the stance of Rev Professor Timothy Corcoran SJ in the early years of the Irish Free State. The book also reminded me of the pivotal decade of the 1960s not only in the development of services and the creation of organisations, but also the changing of attitudes towards women, children and ECEC. The influential Plowden Report in the UK impacted significantly on the Primary School Curriculum of 1971 which gradually impacted on practice in the infant classes of primary schools. The various chapters prompted me to remember that societal changes and the impact of European funding in the 1990s catalysed significant developments, including the OMNA project in the DIT, the Early Childhood Education Forum and the seminal White Paper on Early Childhood Education, Ready to Learn. This laid a foundation for subsequent developments, most particularly the increasing and ongoing professionalisation of the sector. A particular contribution of the book is the tracing of parallel developments in Northern Ireland in the same period, noting the similarities and differences in the pathways travelled. All of the above appear in much more detail in this fascinating book. I can assure the reader that the authors of all the chapters, most of whom I know, argue their case with passion and expertise.

←xi | xii→

In my role in the development of Early Childhood Studies in UCC, I experienced this commitment and the importance of the ‘behind the scenes’ activity which plays such an important part in all the initiatives in ECEC that have taken place in Ireland. At an institutional level, academic and political, the command structure has to ‘buy in’ to proposals and new ideas for change to happen. While people change events, luck also plays a part! For example, good luck can be seen in the appointment of Micheál Martin as Minister of Education in the late 1990s which resulted in the very important National Forum on Early Childhood Education taking place and the subsequent White Paper which flowed from it. Bad luck resulted in the decision to close down the CECDE due, in part, to the financial crash of 2008. I personally regard this decision as one of the greatest setbacks to ECEC in recent times.

Concerning the two editors of this book, I became aware of the existence of Tom Walsh whilst talking to the late Professor John Coolahan at a meeting. He was eulogising his good fortune at having acquired this brilliant PhD student! My subsequent dealings with Tom back this up and I am particularly grateful for his Directory of Early Years Research in Ireland which he compiled whilst working for the CECDE. It has been an invaluable aid to research into the domain ever since.

Likewise, with Nóirín Hayes! I was at a meeting in the early 1980s when Séamus McGuiness of TCD informed me that he had an excellent student writing her M.Ed dissertation on the education of young children. As we all know, Nóirín has gone on to become the longest serving, high profile, and most respected academic in ECEC in Ireland. Her contribution to the sector is incalculable.

I would like to take the liberty of also highlighting two other people who represent the best in Ireland with respect to the Early Years. Irene Gunning, formerly CEO of the IPPA, for her devotion to duty, irrepressible enthusiasm, and her constant desire to gain recognition for all those serving young children (and not least for bringing the most important ‘influencers’ from across the world to our shores!). I would also like to say the same about Professor Mathias Urban of DCU who continues this visionary work today.

←xii | xiii→

This book very much connects the past to the future. It ‘sparks off’ in Jung’s words ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’. It is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

Emeritus Professor Francis Douglas

Director of Early Childhood Studies UCC, 1995–2009

1st August 2021

←xiii | 1→

Thomas Walsh and Nóirín Hayes


Like many good ideas, the genesis of this book can be traced back to a chat over coffee involving both co-editors in late 2018. The absence of a dedicated volume delineating the historical development and evolution of the complex and multidimensional early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector was something that, we felt, affected contemporary understandings of a vibrant and integral aspect of the education system. The motivation for the book was to provide an anthology that would retrace some of the origins and foundations of the sector in order to comprehend its current, complex, structures. In compiling this book our goal was to explore the evolution of the ECEC system since the establishment of the Free State and critique the historical and contemporary provision in Ireland under a number of key themes. As the centenary of the establishment of the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) approached, we believed the time was opportune to capture the salient milestones and markers on the sector’s historical landscape. Focusing on the 100 years from 1921 to 2021, and on the age range of birth to 6 years of age, offered a framework for the book and provided a fitting tribute to the pioneering work of the sector’s founders, almost exclusively dynamic women who fought against the odds to provide quality ECEC experiences for children. While the book acknowledges the pivotal role of parents in caring for and educating their children within the home, the key focus is on the provisions outside the home for children from birth to 6 years.

We immediately concluded that an edited book was the best approach considering the diversity and complexity of the sector. Our involvement in the sector in various ways enabled us to identify expert authors who could provide rich personal and professional insights on the sector from ←1 | 2→a range of perspectives. In selecting contributors and topics, we sought to achieve a careful balance in documenting the past, profiling the present and signposting the future across the various chapters. The aim was to explicitly identify authors, and indeed create co-authoring opportunities, to present a range of diverse experiences, perspectives and trajectories within the sector. We were delighted with the response from chapter authors contacted and with their engagement throughout the eighteen-month process of developing the edited book. The chapter authors brought a nuanced and insightful perspective to their chapters based on their professional expertise, and indeed their contributions and commitments to the sector over extended periods of time. Individually and collectively, the chapters reveal profound insights on the development of many critical aspects of the ECEC sector in the last century and deepen our appreciation of contemporary opportunities and challenges. While each chapter provides a rich account of a particular theme, many transversal themes permeate the book and are brought together in the Conclusion. While the focus is on the past and the present, the book also has an eye to the future in terms of signalling prospective opportunities, challenges, hopes and possibilities. Our sincere thanks to each of the chapter authors for their generosity in sharing their expertise and indeed for their forbearance with us throughout the writing process.

Before turning to outline the various chapter contributions, it is important to provide a brief historical context for the book.

Background and context

The development of the ECEC sector in Ireland, like all jurisdictions, followed a unique trajectory that was influenced by its political, religious, socio-economic, cultural and international context. Following the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1921, the symbiotic relationship between the Catholic Church and the State had a profound effect on the shaping of Irish society. The ideologies and values emerging from the Church-State alliance as they related to children, women and families were enshrined ←2 | 3→within the Constitution of Ireland (Government of Ireland 1937). These impacted considerably on societal attitudes and the extent of State services in the ECEC realm for many decades. For the first fifty years following the establishment of the Irish Free State, societal configurations and expectations meant that ECEC services were not a necessity for most parents and families. Indeed the only constant in terms of provision is the infant classes of primary schools where children aged from 3 to 4 years and upwards have attended since the 1920s. When wider societal developments necessitated increased provisions for children prior to attending the infant classes of primary schools from the late 1960s onwards, the embedded structures and ideologies resulted in a fragmented, laissez-faire and ad hoc State response to such societal needs. Unfortunately what resulted was an embedding of a ‘care’ and ‘education’ divide, both conceptually and practically, the legacy of which still impacts adversely on the sector today.

While each chapter delineates the historical backdrop and foundations for the issues under consideration over the past 100 years, the focus of most chapters is on the rich and complex activity in the last twenty to thirty years. International influences, and more importantly funding from the EU, have been key catalysts in the development of the sector since the 1990s. What becomes immediately apparent is the lack of an overarching child-centred vision or strategy for the ECEC sector at this time of exponential growth and development, leading to fragmentation at both policy and practice levels. A sector traditionally at the margins of public policy has become a core focus of government policy in recent years. This has emerged from a range of motives and been driven by varying perspectives, including labour force activation, equality for women and indeed increased understanding of the critical importance of quality ECEC for young children. The historical foundations and fault lines on which the sector has emerged continue to impact its development in the contemporary context. This book tells the story of the origins, lines of development, key milestones and markers, and the policy and practice drivers that have shaped and continue to shape the ECEC sector, both historically and contemporaneously.

←3 | 4→

A note on terminology

Spanning such an extensive time period, one of the key strengths of this book is that it captures evolving understandings, developments and ideologies as they relate to ECEC. Underpinning this richness is the changing language and terminology used over the past 100 years to name both the sector itself and its workforce, but also the various organizations and ECEC services available. In line with the approach advocated by John Bennett and his colleagues as part of the Starting Strong project (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] 2001), this book employs early childhood education and care (ECEC) as the key overarching term for the sector throughout. However, as you will read, each author has used the particular term or phrase relating to the sector or aspect of the sector that was used in various epochs, eras and contexts. In this way, many chapters employ a range of terminology for the same construct or issue as they chart the journey of evolution historically. This approach provides an authenticity and sympathy to context throughout the chapters and book, while the overarching term demonstrates a commitment to the inseparability of care and education in the lives of young children.


XIV, 284
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (February)
A historical review of key policy and practice developments in Irish early childhood education and care across the century 1921-2021 Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland Nóirín Hayes Thomas Walsh
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XIV, 284 pp., 1 fig. b/w, 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Nóirín Hayes (Volume editor) Thomas Walsh (Volume editor)

Prof. Nóirín Hayes is Visiting Academic at the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin and Professor Emerita, Centre for Social and Educational Research, Technological University Dublin. She teaches and researches in early childhood education and care (ECEC) with a particular focus on early learning, curriculum and pedagogy and ECEC policy. She is also the first OMEP Champion and Advocate for Early Childhood Education and Care Ireland. Dr Thomas Walsh is an Associate Professor and Deputy Head of the Department of Education, Maynooth University. His teaching and research interests include history of education, education policy, early childhood education and curriculum studies. He has previously worked as a primary school teacher, an ECEC researcher and as a primary school inspector.


Title: Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland
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