The Politics of Irish Primary Education

Reform in an Era of Secularisation

by Sean McGraw (Author) Jonathan Tiernan (Author)
©2022 Monographs XX, 512 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 108


This book provides a comprehensive study of educational policy reform as growing calls for further reducing the role of the Catholic Church in Irish primary schools gains traction in a rapidly evolving Irish society. Drawing upon lessons from the same-sex marriage and abortion reform campaigns, this study provides several policy case studies that demonstrate how the interplay of civil society activists and organisations, the media, public opinion, and political parties and elites determines how policy reforms live or die. The book contains a rich and novel set of data, including interviews with leaders and elites from the major actors and institutions, numbers and trends from previously unreleased data from the Church and Department of Education, evidence from the authors’ originally designed and implemented parliamentary surveys, an original analysis of media coverage of educational issues and actors involved in the main educational reform debates, and detailed case studies of divestment, admissions, and curriculum policy reforms. Scholars, policy gurus, activists, politicians and teachers, students, and parents each have something to learn from this compelling study.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgements
  • Part I Primary Education Reform: Background and Context
  • Chapter 1 What’s Next? A Campaign to Limit the Catholic Church’s Role in Primary Education
  • Chapter 2 Control in Irish Primary Education: Who Controls What and When
  • Chapter 3 Demand for Change in the Irish Primary Sector
  • Part II Key Actors in Primary Education Reform
  • Chapter 4 The Catholic Church and Education Reform
  • Chapter 5 Educate Together
  • Chapter 6 Community National Schools
  • Chapter 7 Irish Media and Primary Education Reform
  • Part III The Politics of Primary Education Reform and Policy Case Studies
  • Chapter 8 Policy Evolution: LGBTQ and Abortion Rights as Precursors of Educational Reform
  • Chapter 9 Political Parties and Education Reform
  • Chapter 10 Divestment
  • Chapter 11 Admissions
  • Chapter 12 Curriculum
  • Chapter 13 What’s Next in Irish Primary Education Reform?
  • Appendix Media Analysis Notes
  • Bibliography
  • About the Authors
  • Index
  • Series Index

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We are grateful for several decades of experience in Irish education. We have been privileged to work and learn with and to interview thousands of students, teachers, parents, school leaders, members of boards of management and patrons over those years. We have also been fortunate to interact with educational experts, academics, civil society advocates, politicians and religious leaders, all of whom have shared their passions, perspectives and insights on the importance of education for themselves personally, as well as for Irish students, families and Irish society more broadly. This book has been a work of love and gratitude for all those who teach and inspire young people to become the best versions of themselves. The gift that is an Irish education remains quite remarkable and it has been captivating to observe how primary schools have evolved as Irish society has been transformed over the past several decades. We appreciate the magnitude and complexity of these changes and have attempted to shed light on what explains the nature of these reforms and adaptations.

There are many people, communities and institutions that we want to acknowledge and thank. First, we want to thank several intellectual communities that have been formative for us. In particular, we have both spent several years working with the University of Notre Dame in Ireland and are grateful to Kevin Whelan, Lisa Caulfield and Angela Mitchell (and their families) for their unwavering friendship, hospitality and support.

Second, we have interacted with scholars from many of Ireland’s leading third level institutions, including DCU, TCD, UCD, UCC, UCG, Mary Immaculate College, Marino Institute, St Patrick’s College Maynooth, NUI Maynooth and Queen’s University Belfast, and we are indebted to them for their probing questions, comments and insights. Special thanks to Daire Keogh, Gary Murphy and Eoin O’Malley (and their families) at DCU for their incredible companionship and mentorship.

Next, we would like to thank Boston College, and in particular their students, who have assisted us in our research. Catherine Levine and David ←xv | xvi→O’Neill provided diligent qualitative and quantitative research. Larissa Foy was one of the strongest researchers we have ever worked with and are especially indebted to her for her work on the media study and the divestment case studies. Her meticulous investigative skills and thoughtful assessment were crucial to our overall analysis.

We also want to thank Harvard University’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies for providing a home base for Sean during the research and writing of this book. Grzegorz Ekiert, Peter Hall, Robert Putnam and Sebastian Royo provided excellent support, guidance and encouragement.

In addition to the many intellectual communities, there are countless individuals who through their friendship and insights have supported us and enhanced the final product. We are grateful for the blessing of great teachers and mentors who have had a formative impact, including Frank Tivnan, Paddy Nangle, Estelle Pilon, Cathy Lucero, Fr John-Paul Sheridan, Sean Campbell, Bishop Tom Deenihan, Dr Rachel Moreno and Prof. Pat Dolan. Several academic and politician friends have graciously supported our work, including Ken Carty, David Farrell, Muiris MacCarthaigh, Niamh Hardiman, Meg Rithmire, Jason Lakin, Paul Bodnar, Fr Rodrigo Zarazaga, SJ, TJ D’Agostino, Tom Doyle, Senator Mark Daly and Mary McAleese. Dr Barbara Searle, Dr Matt Robinson and Fr Ken Hughes, SJ, have been invaluable personal and spiritual guides for Sean over the past several years.

Our ultimate editorial genius and behind the scenes collaborator has been Patrick McGraw! His perceptive and penetrating questions, comments and suggestions at every stage of research and writing pushed us to articulate a clearer argument and produce a better overall book. We are indebted to him for his patience and diligence, as well as his humour and wisdom.

We were able to interview hundreds of people over the course of several years. A special thanks to each of these leaders for their candour and for their willingness to share their passionate perspectives on why Irish primary education is so important to them. To all those who graciously took the time to review and comment on previous drafts we say, míle buíochas!

We would not have been able to complete this project during a global pandemic if it were not for our friends and family. There are too many ←xvi | xvii→friends to name, but some have been particularly loyal and supportive these past several years, including the McGraw, Trustey, Tiernan, Klaers, Kouatli, Anderson, Bannish, Fitzgerald, Hoyt, Kaneb, McVeigh, Surapaneni, Kalbas, Silk, Zurcher, Raleigh, Shannon, Keegan, Mattison, Ryan, Rosato, Zavignin-McMahon, Celio-Mazzone, Sims-Kingston, Evans, Buras-Carmosino, Ledingham, Coash, Krawczyk-Appelman, Kagan, Wyttenbach, Fennell, Smith, McLean, Wright, Reinhart, Murphy, Toner, Kolettis, King, Kollman, Manley, Novak, O’Malley-Mahon, Fillenwarth, Lee, Fitzsimons, Manning, Mullen, Stevens-O’Callaghan, Ward, McCreanor and Hannan families. The fellowship received over the years from the St Pat’s, ACE, PH, One Foundation, Foróige and Irish Jesuit communities is treasured. A special thanks to Fr Nate Wills, CSC, for his joy, persistence, creativity, fidelity and for sharing his amazing Wills and Mulrooney families.

Our own parents and siblings, as well as our new families have been especially patient and understanding. The strong, humorous, determined and resilient love of Kris, Caroline and Claire have fortified Sean and freed him to embrace this project with freedom and joy. Sinéad’s constant encouragement, selfless love and loyal support were gifts that unlocked Jonathan’s ability to contribute fully and freely to this project.

Finally, we would like to thank Tony Mason and Eamon Maher and their team at Peter Lang! They believed in us and our project and helped us produce an even better book with their wise counsel and encouraging support.

We hope you enjoy this labour of love! Despite the countless people who have helped and inspired us during this project, please know that any errors or misunderstandings are ours alone.

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Chapter 1

What’s Next? A Campaign to Limit the Catholic Church’s Role in Primary Education

I. Introduction

On 26 May 2018, thousands of people flooded into the courtyard of Dublin Castle, the former seat of British power in Ireland, to celebrate the victory of the ‘Repeal the 8th’ campaign that legalised abortion in Ireland. Similar scenes occurred in the same location three years earlier when the right to same-sex marriage was achieved in Ireland. The legalisation of abortion so soon after victory in the same-sex marriage referendum was, for many present in Dublin Castle and around the world, a defining moment in dismantling the control of the Catholic Church, which had dominated much of Ireland’s recent history. Unlike the independence from British rule that was marked by a violent struggle, freedom from the perceived undue influence of the Church was a focused, yet gradual and sustained campaign that was waged over decades to change the minds and hearts of Irish citizens and eventually to pass new laws.

The campaign for the liberalisation of Ireland’s laws, and wider society, had its first significant victory in 1979 with the legalisation of contraception, followed in 1993 with the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the 1995 vote to legalise divorce. The two more recent victories on same-sex marriage (2015) and abortion (2018) cemented the nation’s liberal shift from the conservatism that marked early decades of the State. In the words of then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, this was ‘the culmination of a quiet revolution that’s taken place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years. This has been a great exercise in democracy, and the people have spoken.’1 The ←3 | 4→New York Times was more pointed, calling the vote to legalise abortion a ‘rebuke to Catholic conservatism … the latest, and harshest, in a string of rejections of the church’s authority in recent years’.2 In Ireland, known as a bastion of Catholicism for so long, it may incorrectly be seen as having been fuelled simply by a singular desire to throw off the last vestiges of a Catholic sexual morality viewed by many as outdated and repressive. The growing liberalisation that has taken hold in Ireland over recent decades is a result of both a corps of dedicated and focused campaigners, many of whom committed large parts of their lives to such issues, and the slow and unrelenting march of secularisation that has been witnessed across Europe over the same period.

The irony of the victories of recent years is that most of the millions who voted yes, and those who filled the cobbled square of Dublin Castle to celebrate both referenda victories, were themselves the products of Catholic schools. They had been the recipients of years of religious education on the teachings of the Church, and yet attitudes towards social and moral issues had significantly evolved for many Catholic school graduates. In the days that followed the abortion vote, many of those who had contributed to the success of the Repeal campaign, including civil society leaders, academics, individual citizens and even politicians, began pondering a similar question, ‘What’s next?’

For many, the answer centred on the monopolistic control of the Catholic Church in education, specifically primary education where the Church controlled almost 90 % of all schools. Michael Barron, a key civil society activist in the marriage equality campaign, tweeted in support of the Labour Party’s demand for a Citizens’ Assembly to debate Church control of education.3 University College Dublin political scientist, Aidan Regan, tweeted: ‘Irish public opinion is clearly pro-choice. The next policy challenge is to translate this into education policy. @FineGael must legislate to force the Catholic Church to divest from taxpayer funded schools. It’s ←4 | 5→time to secularise education.’4 Countless individuals tweeted similar calls for education as the next policy to be reformed: ‘Repeal the 8th Right [,]‌ next on the to do list, let’s get the Catholic Church out of our school system.’5 Politicians weighed in as well. The Social Democrats echoed Labour’s calls for reform, claiming that ‘it is time to take religion out of the school day entirely’ as they proposed establishing a fully secular education system.6

These demands for reform were spirited and widespread. There was a palpable feeling at the time that if individuals, civil society activists, the media and academics maintained the intensity and frequency of their demands for change, then politicians would support reform. Perhaps there would be another day of celebration mirroring those days in May 2015 and 2018 in Dublin Castle. Reducing or eliminating the role of the Catholic Church in education seemed achievable during those days of ‘What’s next?’ conversations. Less than eight weeks after the abortion referendum, the Dáil (Irish parliament) passed the Education (Admissions to School) Act in mid-July 2018. This act barred Catholic schools from admitting students to their schools based on their religious beliefs or practices. No student from then on could ever be denied admittance to a Catholic school based on their religion. This was a tangible victory for educational reformers seeking to weaken the Church’s role in Irish primary schools.

That this reform victory came on the heels of the abortion referendum encouraged those seeking even further reduction of the Catholic Church’s role in primary schools. Immediately, attention turned to moving religious education and sacramental preparation outside the school day altogether and moving one step closer to a secular educational system. This would be a dramatic change from the current state-funded educational system run by private denominational and non-denominational patrons, where nearly 90 % of Irish primary schools are Catholic (Table 1.1).

Table 1.1. Overview of patronage at primary level 2020/21a


Number of Schools

% of Schools



89 %

Protestant (Church of Ireland)


6 %

Educate Together


3 %

An Foras Pátrúnachta


XX, 512
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (April)
Role of the Catholic church on education Educational reforms Irish society Education Policy Reform Irish Primary Education Secularisation Catholic Education The Politics of Irish Primary Education Sean McGraw Jonathan Tiernan
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XX, 512 pp., 12 fig. b/w, 14 tables.

Biographical notes

Sean McGraw (Author) Jonathan Tiernan (Author)

Sean Mcgraw is a Comparative Political Scientist specialising in Irish politics. He earned his BA and MDiv from the University of Notre Dame, MSc from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and PhD in Comparative Politics from Harvard University. He currently teaches Political Science at Boston College and is active as a mentor and philanthropic leader in the educational and mental health sectors. He has published How Parties Win: Shaping the Irish Political Arena (University of Michigan Press, 2015) and co-edited with Eoin O'Malley One Party Dominance: Fianna Fáil and Irish Politics 1926-2016 (Routledge, 2017). His articles have been published in the European Journal of Political Research, Parliamentary Affairs, Government and Opposition, Irish Political Studies, Research in Comparative and International Education, and Eire-Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Irish Studies. Jonathan Tiernan is the Education Delegate for the Irish Jesuits and their network of 5 secondary schools and 3 primary schools. He is a former primary school teacher having earned his BA from St. Patrick’s College/ Dublin City University and his MEd from the University of Notre Dame. His writing has appeared in The Irish Times, TheJournal.ie, Irish Catholic, Educatio Catholica Journal, and Research in Comparative and International Education.


Title: The Politics of Irish Primary Education