Thomas Wyse 1791-1862

A Leading Advocate of Education Reform

by Tony Lyons (Author)
©2023 Monographs X, 288 Pages


«Tony Lyons’s study restores Thomas Wyse to the prominent place where he belongs – as one of the most consequential and far-seeing educational thinkers in nineteenth century Ireland. Long a neglected figure, everybody interested in the history of Irish education will profit from this work.»
(Professor James Kelly, St. Patrick’s College, Dublin City University)
This is the first major work on Thomas Wyse, and his plans for education reform. It places him, first and foremost, as an educationist, particularly between the years 1830 to 1845. The book draws upon his firm conviction that a national system of education should have a legislative foundation; a solid legal bedrock creates permanency, and, this coupled with universality, was a true national system. Not for him, narrow nationalism: his understanding had greater scope, including all social classes and all ages from primary education, to intermediate, to university and supplementary education. The book bears testimony to and conveys explicitly the core of these ideas. The book is an academic biography of a man who used his good office to explore the prevailing political atmosphere at the time and to produce a programme which would augment and reform education provision in Ireland and the wider United Kingdom. The book amplifies the key elements of Wyse’s educational thinking, and the reader should find the analyses throughout the book both beneficial and enlightening.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Thomas Wyse: The Member for Education or a Mere ‘Gadfly’
  • Chapter 2 ‘Architect’ of the National System of Education
  • Chapter 3 Education Reform
  • Chapter 4 Morality, ‘Good’ Education, Scientific Methods and Teachers
  • Chapter 5 Wyse and Post-Primary, Female, Technical, Agricultural and Adult1 Education
  • Chapter 6 A Second University for Ireland
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Heartfelt gratitude goes to the staffs of Mary Immaculate College Library, Limerick and the National Library of Ireland, Dublin.

My appreciation also goes to my wife, Sadhbh, without whom, through her patience and care, this book would have never seen the light of day.


The Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain was passed in 1800, and it became law in 1801. This meant that the Irish Parliament in Dublin no longer existed and the centre of political power in Ireland effectively moved from Dublin to London (Westminster). From 1801 onwards all meaningful political dialogue and legislation concerning Ireland took place at Westminster. Scotland had already joined the union with England and Wales in 1709 to form Great Britain.

The educational milieu in Ireland in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries consisted of Charter Schools,1 Schools of the Christian Brothers, Hedge or Pay Schools, Schools of other religious orders such as the Presentation Order and the schools aligned with the Mercy order. Allied to these were those schools, often termed Protestant Society Schools, some of which were avowedly proselytizing, while others, such as the Kildare Place Society, was not so severe, and initially treated all religious persuasions alike. However, this society also found itself coming down on one particular side of the denominational spectrum in the 1820s. Following much criticism, including from Daniel O’Connell, it lost its status as an educational powerhouse in 1830, and its state grant of £30,000 was simply transferred to the National Board of Education.

Education provision in Ireland in the eighteenth century was generally unsatisfactory, haphazard and piecemeal. Indirect state intervention became associated with Protestantism and its promotion. This policy went as far back as the sixteenth century when legislation by Henry the Eight introduced parish schools (1537) for Ireland. Further Tudor legislation followed when Elizabeth 1 introduced secondary education (1570) – neither of these initiatives had any success. For that reason, other attempts were made subsequently. The eighteenth century witnessed considerable activity in education provision in Ireland; it was a century when an all-Protestant Parliament sat in Dublin – the Ascendancy Parliament – and from which Catholics were excluded.

However, there was some hope for the majority population of the island when Catholic Relief Acts were passed during the last decades of the eighteenth century. This changed the legal status of Catholicism in Ireland and restored to the Catholic population a measure of social recognition and power unknown to them since the enactment by a Dublin parliament of the Penal Laws in the earlier part of the century. The threats of French revolutionary forces, combined with the growing

political consciousness of elements of the Catholic population as seen in the Catholic Committee, and in the support afforded the United Irishmen’s movement in the 1790s showed that a political problem existed.

The proposed solution to the problem was put forward in Pitt’s plan for the Union of the Irish and English Parliaments. The hope of Emancipation to follow gained the support of the Catholics, while the danger to their established order finally convinced the Irish Protestants of the necessity of the Union.

Emancipation, however, was not a result, and in the ensuing decade, within the Westminster Parliament, it was but feebly debated. The Catholics felt they had been deceived. At first there was despondency:

Everyone seemed to have returned to a state of inertia, from which there existed little hope of arousing them in the future … the country seemed once more consigned to irredeemable apathy…. The Catholic spirit had totally passed away; the dead body only was left behind.2

However, this was followed by a resurgence of Catholic activity which reached its height during the 1820s when, under the inspired leadership of Daniel O’Connell, clergy and laity combined to press for Catholic rights. In this assertion of identity one vehicle for advance was in the area of education.

The Protestant Ascendancy Parliament in Dublin was in a position to support initiatives that may advance Protestantism in Ireland. Therefore, some Protestant societies formed in the eighteenth century received government aid. For example, The Association for Discountenancing Vice and Promoting the Knowledge and Practice of the Christian Religion. This was founded in 1792 by three members of the Established Church (Church of Ireland or Anglican Church), the Revd. Dr John O’Connor, the Revd. Singleton Harpur and William Watson. They formed an association to combat ‘infidelity and immorality’ in Ireland. Concern was shown for the improvement of life for all ages and classes. The members were to discuss, not only how to prevent ‘intemperance in all ranks of men’, but also, ‘how to discourage and discountenance luxury, dissipation and extravagance in the upper and middle classes both of males and females and how to prevent ‘profane cursing and swearing’.

Such is an example of the ideology and ethos of an organization typical of the many similar associations which grew up in Ireland and Britain in the eighteenth century.

There were many other societies, all operating in Ireland from the last decades of the eighteenth century onwards:3

The British and Foreign School Society

The Baptist Society

Cork Hibernian Society

Irish National Society

London Hibernian Society

Munster Hibernian Society

Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in Ireland (Kildare Place Society)

South Eastern District School Society

In 1733 the Incorporated Society in Dublin for Promoting English Protestant Schools was founded – the Charter Schools. These schools were decidedly anti-Catholic, and aimed at positive conversion in a manner which would be distinctly and avowedly proselytizing.

The poverty and famine of the 1730s and 1740s ensured significant support for the Charter Schools. Promise of food, clothing and shelter induced poor Catholic parents to send their children to these schools. Parental and priestly influence would, it was felt, neutralize the Protestant ethos of the schools, and guard against conversion. With social conditions improving by the second half of the century, it became more difficult to fill the schools. As agencies of proselytism these schools had failed.

The Kildare Place Society, founded in 1811, and based on an earlier concept called the School Street Project which catered for the poor of all creeds, without regard to or interference with religious profession. This proved to be a very successful experiment.

The Kildare Place Society, or, to give it its proper title, the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor of Ireland, set out to provide elementary education of a non-denominational nature so that the same advantages would be available to all children without particular reference to religious beliefs.

The principle of teaching ‘upon a cheap and expeditious plan’ had been prominent in the Fourteenth Report of the Board of Education4 and so the society was officially accepted and encouraged to carry on with its task of establishing schools, training teachers, publishing textbooks, organizing and inspectorial system and laying the foundation for a national system of education. How was this to be achieved?

In 1815 it applied to Parliament for financial aid, and since the Society’s scheme was almost identical to that recommended by the Fourteenth Report, it received its first grant of £7,000, increasing to £30,000 annually by 1831.

During the period of its existence the Kildare Place Society was quite successful, publishing textbooks, organizing lending libraries, establishing a training institution for teacher training and devising an inspection system over the schools in its care. One of the lasting results of its endeavours was the male and female model schools which were used for training purposes. This was later copied by the National Board. The Kildare Place Schools brought with them the first semblance of the idea of system – uniform books, some of moral exactitude, model schools and an inspection system. By the end of 1831, 1900 male and 500 female teachers had been trained by the Society.

However, from the early 1820s, criticism of the Society began to reach a point where, in 1824, at the instigation of Roman Catholic pressure, the Irish Education Inquiry was established. Catholics wanted a system of education which would not interfere with their religious beliefs. It was asserted that the Society, was not adhering to its own rule of interpreting the Bible without note or comment. Also, the fact that the Society subsidised other education societies such as the London Hibernian Society and the Baptist Society both of which were avowedly proselytizing, was another black mark against it, in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy. Also, Daniel O’Connell, who was a board member of the KPS, withdrew and he was very critical of the Society’s change in its attitude to non-denominationalism. This practice and change in orientation did not sit easily with Wyse, as he was an ardent proponent of non-denominationalism or mixed education.

It is fair to claim that the KPS offered substantial advancement in laying the foundations in important areas such as school textbooks and inspection. It offered the semblance of apparent conformity but this existed only as a result of its total reliance on rigidity and systematization. While the necessity for strictness and routine cannot be denied, the Society’s whole educational philosophy was overpowered by them. If its adherence to an organized, almost national system of education could have been encapsulated in the less custodial and richer educational philosophy of say, a more liberally-based and less stringent means of schooling, then the emerging system might have been far more enduring in the long run, and far more beneficial to the participants. The pre-eminence of the Kildare Place Society in the early nineteenth century effected and determined in no uncertain manner, subsequent educational policies and practices.

Although the evidence for technical education or, more precisely, training in Ireland through the ages is largely inferential, there can be no doubt that such training existed in the form of a gradatory initiation to a craft in workshop, forge or foundry.

Such a formalized system of technical training must have existed in Ireland from very ancient times, as indeed it must exist in all but the most primitive societies. Descriptions of battles in earliest times presuppose a high level of technical expertise. In his discussion on the first battle of Mag Tuired in Irish Sagas (1968), Brian Ó Cuiv describes how the Fir Bolg having accepted a challenge from the Tuatha De Danann asked for a respite:

… for’, as they said, ‘we shall have to prepare our spears, to mend our mail, to shape our helmets, to sharpen our swords, and to make suitable attire….’5

Samples of Bronze Age weaponry are still extant, such as the Drumauna sword in the National Museum, and display evidence of considerable skill in design, casting, forging and rivetting. The Irish warrior or hunter at this time carried such a sword and was also equipped with spears with cast bronze heads and with a short bronze dagger. To defend himself he carried a circular shield made of bronze or leather, or wood.6

The monasteries of post-Patrician Ireland had their workshops and the output from these workshops exemplifies a gradual accumulation of skill and compatibility with the accumulation and perpetuation of skills inherent in a formal system of technical education.7

Another example from Medieval Ireland is the excavations in High Street, Dublin in 1962 that have shown Viking settlements rich in trade and commerce, where training systems in such skills as bone-carving and cloth-making existed.8

Where the Trade Guilds of the Middle Ages operated in towns and cities, such as Dublin and Waterford, they incorporated into their structure a highly developed and well-defined system of technical training.

When the Guild system disintegrated this training became the responsibility solely of the individual craftsmen to whom the apprentices were bound. Thus, in early modern and modern times there is little evidence of organized technical education. The Churches, who by now played a leading role in education provision, saw their traditional commitment in the area of liberal studies, for the most part. Nor did the Industrial Revolution bring with it any dramatic change of attitude in Ireland, save the north-eastern part of the country. Laissez faire economic theorists were bitterly opposed to the idea of state intervention in the field of industrial education as they viewed such intervention as a hidden subsidy to industry. For instance, it was the virulent opposition of the Liverpool Financial Reform Association which thwarted and finally sounded the death knell of the Model Agricultural Schools, one of the most interesting, innovative and worthwhile experiments in industrial education in nineteenth-century Ireland.

Therefore, until almost the last decade of the nineteenth century there was no direct state intervention in the form of legislation pertaining to technical instruction in Ireland. It was an era of individual effort and technical instruction was provided in a number of disparate institutions under the patronage of a wealthy benefactor or organization (society), and usually situated in a city or large town. Some of these institutions, such as the Royal College of Science in Dublin, did enjoy a certain degree of government sponsorship, but there was no attempt made to create an integrated system of technical instruction.

Thomas Wyse made several attempts to get legislation passed to favour education, including technical realms, in Ireland but, unfortunately, his efforts in that regard came to nought. His plans for Irish education were very comprehensive, and included details for elementary education, secondary education, supplementary or adult, including technical, education and university. He left no stone unturned in order to locate all of these elements on a sound legislative footing, whereby they would be permanent and universal. Firstly, national, for Wyse, did not mean any single one of these elements standing alone: for the system to be truly national it had to incorporate all the elements, with each one receiving judicious treatment. Secondly, the system cannot be national unless the state is directly involved in providing each and every one of these elements. Strictly speaking, Wyse was as concerned with a true national system for England as he was for Ireland. Throughout the 1830s Whig politicians in Britain associated them selves with social reform, including education. However, the Whig programme for England in 1839 should not be ascribed to Wyse, ‘its main adherent in England.’9 The 1839 education scheme was similar to the national system in Ireland, but not directly influenced by it.

Wyse undertook a shrewd and penetrating analysis of why Ireland, until 1831, lacked even the semblance of an organized system of national education, and in one of his many outlets: Discourse Pronounced at the Closing of the First Session of the Waterford Literary and Scientific Institute (Waterford, 1833); his monumental tract, Education Reform; or, the necessity of A National System of Education Vol. 1, was published in 1836, has a wealth of information, including anecdotal analyses and enunciations.


X, 288
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (July)
Reform liberation of the human mind ‘mixed’ education Thomas Wyse, 1791-1862 A Leading Advocate of Education Reform Tony Lyons history of Irish education
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. X, 288 pp.

Biographical notes

Tony Lyons (Author)

Dr Tony Lyons, retired lecturer in the History of Education, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. Book Publications: The Education Work of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Irish Educator and Inventor, 1744-1817. Lyons, Tony & Moloney, Noel, Educational Resources in the British Empire: Examining Nineteenth Century Ireland and Literacy Tony Lyons has contributed many articles and book chapters to various publications over the years.


Title: Thomas Wyse 1791-1862