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Irish Education and Catholic Emancipation, 1791–1831

The Campaigns of Bishop Doyle and Daniel O’Connell

Brian Fleming

The restrictions applied to Catholics in the early eighteenth century to curtail their political and economic power in Ireland were gradually removed by the British government in response to changing circumstances. By 1800 the remaining restrictions related to membership of Parliament and a few senior judicial positions. The removal of these, while important symbolically, could have direct implications for very few people, given the limited franchise. Yet the campaign for their abolition, known as Catholic emancipation, presented successive British governments with serious problems and led to one prime ministerial resignation, one government collapse and many crises.

How did Daniel O’Connell use this situation to create a successful mass movement, broadening the emancipation campaign to include the issue of education? How did the area of educational provision become a sectarian battleground, and what part did Bishop James Doyle play in forcing a reluctant government to become involved in setting up a state-run education system, a highly unusual step at the time? Does his vision have a message for us now, when school patronage is such a contested issue in Ireland? This book provides an intriguing new perspective on a critical period in Irish history.

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Chapter 4: Straws in the Wind


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Straws in the Wind

Doyle’s persistent campaigning on the education issue led to another investigation of existing arrangements that again identified fundamental failings. His outstanding performance before a parliamentary inquiry into the state of Ireland prompted many MPs to review their opposition to removing restrictions on Catholics and, at the same time, secured his standing as a leading spokesman on Irish affairs. Success seemed on the horizon, but the resistance to any concession proved too strong.

Yet it was becoming clear to senior British politicians that change was inevitable. Within government circles, there was an awareness that the education provision in Ireland was becoming an issue. Chief Secretary Goulburn wrote to Lord Lieutenant Wellesley on 3 February 1824, advising that a proposal for a committee to investigate the matter was likely to be presented in the House of Commons shortly. Goulburn was inclined to resist such a proposal as any such committee ‘would be used to attack the Kildare Place Association for the purpose of substituting a system of Exclusively Catholic education’.1 In March 1824, the Catholic bishops arranged for James Grattan, MP for Wicklow, to present a petition on their behalf to the House of Commons. In it they outlined their grievances in relation to Irish education, including the activities of the proselytizing groups, discrimination against their schools in the awarding of grants, and their dissatisfaction with the Kildare Place Society and its activities. They also made the...

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