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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 5: An ‘Irresistible Necessity’


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An ‘Irresistible Necessity’

Electoral breakthroughs in 1826, initially by Protestant candidates well-disposed to the emancipation issue and subsequently by O’Connell in a by-election in Clare two years later, ensured that the realization dawned in political circles that the remaining restrictions on Catholics must be removed. The alternative was a likely breakdown in law and order in Ireland, possibly leading to a civil war. While this is the topic that dominated the political agenda in the next few years, the campaign for change in education continued, enhanced by the report of the Commission of Inquiry. But steadfast resistance to change by those in favour of the status quo held sway.

The matter of the financial assistance to educational provision in Ireland came before the House of Commons in March 1826. By this time, Thomas Spring Rice, a Whig MP for Limerick, was the main Irish spokesman on education. He criticized the practices of the Kildare Place Society and pointed out that current arrangements were not of great assistance to children of Catholic families. Of over 400,000 Catholic schoolchildren in Ireland, he calculated over 90 per cent were being educated at their own expense, mostly in the hedge schools. Less than half the 70,000 children attending schools supported by the Exchequer were Catholics.1 Henry Goulburn, the Chief Secretary, defended the Kildare Place Society. Thomas Frankland Lewis, who was then serving as chairman of the Commission of Irish Education Inquiry,...

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