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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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In the early years of the eighteenth century, the British government introduced various pieces of legislation which placed restrictions on members of the Catholic faith and Protestant dissenters. The intention was to remove them from positions of financial, political and social power. In the longer term, the objective, in the case of Ireland, was to establish Protestantism as the main denomination. The education system was viewed as a key part of that strategy and state support was provided to evangelical societies to establish schools. For various reasons, elements of the coercive legislation were removed over the decades whilst, at the same time, efforts to proselytize gained momentum. By the end of the century the sole remaining disability related to membership of Parliament and a small number of senior administrative positions. Problems in the education system had been acknowledged in official and other reports but no action was taken.

The passing of the Act of Union (1800) prompted some optimism that improvements might follow but this proved to be misplaced. The campaign for Catholic emancipation, that is, the removal of the remaining disabilities, gained some momentum at various stages in the first two decades of the new century. However, divisions on the Irish side and opposition from powerful figures in the British establishment ensured no progress was made. The ‘Catholic question’ began to dominate British politics. Meanwhile, the need for educational reform was again recognized in an official report but resistance from the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland...

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