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The Development of Infant Education in Ireland, 1838-1948

Epochs and Eras


Maura O'Connor

Winner of the Kevin Brehony Book Prize, awarded by the History of Education Society (UK)

This is the first published historical analysis of the development of infant education in Ireland. It spans the period from the opening of the Model Infant School in Marlborough Street, Dublin, in 1838 to the introduction of the child-centred curriculum for infant classes in 1948. A study of early childhood education in Ireland in this period provides an understanding of how the child, childhood and the early years of school were viewed by society. Child-centredness had become a feature of educational practice in Europe in the early eighteenth century and was developed further by Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel. How it manifested itself in schools in Ireland is critically explored in the book through an examination of key reports, as well as through new original primary source material not previously in the public domain. The curricular content, pedagogical approaches and organisation of infant schooling reveal much about the attitudes of those in authority to the youngest children and their educational needs. Interviews with kindergarten advisors, national (primary) school inspectors, lecturers on early childhood education, teachers of infants, and adults who were students in the early decades of the twentieth century provide further insights and enhance our understanding of policies and practices of the time.


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CHAPTER 1 New Educational Thinking: A European Perspective 1


Introduction xix An Historical Background According to Fynne (1924: 1) ‘All the great educational systems of the past embodied some unchanging truths and therefore something from each of them must be found to-day in any system worthy of general adoption’. In an ef fort to contextualise the landscape into which the educators in Ireland in the early decades of the nineteenth century endeavoured to implement their versions of child-centredness, it is important to ref lect brief ly on the Irish historical, political, economic and social contexts that shaped Irish education to this point. For many centuries since the Norman invasion of the twelfth cen- tury Ireland has had to suf fer conquest, confiscation and colonisation. Throughout these years, education was recognised by the Irish people as a vital agent in cultural survival. The tradition of Irish schooling may be traced to the Bardic Schools or ancient professional schools of the Middle Ages. These were secular institutions which produced a highly developed system of education and ‘were the nearest approach to university education in Ireland’ until the middle of the seventeenth century, when under British rule, they were forced to close down and their patrons become landless and homeless or exiled (Dowling, 1936: 1–2). The Penal Laws of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a devastating ef fect on the growth and development of Catholic educa- tion in Ireland. During this era, many Catholic bishops and priests were compelled to leave the country, while teachers were forbidden to engage...

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