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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 3 A New Concept of Schooling and Wilderspin as a Transformational Individual 51


CHAPTER 3 A New Concept of Schooling and Wilderspin as a Transformational Individual In the early to mid-nineteenth century in Ireland the inf luence of two significant men, most notably, John H. Synge (1788–1845) and Samuel Wilderspin (1792–1866), contributed greatly to an emerging concept of child-centredness. By virtue of being the first Irishman to study in Pesta- lozzi’s school in Yverdun, Synge acquired a certain educational significance. Samuel Wilderspin on the other hand exerted a great deal of inf luence and played a pivotal role in the construction of a specific concept of the child, the teacher, and infant education, in the early decades of mass schooling in Ireland. Pestalozzian Practice: John H. Synge John H. Synge felt very disillusioned with the ‘mechanical system of edu- cation’ witnessed by him in Ireland in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Although not professing to be an educationalist, he visited Pes- talozzi’s school in Yverdun while journeying through Europe. He was so impressed with what he observed there that he wished ‘to bring home as much as possible of what appeared to be so intrinsically valuable’ (Synge, 1815, preface: xv). He established the first Pestalozzian elementary school on his family estate in Co Wicklow in 1815, where like Edgeworth; he was in the privileged position of working with a select group of children. In common with the Edgeworth children, Synge’s pupils engaged in outdoor activities with their days ‘divided between classroom instruction and work 52 CHAPTER 3 on the...

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