Michael O'Sullivan reviews Dominican Education in Ireland 1820-1930em> by Máire M Kealy OP, Irish Academic Press, ISBN: 987 0 7165 2889, €24.95/£19.95 pbk
THE DOMINICANS, or Order of Preachers, established a presence in Ireland more than 700 years ago, not long after the order's foundation by Saint Dominic. By the end of the 16th century it was well established, an independent Irish Province having been formed as early as 1484 and in 1706 their own historian O'Heyne published his great work The Irish Dominicans of the Seventeenth Century.
Since then Dominican history is fairly well documented, with a number of well researched accounts appearing in the 19th and 20th centuries including, in 1957, Daphne Pochin Mould's popular and readable study The Irish Dominicans.
The Dominican women religious too have been the subject of a number of substantial accounts, making them almost as equally well documented as their male counterparts. O'Heyne himself included them in the official history as did Thomas De Burgo in his Hibernia Dominicana published in Cologne in1762 and recently reissued.
Closed communities of Dominican nuns probably existed in Ireland as early as the 13th century and in keeping with their status within an order of preachers long devoted themselves to education in all its forms, though it was not until the 17th century that they began to establish themselves as teachers outside of the monasteries.
Properly styled 'sisters' because of their non-enclosed state and less stringent vows and working within the general framework of the state education system, together with a dedicated band of lay sisters, they were to make a significant and lasting contribution to Irish education throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Maire M. Kealy, herself a Dominican sister and a retired teacher has now produced a workmanlike record of that contribution between the years 1820 and 1930, beginning with the setting up, in 1820, of a Dominican 'poor school' in Cabra, Dublin. The school provided rudimentary education for poor Catholic girls from the immediate neighbourhood.
In the relative thaw following the relaxation of the Penal Laws and the passing of the Emancipation Act, the British government introduced a state funded National Schools system to provide basic elementary education. This became known as the Stanley system after its promoter Lord Edward Stanley, Chief Secretary for Ireland.
Initially mixed or non-denominational, in order to lessen the influence of the Catholic church, practical reality soon meant that Catholic and Protestant children in the main each attended schools run by their own clergy.
As Sr. Kealy points out however relations between the Dominicans and the Stanley commissioners were far from harmonious. There was, perhaps inevitably, a struggle for control of important areas such as funding levels, attendances and the choice of curriculum, though what emerges here is that the main contention was the commissioners' objections to the order's insistence on providing in-depth religious instruction to the children.
There existed too among the teaching orders what Sr. Kealy refers to as a 'two-tiered' system, with the state-funded National schools operating alongside private, fee-funded 'junior' schools.
Eventually, private students greatly outnumbered the state sponsored intake, reflecting the severe class divisions of the time but also a marked and continued resistance on the part of almost all of the religious orders to what was perceived as state interference in the teaching of Catholic children. In time. however, a somewhat uneasy truce was reached, with the Catholic bishops gradually gaining the upper hand. The Intermediate Education Act of 1878 then made a range of funding available for secondary education, for girls as well as boys, eventually paving the way for Catholic students to enter higher education institutions, including in time the newly formed National University of Ireland.
While Sr. Kealy's main focus is the involvement of Dominican women in Irish education she includes also a wealth of valuable information on Irish education in general. The work of the other religious orders for example makes interesting reading in this context as do the birth and development of the Dominicans' teacher training programme and the delicate and often fraught relations between the order and various British government departments.
This book developed out of Sr. Kealy's doctoral thesis, which she presented at Lancaster university in 2005. This may account for its well ordered approach and attention to detail. Her introductory chapter Dominican Ethos in Education outlines the historical background to Dominican education generally, together with brief mention of a number of important Dominican institutions such as the well known Taylor's Hill Galway foundation, dating from the 17th century and the subject of Sr. Rose O'Neill's pioneering work A Rich Inheritance.
Each successive chapter then deals with a different aspect of Irish education at primary, secondary and higher levels, detailing in each case the contribution of the Dominican sisters. What shines through most of all from Sr. Kealy's narrative is the patience and professionalism of all involved in that great educational experiment and their unshakeable determination that it should succeed.
That particular era ended with the closing in 1930 of the Sienna Convent community in Drogheda when the sisters choose to revert to their age old contemplative way of life.
Dominican Education in Ireland is a welcome contribution to women's education studies in Ireland and is sure to take its place among the standard works on that subject. The Dominican order is fortunate to have acquired a chronicler of the calibre of Sr. Kealy. Through difficult times, privation and rejection, the sisters emerge from her book as an example of what might, in the face of great adversity, be achieved by a small band of dedicated enthusiasts.
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Copyright © 2009 Michael O'Sullivan