Irish Education: the Road to Educate Together

Irish Education: the Road to Educate Together

Jason C Courtoy

Middle Tennessee State University

The recovery of the ancient Greek and Roman literature is commonly attributed to the Moors.  However, a group often overlooked not just for its role in the recovery of antiquities literature, but also seen as having no influence on Europe is Ireland.  The Danish once were the capital of the world’s mercenary forces and banking system, and Portugal once dominated the sea trade.  Where does Ireland fit into this category of the world’s great powers?  Ireland was once the capital of the known literary world during Medieval Europe.  When Europe was burning and throwing out their books, Ireland was gathering, copying, and writing every book they could get their hands on and teaching them too.  The Irish were not always what the Roman’s and Europeans’ would call “civilized” people.  The Irish Celts develop from nomadic tribes into devoted Catholics through the work of Saint Patrick.  This shift both gave the Irish their love for literature and education, but also stalled their educational system as they missed the benefits of Luther’s Reformation.  This missed benefit halted Irish education giving way for the development of the National School system and the Educate Together schools.

The Irish were not completely illiterate.  In fact, they had their own prehistoric alphabet called Ogrham and their own epic called the Tain.  The Ogrham, nevertheless, is strikingly similar to Nordic runes, and the Tain was an oral history of bardic talesIt was not until after Saint Patrick converted the Irish to Catholicism that the Tain was even copied into written form.  The Irish after their conversion began to take to literacy (in the other languages of the world, i.e. Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) “as something to play with.” (Cahill 1995, 164)  They saw language, much in the same way as Jacques Derrida, Fredrick Nietzsche, and many other modernist thinkers of pre/post World War II, where they looked at language not simple to communicate, but also fundamentally at its linguistic structure.  Cahill states that they would ask, “Why… did a B look the way it did…Was there an essential B-ness?” (165)  Cahill also explains that the Irish monks “saw no need for self-imposed censorship.” (159)  It is this desire, curiosity, and lack of censorship that made Irish monks different from their European brethren.  It is also these differences that pushed the Irish not to burn books, but rather to do the opposite, record everything.  This vast library of books in Latin, Greek, and their limited amount of Hebrew texts led Ireland to be the perfect place to re-educated Europe.  Monks from mainland Europe would travel for miles to monastic fortresses, like St. Kevin’s Monastery in Glendalough, Ireland, to be educated by the Irish monks.

Once Europe had recovered and England began pressing its protestant influences on their surrounding neighbors, Ireland, having been untouched by Luther’s Reformation, saw the increasing pressure by the English as a threat.  The increasing pressure by the English crown, but also Cromwell’s Penal Laws against Catholics, forced Ireland to increasingly identify “Catholicism with freedom from foreign interference and this in turn prompted the development of a version of national consciousness which saw a fusing of religious, political and cultural elements.” (Williams 1999, 318)  Williams further explains Ireland’s identification of religion with national identity became more apparent with the fracture of Northern Ireland and later the Republic of Ireland into political rivals with the North wanting to join the United Kingdom as Protestants and the Republic wanting to stay free as Catholics.  The Republic, when deciding to establish its education system, attached itself to this sense of cultural nationalism by reviving the Gaelic language and aligning with the Catholic churches.  However, the government soon realized that “social disharmony deriving from the conflation of religious with cultural identity” (Williams 1999, 318) as the driving force to create multi-denominational schools.  These schools would cater not to the national religion of Ireland, but rather to each of the patron churches religion.  This quickly upset many churches, and they “quickly moved to ensure exclusive control of individual schools.” (Rowe 2004, 2)  Even though the churches secured control, the National school system was established.

Three remaining acts of legislation were needed for culture necessary for the creation of Educate Together in Ireland; the 1965 Rules for National Schools, 1971 New Curriculum, and the 1998 Education Act.  The 1965 Rules for National Schools established that primary education’s religious practices, called Religious Instruction, was too short within school hours. Therefore, they removed the instruction of religion from the teachers and gave sole responsibility to separate religious instructors. The 1971 New Curriculum established the child-centered and integrated nature of Irish schools today.  “It made it effectively impossible for a parent to remove a child from the inculcation of the religious beliefs of the school’s patron.” (Rowe 2004, 2)  Lastly, the 1998 Education Act made it the exclusive right of the patron of a school to define its beliefs and staff.  These documents, along with Ireland’s cultural history, paved the way for the ethos of the Dalkey School Project and the Educate Together Schools.

The Educate Together Schools have four main tenets to their ethos that their schools abide by.  The first of these, and most important, is their effort for a fully multi-denominational school curriculum.  In Ireland, the schools patrons decide what the ethos or religious background of the school is. [1]  Therefore, the patrons of Educate Together, the school’s board made up of parents, teachers, and community leaders, decided to create a system that would embody the National School systems intended purpose, to end violence caused by the polarization of religion.  Educate Together schools go about this by implementing their Ethics teachings during the national allotted hour for religious instruction.  This model allows for the equal teaching of all religions, including that of humanism, agnostics, and atheists.  It composes of four main topics: “’Moral and Spiritual Development’, ‘Justice and Equality’, ‘Belief Systems’, and ‘Ethics and the Environment’” (“What is an Educate Together School?” n.d.)  The purpose of these topics is to allow for not just the representation of holidays such as Christmas and Easter, which would traditionally be taught in other Irish schools, but also the pagan holidays of the Celts around Christmas and various other religious holidays, such as Ramadan or Yom Kippur.  They also leave the school rooms open for parents, after hours, for doctrinal instruction or religious teachings of a specific type.  These doctrinal instructions are extracurricular and are not required leaving parents of agnostics or atheists to not feel forced.  The second tenet of Educate Together is co-education.  While not entirely a large matter in Ireland today (as most schools in Ireland educate both sexes), this tenet is implemented to attack “counter gender stereotyping in all its forms.” (“What is an educate Together School?” n.d.)  A major issue is not its focus on co-education, but rather as Paul Rowe points out the “increase in [the] alienation of young people especially young men from the education system.” (11)  In the States, co-education usually means an overemphasis on the education of women to counter-balance male education, as a result tends to leave the education of men lacking.  However, it is promising that the CEO or director of Educate Together is aware of this increasing problem and is working to correct it.

Child-centered is the third tenant of the school’s ethos.  This, also, is nothing new to Ireland’s education system. The 1971 new Curriculum established this as a main goal of the National School system.  The tenet is centered around the idea that everything the school, teachers, and board discuss should be decided on the basis of what is best for the children, not the school or teachers.  However, this also plays into the way the teachers present information to the children.  One example from the texts discussed expresses this plainly, in dealing with a question of whether or not to buy a bus pass, the teacher essentially asked the kids “from whose perspective are we seeing the world in this material?” (Apple 2007, 17)  The teacher was asking the students even though this material is biased one can still understand more about multiple perspectives bringing not just the subject to life, but also allowing kids to use their minds in a more democratic way.  The last tenet is democratically run, which has already been aforementioned.  The purpose is to offer not just teachers and the board with a means to negotiate, but also to allow parents to feel like that they have a real stake in their school, community, and in the education of their children.  This is implemented by the school board itself.  The board is made up of teachers, parents, and members of the community.  The parents elect two members to the board (which each parent is rotated into these spots from the parent body), along with the Principle, and two members of the teacher facility.  In this way, not only is the normal school structure there (teachers and Principle), but also an equal number of parents.  Each decision made by the Principle or the school is discussed and voted on by the board leaving even the color of the school’s walls to a vote.

The major differences between American schooling and how it works compared to Ireland’s can be summed up in the opposite of their four tenets.  The first difference one will notice is that the American system has to keep church and state separate under the Constitution. Despite the ability to educate children in religious practices in non-biased ways, it is quite difficult to develop a fully multi-denominational system in the American school system.  Another problem is parent support, Educate Together is created and run by parents that want their children in such an environment. American parents are forced, due to zoning or exceptions, in certain schools.  In fairness, most American schools, though they can teach religious practices, tend to leave it to the parents, mainly from fear of legal action.  In Ireland’s Educate Together schools it is often expected for students celebrating special holidays, often one’s that in America students would stay home for, are encouraged to bring their parents to discuss the holiday.

Another large difference is that where Educate Together is child centered American schools are school or score centered.  American schools are not worried so much about the child’s education as they are the child’s test scores.  This is not to say that all schools, school districts, and teachers don’t care about their real education.  Many of the intentions of bringing up scores is meant as a sign of increased education, but the result is not always never good.  Often increased scores for a school means increased dollars, and low scores means a school might be shut down.  Another result of this policy is that children are singled out.  The testing of each student accumulates into a competition not just for money, but also between students.  Children that get low test scores are called stupid or unintelligent by their peers, and those with high test scores are mocked for being geeks or for making everyone else look bad.  I remember in high school the class would get mad at the one student that made a ninety-nine on a test because it meant that everyone’s curve was only going to be for one point.  The Educate Together schools, however, turn most projects into group oriented activities.  One classroom we walked into was exploring being creative, where student broke off into groups to create a movie, website, or sculpture.  No child was singled out.  Art projects in my elementary were individually based, where every student made a single sculpture.  In other words, choice was left only to the teacher not the students as to the projects.  The last and most important difference in their systems is that American schools are board run.  They are boards of elected members, and many of them often are not teachers themselves.  The decisions are often made for what is best for the county’s schools (i.e. money) instead of the children.

The Irish’s love for free education in the Medieval Age foreshadowed that of the desire of some Irish parents for Educate Together schools.  The social tension between the Catholic and the Protestant Irish (or North and South) gave the original creators of the Dalkey School Project criteria to fulfill in creating a purely democratic and multi-denominational school system.  The last piece to the creation of Educate Together was the securing of not a patron church (as it had previously been under the National School system), but rather under a patron by the 1965 Rules for National Schools.  The separation of religious instruction as the teachers’ job allowed for teachers of multiple faiths to come together under Educate Together.  The child-centered and parent involvement that Educate Together fosters is something I feel that the American system can learn from.  It might even fix the evolving authority dilemma that Hannah Arendt describes about education today.


Apple, M. W., & Beane, J. A. (2007). Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Cahill, T. (1995). How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. New York: Anchor Books.

Rowe, P. (2004, April 16). The Origin, Development and Potential of the Educate Together Ethos. Retrieved July 1, 2010, from Educate Together:

What is an Educate Together School? (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2010, from Educate Together:

Williams, K. (Dec., 1999). Faith and the Nation: Education and Religious Identity in the Rupublic of Ireland. British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 47, No. 4 , 317-331.

[1] Since the establishment of the 1971 New Curriculum and the 1998 Education Act stated above their multi-denominational view is able to be facilitated.


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