The news today is full of education minister, Jan O’Sullivan’s decision to revise the rules for national schools, especially Rule 68, issued in 1964 under the minister of the day, Dr Patrick Hillery.
Reading them now, they come across as utterly bizarre, a remnant from an Ireland that no longer exists, some strange, authoritarian, religious-dominated, backward-looking, sexist, introverted anomaly of a country, much like a Catholic version of the Islamic State after the fighting had settled down. And yet there are elements of the rules that reveal a quiet revolution taking place, a gentle rolling back of clerical power beneath all the religious huffing and puffing that the document is prone to.
Radio and television have their demands. They need to come up with the soundbite, unfortunately, just as the printed media do in their own way, which is why it’s understandable that they latched on to the absurd Rule 68.
Let me quote Rule 68 for you.
Of all parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use. Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.
Of course, the technical term for this sort of thing is Bollocks and what a shame that it should still survive a full 50 years after it was first pushed out by the Department of Education on behalf of the minister, Paddy Hillery. In the modern world it stands up to no scrutiny whatever and can instantly be demolished by reductio ad absurdum.
Since a child of non-believers does not receive a religious instruction, that child has been deprived of the most important part of the school curriculum and also deprived of a fundamental part of the school course. It therefore follows that the parents of that child have been negligent.
Now, what ideologue would like to knock on anyone’s door and accuse them of being a negligent parent for withdrawing their children from religion classes?
Context is everything, and 1964 was a time when governments still struggled under the gimlet eye of the appalling John Charles McQuaid and his episcopal fellow-abusers, and therefore the inclusion of Rule 68 doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that successive governments, throughout the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and the zeroes allowed this miserable piece of clerical arse-licking to remain in existence.
Despite all that, however, Rule 69 brings a few surprises. True, it does acknowledge that men are superior to women, as do many other rules, sadly.
69 (1) The religious denomination of each pupil must be entered in the school register and roll-book. This information should be ascertained from the parent (the father if possible) or the guardian of the pupil where necessary.
Now, observe that wording. Ignore the institutionalised sexism of the Irish state in 1964 and note that the pupil’s religious denomination should be recorded. Here you have a clear demonstration that there are in fact no religiously-controlled National schools in Ireland, despite what the church authorities and some civil servants would have you believe. The Irish primary school system was set up in 1831 (by the English, God forbid!) to be entirely multi-denominational and it’s only by an ad-hoc sleight of hand that they came to be otherwise, controlled by parish priest or rector as the case may be.
But let us go on. What else does Rule 69 say?
2 (a) No pupil shall receive, or be present at, any religious instruction of which his parents or guardian disapprove.
That’s pretty radical, wouldn’t you agree? Not only radical, but ignored wholesale for the last 50 years by rabidly religious school principals walking all over the rules with hobnailed boots.
Your kids have a right to a secular education if you desire it. It’s that simple, and yet, this right has been resisted by every priest, bishop and screechy self-appointed parent-mullah since the foundation of the State.
Paddy Hillery, ironically, was actually a reforming education minister who ended the class barriers in education, who gave every student access to State exams, who set up comprehensive schools and regional technical colleges, and who laid the basis for Donough O’Malley’s impetuous announcement of free secondary education for all. If politics is the art of the possible, perhaps he calculated that these things were only possible provided he paid lip service to the religious extremists of his time.
But that time is gone and now it’s time to say goodbye to such nonsense.