Religious education in Ireland

Religious education in Ireland has been a contentious issue for generations, just as it has been in many other countries, but Ireland is almost unique in Europe in making religion an integral part of our education system.

It wasn’t always so, of course. In fact, all the way back in 1831, when the primary school system was first established in this country, it was conceived as multi-denominational, a radical enough step given that, at that time, it was almost inconceivable that anyone would be an atheist or a member of any other religion.

The expressed idea was to unite in one system children of different creeds, a concept not vastly different from what many of us still hope to achieve a century and a half later. This is Ireland, after all, where things move slowly.

What actually happened was that the two dominant churches exerted such pressure on the government of the time that by the 1850s, barely one in 25 schools was managed by a group consisting of mixed denominations. Not a surprising outcome for a time when the Catholic Church was flexing its political muscles and the Church of Ireland was fighting a rearguard action against the loss of its former influence.

And so it came about that the free primary schools of Ireland came to be owned by the two dominant churches, even though they had been paid for by public money. Naturally, the fee-paying schools of both denominations continued to collect the money of the wealthy and went on to supply the future judges and senior doctors as they had always done, but that’s the nature of society everywhere and can hardly be ascribed to religion.

Oddly, however, the primary school system following Irish independence thumbed its nose at the regulations that supposedly governed its existence.

According to the rules of the Department of Education

[dropshadowbox align=”none” effect=”lifted-both” width=”auto” height=”” background_color=”#ffffff” border_width=”1″ border_color=”#dddddd” ]the system of National Education affords combined secular and separate religious instruction to children of all religions, and no attempt is made to interfere with the religious tenets of any pupils.[/dropshadowbox]

Once Ireland attained its independence in 1921, the clergy were free to redefine the terms of primary education as follows.

[dropshadowbox align=”none” effect=”lifted-both” width=”auto” height=”” background_color=”#ffffff” border_width=”1″ border_color=”#dddddd” ]Of all the parts of the 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.[/dropshadowbox]

This went on to become Rule 68 of the Department of Education . The Taliban had arrived in Ireland and the book-burnings could begin.

It took nearly ninety years before this definition of education was abandoned, but by then the concept was firmly established that the publicly-funded school system was the primary vehicle of indoctrination for a particular church.

Much abuse has been thrown towards the junior partner in the last government, but Minister Jan O’Sullivan deserves respect for abolishing Rule 68.

Now, Patrick Treacy SC seems to be a fine man as far as I can tell. He seems to be a committed individual and a man of principle. Furthermore, he is a Senior Counsel and therefore a man I tremble before when daring to disagree with him.

I met Patrick last year when he took time out of his busy schedule to visit Limerick and oppose the marriage equality referendum in a radio show broadcast from the Strand hotel though I doubt very much if he remembers shaking my hand. If I recall correctly, he might well have worn a vague expression of distaste but perhaps I just imagined that.

Perhaps I was simply projecting, since Patrick was sharing a stage with John Waters.

All I really remember about Patrick as he trudged across the bridge on his way back from the hotel was what a solitary figure he cut. Like a very perfect gentle knight of the crusades, he seemed somewhat melancholy and carried a large bag, but perhaps that was because he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Who can tell?

Patrick runs a religious retreat based, as far as I understand it, on the precepts of Ignatius of Loyola. It’s called Integritas, which is the Latin for Integrity, just as Veritas is the Latin for Verity and Libertas is the Latin for Liberty.

Latin is a popular language for naming organisations. It lends them a gravitas (oops, of course I meant gravity) that they might not otherwise possess. And I’d wager that Patrick remembers more Latin than I do. I bet he knows his accusative and infinitive from his ablative and dative.

Patrick is a man of considerable religious commitment, to which, of course, he’s absolutely entitled, but he seems to have overlooked the fact that Rule 68 was abolished, and I say this with considerable trepidation, since Patrick is not only a committed religious man but also a Senior Counsel. I’m absolutely open to correction, but to the best of my knowledge, our rules for primary schools no longer say as follows:

[dropshadowbox align=”none” effect=”lifted-both” width=”auto” height=”” background_color=”#ffffff” border_width=”1″ border_color=”#dddddd” ]Of all the parts of the 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.[/dropshadowbox]

When it was put to Patrick that there might be a reasonable solution to the problem of pesky non-religious children in our State-funded schools, he bristled, even though the proposal was simple enough. Why not have the religion classes at the end of the day so that non-religious children could simply go home? One might add, why not have them at the start of the day so that children of non-religious families could come in late?

Why not put religion in a box at the end of the school day? Isn’t that a reasonable suggestion?

Not to Patrick.

Patrick’s view was that the school’s ethos should infuse the entire day, and I hope I understand him correctly in that. But he was magnanimous enough to say that non-religious children are entitled to education in our State-funded schools, and they are entitled to drop out of religion classes.

I was fascinated.

How exactly would religion infuse the rest of the day without infusing our non-religious children?

And in what sense would the religious day manifest itself outside of religion classes?

What conception, I asked myself, did Patrick have of Catholic mathematics classes?  Does he have a religious view of the unifying theory of calculus? Would it be different from the Hindu understanding of the unifying theory of calculus? Is there a Christian Laplace transform? Can we integrate atheists from here to infinity?

What did he think a Catholic geography class might look like? Would the continents be in the shape of a cross?

Did he think Catholic chemistry might be much different to Protestant chemistry or Muslim chemistry? Would atheist chemistry be something else again? What is the process that transforms a biscuit into Jesus?

Does Patrick believe Catholic physics is different to atheist physics? Is this how a man walks on water?

I didn’t know the answers. But then someone pointed out to me that the text books used in primary schools are infused with religious assumptions, even though the children using them might be from homes that do not subscribe to such notions, so perhaps this is what Patrick had in mind when he argued for general access to schools. You’re free to bring your children to our publicly-funded schools, but they will learn from our privately-dictated textbooks.

Isn’t that the quintessential Irish solution to an Irish problem?




3 thoughts on “Religious education in Ireland

  1. I considered sending my daughter to an educate together.But an hour there,an hour back and all the kids her age from our town in the local school make it a no brainer.

    It’s the fact that they get taken to the church during school hours that boils my blood.And 2 whole years of primary devoted to ensaring children for life.Is daily indoctrination classes not enough for these fools?

    But if 70-80% of dumb asses still consider themselves Catholic,while neither practicing nor actually believing in the central tenets of said ludicrous religion,then what chance do we have?

  2. All I remember from religious education in my day (the 80’s) was the natural family method. We were told the contraceptive mentality was selfish over and over. In my third year in secondary school, 15 year old Ann Lovett died giving birth to a child under a grotto in Granard. No dots were really joined in religious education about that.

    Two years later, they got a nun to come in and give us a 2 hours seminar on why all the other family planning methods were bad for your health and why the natural family planning method was best. Never heard anything in religious education relating to any of the other deadly sins except sex i.e. lust, I suppose.

    In my last year, the jewel of the church Fr Michael Cleary came in and give a 2 hour show in which he patronised and insulted everyone under the guise of ‘comedy’. He also told us that we was dying of throat cancer but didn’t pass until a few years later.

  3. I know it’s no consolation to people who are having difficulty with getting a non religious education for their children right now but digging in is not going to save the religious in the long run. We live in the information age which has been a disaster for religions as people can check facts and have access to alternative points of view. My exposure to a Catholic education was enough to put me off it for life and that will continue to be the case for many young people going through this system to the extent that I would almost be inclined to say let them at it.They will undo themselves by their actions.Progress may be glacial on this issue but I am very optimistic that the generations coming up will have even less time for this nonsense than we do now. As I said in the long run digging in will not save them.

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