Ireland’s National School System 1831

Old Classroom

The Irish national school system was established under the 1831 ‘Stanley Letter’. This letter, written by Lord Edward Stanley, chief secretary of Ireland set out the proposed structure for the development of a national system of education in Ireland. In it, he invited the Duke of Leinster to become head of the new board of education. This board would be made up of men of high moral character and ‘admit Christians of all denominations’. (1) The aim was to bring together children of different faiths and establish schools that would unite under the management of the board and submit to their regulations. The relationship between the board, its inspectorate and teachers had a profound impact on schools. The work of each teacher, their performance and that of their pupils, administrative duties, living conditions and free time were reported to the board by an inspector who formed a vital link between teachers and the board based in Dublin.

The physical environment of the schoolhouse was one aspect that occupied inspectors from the outset and was one of the main points inspected during a visit. As well as creating an adequate space to conduct his or her duties, the teacher also had to be master of that space and use it correctly to exert their will. A space allocation of 6 square feet per child was deemed adequate accommodation for children in a school with an average attendance. Head Inspector, P. J. Keenan remarked though that he believed 8 square feet would be best in schools where galleries and class rooms were provided. In these cases certain calculations had to be made to adequately provide the correct space and while he conceded that a set allocated space per child could not be universally implemented, the arrangement of furniture, position of the pupils and general organisation all had to be taken into consideration.

School Books

This was a move away from the often gloomy and uncomfortable conditions experienced by many in the earlier pay school system. Care had to be given to prevent making the schoolroom ‘tenantless and cheerless’ and due attention given to the circulation of air. He recorded that the teacher had to be alert to ‘the headache, or the languor, or the dizziness of the eyes, or the total debility towards the end of the day, that first reminds him of his neglect’. (2) He called for the proper construction of schools so that each child could have a supply of clean air and for schools to be adequately furnished. This often depended on the availability of funds locally.

In 1834-35 there were one thousand one hundred and six national schools in operation in Connaught with over one hundred and forty-five thousand children recorded on the rolls. In that year, a further 60 applications for aid were received from Roman Catholic clergy, (though none from Protestant clergy), while two hundred and eighteen Protestant and three hundred and fifty-one Roman Catholic lay applications were received. (3)

During some of his time inspecting schools around Ireland in 1854-55 and despite his recommendations, Inspector Keenan found in their physical appearance little to be admired. Few were in ‘good’ condition and fewer still in ‘excellent’ condition. Many places were not well adapted for operation as a schoolhouse, and were variously ‘muddy and dirty looking’, ‘backward, unpromising and wretched’, ‘wild and desolate’, ‘a step above the class of common cabins’, ‘cheerless’ or ‘entirely unsuitable’ (4)

On inspection in 1855 Inspector Keenan found that in 25 per cent of schools he visited there was no blackboard, and these he declared were the worst schools of all. A good teacher, he remarked needed this important requisite to perform all his teaching tasks properly. In schools with no blackboard, children could not be ‘appealed to’ even by a skilful teacher. He stated that ‘where the blackboard is thus freely used, education is sure to flourish’ and felt so strongly that he suggested the commissioners refuse to recognise a school until at least one blackboard could be provided. (5)

Maps and models too were of great importance, the former one of the first requisites the teacher should consider buying. He considered it important to utilise the walls of the schools as a means of hanging maps and called on school architects to consider this plan, remarking that school in the United States of America made great use of this space and that all new schools should consider this approach. (6).

Fittingly, a map of North America also provided children with some idea of the geography of the place they would ultimately call their new home when it came time to emigrate.


(1) Irish National Schools Trust, ‘Copy letter from Lord Stanley to His Grace the Duke of Leinster on the formation of a board of Commission 1831’, ( the-stanley-letter-1831/), (20 Dec 2015).

(2) Twenty second report of the commissioners of national education in Ireland for the year 1855, H.C. 1855 (2142), xxvii, 51-2.

(3) Second report of the commissioners of national education in Ireland for the year 1835, H.C. 1835 (300), xxxv, 10.

(4) Twenty second report of the commissioners of national education in Ireland for the year 1855, H.C. 1855 (2142), xxvii, 115.

(5) Ibid, p.53.

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