Columbia University Seminar in Irish Studies (#535)
Minutes of the meeting held Friday, February 1st, 2002
Chair: Dr. Mary McGlynn, Baruch College, CUNY
Rapporteur: Dermot Ryan, Columbia University
Submitted: February 18, 2002
Attending: Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey), Michael Malouf
(Columbia University), Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College), Diane
Menagh (Fairfield University), Rita Loughlin (Irish Teachers Assoc.),
Martin J. Burke (Lehman College and CUNY Graduate Center), Seamus Blake
(WFUV, Fordham University), Barbara Young (Malloy College, RVC), John
O’ Connor (Irish History Roundtable), Ed Hagan (Western Conn. State
University), Margurite Lanner.
Speaker: Coílín Parsons, Columbia University.
Title: "Literary Education and Secularization in Irish School Readers,
Coílín Parsons argued that it was on England’s borders
and in her overseas possessions that the study and teaching of English
literature as a curricular core was first seriously advocated and
attempted. The impetus for the emergence of the discipline lay in
either a desire for assimilation into a new British polity, in
Scotland’s case, or in the necessity to find a suitable alternative to
replace religion as a curricular core, in the case of both India and
Ireland. The essential innovation in the reading books used in
the Irish National schools was the decision to pursue a secular though
moral education, with literature at its core. This was in sharp
contrast to the religious bent of working-class education in
Britain. The astonishing popularity of the Irish readers in
British schools provides a fascinating case study through which to read
the adaptation and adoption of educational experiments.
While controversies abound, there is a large measure of consensus
around the assertion that Ireland in the early years of the nineteenth
century posed a major question, if not a problem, for the British
administration. In 1822, the first permanent national
constabulary in the British Isles was established in Ireland. At
this time also, unprecedented expenditure on and direct government
involvement in improved welfare services and a Board of Works marked
Ireland out as a site of state intervention and experimentation that
would not have been tolerated in the doctrinaire laissez-faire
environment of Britain. These reforms were part of a complex of
methods for maintaining hegemony.
The move to establish a state-sanctioned primary education system did
not emerge from an educational vacuum. The most successful of the
organized attempts at establishing a nation-wide education system was
that of the Society for Promoting the education of the Poor in Ireland,
or the Kildare Place Society. Conversion anxieties heavily
informed the consolidation of Catholic opposition to the Kildare Place
Society. The objections of the Catholic hierarchy in the 1820s to
Scriptural readings made it clear that the system as it stood could not
become one of national education. A solution was proposed by a
committee of the commons in 1828, which recommended that a system be
adopted “which should afford, if possible, a combined literary, and a
separate religious education.” From the very outset, then, the
system of national education in Ireland is a solution to the problems
of religious differences in a specifically Irish context, in which the
government is both more free to intervene than in Britain, and perhaps
also more eager (given the history of Jacobinism and agrarian unrest in
Ireland since the late eighteenth century). The combination of
these factors led, in 1831, to an experiment unthinkable in 1830s
Britain—the establishment of a secular, non-sectarian national
The Irish commissioners recognized that the criteria for good
citizenship no longer rested in religious affiliation, but rather in
the ability of the literate citizen to take full and active part in the
growing economy of the empire. The peculiar religious situation
in Ireland necessitated experimentation with an education that would
produce precisely that type of “good citizen.”
The Commissioners succeeded remarkably well in supplanting the popular
chap-books with their own readers. It is noteworthy that while
these readers deal with biblical history in a markedly secular fashion,
the poetic pieces that punctuate the entire reader are of a decidedly
spiritual and moral nature. In the more advanced volumes of the
readers, even secularized biblical history is no longer required to
maintain a distinction between religious and literary instruction: the
former is finally superseded by the latter as the primary mode of moral
instruction. Poems are no longer interspersed among all the other
lessons, but form a discrete section of their own, ending the book with
a suitably moral tone.
Under precisely those sectarian pressures that has necessitated the
setting up of a secular national school system, education in Ireland
shifted inexorably from state-supported non-denominational schools in
1831 to state-subsidized denominational schools in 1870. In
England, on the other hand, the “1833 solution” was one of
state-subsidized denominationalism, which had changed by the Forster
Act of 1870 into a state-supported non-denominational system.
Having illustrated the peculiar Irish and colonial concerns that
informed the compilation of these readers, the question that remains to
be answered is why these books came to be so popular in England.
The books and the Irish experiment in general had the effect of
creating the conditions in which secularization and the move to
literature in the British educational system could begin to be
contemplated. After the Act of Union, the resulting increase in
the number of citizens eligible for citizenship was offset by an
expanding conception of the demands of citizenship, and a requirement
that the subject engage with the state across a broader range of
economic, cultural, and political sites. It is in the particular
situation in Ireland that the educational institutions of rational
citizenship are forged and the role of literature in the shaping of the
modern citizen-subject is first contemplated. Coílín
Parsons took questions from the floor. A sampling follows.
Q: In the news recently, we’ve read a lot of descriptions of Muslim
schools ungoverned by State authority, which are seen as centers of
militant fundamentalism. Do you think that this is analogous to
Britain’s concern about education in Ireland?
A: Yes and no. It is true that there is a proliferation of sites
that are uncontrolled in general and this, certainly, is a concern of
the British administration.
Q: Shouldn’t we set the expansion of a national school system in the
context of 1798? Isn’t this a part of a larger discourse that
links literacy and republicanism?
A: The administration’s response can’t really be reduced to this.
They took a long time to come up with a practical response to the
notion that literacy was linked to Jacobinism.
Q: I wonder if you need to historicize your notion of “secular.”
A: I understood secularization as principally anti-sectarian.
There is a desire to pull scripture completely out of education.
There is a growing sense that religion can be pulled out of the
curricular core and literature will do the work. What I mean, in
crude terms, is this process of pulling religion out. It’s
striking that as you move through the books chronologically, religion
Q: The bible schools were using Gaelic literature as a form of
proselytizing. Wouldn’t you agree that the Catholic hierarchy
agreed to national schools as a compromise to avoid this? Thus,
it is not merely a form of political control, but also cultural control.
A: Absolutely. Any bible reading is overtly Protestant.
After the 1850s in Ireland, we see an increasing sectarianism in
education. The paper that this is extracted from, however, is
about a disciplinary formation: the formation of literary studies, so
this was my main focus.
Q: Did Arnold comment on any of this?
A: He commented as far as to say that it was a wonderful model of
Q: It’s interesting to think of how important a role Catholicism plays
in the development of literary studies. Did you encounter any
commentary on the use of catechism in the schools?
A: It’s being used on the spare days, because you can read complaints
about it during the period.