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The Irish Charter Schools 1730 - 1830
Kenneth Milne

 Eighteenth-Century Ireland (Volume 13 1998)
'Previous works in this area provide tantalising glimpses of the Irish Charter Schools but leave unanswered many questions relating to the founders, the Incorporated Society in Dublin for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland. This latest offering is a definitive account in four sections of 100 years of the history of the Incorporated Society.

The first half of section one discusses the impact of the British based Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) on the founders of the Incorporated Society, and the failure of the penal laws and early charity schools to proselytise Catholics.  While the author highlights the germ of Primate Boulter’s idea to encourage assimilation to Protestantism by expanding SPCK’s creed of rearing children in the way of piety, husbandry, trade and industry to include early alienation of children from parental and Popish influence, this was neither an original concept nor an exclusive Anglo-Irish thought.  As early as September 1694 Lord Tyrawley informed his kinsman Kean O’Hara of his desire for an apprentice, who, if a Catholic, was to be under twelve years old lest his religion had made too much of an impact on him.  The second half of section one explores the denouement of Boulter’s idea, from the embodiment of the Incorporated Society in Dublin and the Corresponding Society in London to the establishment of schools and nurseries.  These institutions were patronized by landlords, prelates and municipal corporations who endowed the Society over three decades with lands, buildings and contributions towards building funds.  Nonetheless, the schools, as the author explains, fell short of the numbers envisaged, due in part to financial shortfalls that were only partially alleviated by parliamentary assistance from 1747 onwards; the challenge being taken up mainly by individuals responding to their projected synonymity with the tenets of improving landlords who saw in them a means to further the aims of the Dublin Society and Linen Board.

Part two, subdivided under nine headings – working schools, managing the schools, daily routine and diet, health, masters and mistresses, the education of the children, the not-so hidden curriculum, transplanting and apprenticeship – examines the Society’s grand design with its emphasis on self sufficiency Designated as working schools, the childrens’ earnings were to defray part of the annual expenses, while work experience was considered as preparatory for useful service in the Anglican community.  Virtuous and upstanding masters and mistresses with some degree of intelligence, labouring under the watchful eyes of clergymen and select members of the local gentry, were expected to assume the role of teachers, local managers and surrogate parents.  Although the agenda differs little from that particularised by other historians, the author avoids hysterical, judgmental criticism of the Charter School system.  Factual information, some old and some new, is presented objectively to reveal innovations, both effective and ineffective in such areas as health care, funded apprenticeships and training schools for ushers and usheresses, without ignoring its negative impact.  As Milne explains, contracting children to masters, manufacturers and patrons fostered exploitation, while expected returns never exceeded ten per cent of the annual sums disbursed to schools. This, combined with the Society’s policy of implementing its manifesto by proxy, the indifference and inertia of local committees and clergymen in later years and the lack of ongoing official scrutiny to create a Dickensian environment, contrary to the rules and intentions of the founders.

A further 127 pages focus on financial setbacks in the latter half of the eighteenth century, repeated guidelines for change, nearly fifty years of public scrutiny and efforts to discontinue state funding of schools that were no better than workhouses.  Here, too, preconceived analogies are disavowed.  While the author relies on the writings of contemporary anti-Charter School critics and official correspondences, he also makes use of transcripts and interviews taken from Board of Education papers and parliamentary enquiries and reports.  Thus he exposes the later horrors attributed to the Charter school system – inefficiency, extortion, fraud, bribery, illiteracy, mental, physical and sexual abuse, venereal disease, shabbiness, ill health and unnatural vices in some young males.

Bereft of the religious direction it enjoyed under Boulter, it seems the Society lost its way and the ability to respond to the changing legislative and religious climate.  By the end of the eighteenth century, the schools were discredited as effective proselytising agents; instead they were deemed as odious and as. superfluous as the penal laws.  Former inmates dismissed as ‘Charter School Brats’ were no longer desirable as apprentices and servants.  Finding it increasingly difficult to place children in the community, young adults were exported to Australia and Canada.  Tle extraordinary impunity the society enjoyed during this period is further explained: it seems parliament was reluctant to disassociate itself from an institution lauded by successive lord lieutenants as the bastion of Protestantism; a continued influential core of politicians and other powerful individuals who were either diehard anti-‘Papist’ or committed to improvement, placed the Society above the law, which made it impossible for them to be impartial on investigative committees.

The resurgence of Catholic electoral strength probably influenced a recommendation to the government in 1824 to sever the political umbilical cord.  As the saga nears its conclusion the reader is taken through the radical reformation and transformation the society underwent during the latter half of the nineteenth century.  Resurrected from its early eighteenth-century mausoleum the Society entered the twentieth century, ironically committed to providing intermediate education to children of Protestant parentage.

There are few errors in this precisely documented study.  The only caveat and a minor one, is the lack of space given to the Society’s claims of dependency on English subscription during its early years.  From the Society’s cash book (N.L.I. p-2843) for the years 1736 to 1778, it appears that between 1736 and 1741 English subscription was in the region of £200 to £400.  This rose to £1,225 in 1751-52, which was significantly less than the Irish subscription of £2,600.  This being the case this area could have been expanded. This book does not advance any particular argument; it is however, an accumulation of well documented facts; as such it is a valuable source of references and a must for students of history' Denva O'Mahony, Eighteenth-Century Ireland.

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