A new source for the hisory of education in Ireland: Offaly History Sources Series, 12. Schooling in Ireland: a clustered history 1695-1912.

Schooling in Ireland: a clustered history 1695-1912. by John Stocks Powell. Published by Offaly History (2020) , 364 pp in softback and limited run of 50 only for sale in hard covers €28. Offaly History Centre, Whelehans in Portarlington and Midland Books, Tullamore.

The cluster is Portarlington, and now appears in book form, published by Esker Press for Offaly History in Tullamore. It should be remembered that Portarlington is as much in Co. Offaly as in Co. Laois; and in this history of schools the exact locations revealed more on the Offaly side than the Laois.

The early schools of Portarlington have so often been seen as a follow-on to the Huguenots, and more or less left at that.  This book shows the school history to have surpassed the Huguenots both it time span, and in importance: so many eighteenth and nineteenth century printed sources wrote of the schools as significant, and not the French.  Indeed the 1803 Post Chaise Companion for Ireland ignore the French and cite ‘several schools in great repute’.

The schools did start among the Huguenots, and a few names give as school teachers, but there is no evidence at all of what they taught, or whether they taught French.  Part of this book therefore handles this argument over language. Most of the Huguenots in Portarlington came from the south of France, and so may well have spoken Occitan or Provencal French; and tried to teach children the new English of their new home.

What did emerge was three periods of schools in the town, not a general smooth flow. After the Huguenots from the mid eighteenth century came a large number of private boarding schools, mostly run by what would be termed ‘blow-ins’, for girls as well as boys, where French became a commodity, Parisian French at that; where Italian was taught, the boys put to dancing masters and fencing masters, where washing and mending clothes were charged as extras on the parental bills. Teachers had names such as Terson, Towers, Hood, Halpin, Despard, Lalande, Porter, Dunne.  Above all is Thomas Willis, who taught on the Offaly side, and part of a register survived, and where Wellesley, Sheridan, Busshe, O’Connor, Croker, featured among the pupil names.  Willis left some memoirs, and he recorded his pupils donning Volunteer uniforms and parading about the time with wooden muskets in the 1770s; where many of his pupils were escorted away in 1798 for fear they would be taken as hostages.  Certainly, this clustering of schools increased business, almost an industry with economic benefits from provisioning, transport, supply, and fees received.  There was money to spare in this town, hence assembly rooms were built, and the Polish Dwarf gave concerts in 1795, a horse racing track created; hot air balloons were launched.

Was Carson a cheeful Portarlington schoolboy?

This clustering of schools re-appeared in a third period from the 1840s.  These schools were very different indeed, reflecting the changing ideas about childhood, especially boys and manhood. These schools in Arlington House, Foxcroft House, Indiaville (Kilnacourt), St Germain’s (East End Hotel) were regimented; organised sport, drilling from officers brought in from the Curragh, were significant. Boys weren’t allowed into town for fear of mixing. There were no dancing or fencing masters now.  These schools, predominantly loyalist and based on English public schools models, more and more had to compete alongside the National Schools, the religious congregations of Christian Brothers and Presentation Sisters, and in the twentieth century with Irish revival and the Gaelic League school, also in the Offaly side of town, where occurred in 1906 ‘the battle of Portarlington’ over mixed classes. There was one girls’ school in this period too, the Ruvigny Seminary, where one pupil became a significant novelist.

These different periods, 1695-c.1730; 1740-1820; 1840-1912 reveal so many different attitudes as well as all the names of teachers and pupils. Was childhood in 1750 different from childhood in 1850? Childhood ended for the poor at 8 when work set in, ended at 15 for the richer when university could follow, or entry into a profession or the army.  What differences between boys’ schools and girls’? How did teachers and pupils behave? Flogging, beatings appear, as did bullying.  The future Lord Cloncurry was pushed off a wall, the novelist De Vere Stacpoole ran away; one boy was hit on the head and died that night; another took his teacher to court for beating him. Edward Carson loved his time in Arlington House, and befriended his clergyman headmaster to such an extent that Wall performed Carson’s marriage, and Carson later came to his headmaster’s financial rescue.

The teachers: La Cam became a United Irishman, many were clergy without church livings, and there emerged here the scene that for educated men and women without land or a rich family, teaching was one of the few areas for a respectable independent livelihood. Wall took fright at the land League in 1881 and moved many of his pupils to a new school in England which lasted just three years despite enormous publicity.

The pupils: most of the known names have come from newspaper adverts where the head teachers would list those pupils successful in exams, Only one part of a register for all these schools has survived. With the pupils come textbooks, and what was taught. How were they fed, looked-after when ill? What happened to them if the parent was a late payer? Why did many schools advertise ‘no vacation’ meaning a parent could leave the child as a boarder throughout the year; and some adverts cite ‘each boy has his won bed’ as if that was an exception?  Girl pupils learnt the harp, and this combining with the development of Egan’s pedal harp may well have changed this instrument from a ‘male’ viewed piece to a ‘female’ one.

This book therefore follows through the school periods. It also provides an A-Z listing of the schools with their histories, and an A-Z listing of all known pupils, offering a small contribution towards genealogical studies and family histories.

Narration though is one part.  In a subject like this other, wider, issues are raised. Portarlington did not, does not, exist in isolation. Ideas flowed in and spilled over. What ideas affected the teaching of the poor? Were children the product of original sin, or the innocent? Above all who controlled what? Language in school then and now, is heavily controlled. Irish, enhanced now, was banished then; no local accents allowed in English, or French patois. Was Latin spoken with a hard or soft ‘C’ ? And Greek?  How did Thomas Davis know about his three hundred men from the Battle of Thermopylae in A Nation once again, unless he had encountered classics at school?

As well as narrating and detailing over two hundred years of schooling history, this book aims to open wider areas over child treatment, teacher status, what was permitted in language, in religious community, how the child was turned out. Several became politicians, one a revolutionary who wanted to marry his headmaster’s daughter; one became an expert in Japanese: most went to work in a changing Ireland.  A wider look at Ireland, yes; and a show of how significant this one town of Portarlington is, in that wider history.

Schooling in Ireland: a clustered history 1695-1912, by John Stocks Powell

Published by Esker Press, Bury Quay Tullamore, Co. Offaly R35 Y5V0  Tel. 0579321421

ISBN 9781909822245 hardback:  9781909822252 paperback

Sources are footnoted + bibliography + index

Arlington House, school between 1840-1912, where Edward Carson attended in the 1860s.

The building is now a ruin, and deserves protection

Francis Hewson Wall, 1842-1920, Carson’s teacher and friend

La Cam. He came to Portarlington to work as a teacher. From London, his grandparents were Huguenot. He was sworn in as a United Irishman, but seems to have survived the war. Note the extra charge for washing.

Now the washing charge is three guineas. The Loders came from Oxford. Mr Loder was an artist and portrait painter; his wife and daughter tried to open a girls’ school: such a set of expenses before the girls’ fees were paid, and no more advertisements appeared in the Dublin papers. Did this school ever open? Running a school was financially precarious.