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Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Date Posted:

How Rome Ruined Ireland’s Education

The Enslavement of a Nation: the Romanising of Ireland
Dr Clive Gillis

TEACHING CHILDREN the elements of their faith through constant reinforcement was a valid tool in the hands of the reformers. An early copy of Luther's catechism ‑ a tiny, simple booklet ‑ lies before the present writer, as does a facsimile of the 687-page catechism of Jesuit Father Canisius.

Catechesis was one of Rome's major Counter Reformation weapons, employed wherever the Jesuits set up schools across Europe, the far East and the New World. Canisius catechism was used for several centuries, went through 400 editions and was translated into every conceivable language. It became a serious obstacle to the progress of the Gospel.

Jesuit Possevine

About 1573, Jesuit Fr Possevine at the English college at Douai ruled that, "the Smaller Catechism of Peter Canisius be taught in schools at least twice a week and that the pupils learn it by heart". This was Rome's norm for centuries. Scriptural, Protestant catechisms are valuable tools for teaching children. Rome's erroneous and contradictory doctrines, upon which even her own theologians cannot agree, had to be dinned into children by unrelenting repetition. Knowledge of the Scriptures would have been a hindrance rather than a help.

Such learning by rote stifled the intellect. Sundays were insufficient for this task. Rome wanted catechesis throughout the week. With colluding Governments she could do as she liked, but in Ireland she faced Protestant opposition and conflict was inevitable.

The Canisius

The "Canisius", as it was called, early persuaded children of "the validity of the monastic concept, the nature of the mass, the practice of ‑confession, the veneration of saints; images and relics, the question of indulgences, church ceremonial, lighting candles and blessing oneself with holy water etc". But by the nineteenth century the Canisius was being abandoned. Ireland was no exception. There were three catechisms in circulation at this time, O'Reilly's for the youngest children, Donlevy's for the eldest and the Tuam Catechism. Many have survived.  The page openings were in English on one side and Gaelic on the other. Hence the English language could be marginalised over time.

The Raccolta

These Irish Catechisms were spiced up with ‘aspirations’ from the Raccolta, a list of pious acts to which popes had affixed indulgences.  It was first published at Rome in 1807 by Telesforo Galli, one of the consultors of the Congregation of Indulgences.  To convince the sceptical, assurances were given that these were “real” Indulgences.  Hence in the sixth edition there is printed a Decree which recognises indulgences as authentic, and in the last published by Galli there is another Decree which approves the Raccolta as a “praelaudatum opus omnibus Christfidelibus visis atque defunctis maxime perutile” (A work praised before all other for all faithful Christians and most efficacious both the living and the dead).  Purgatory was to be a reality to young minds as they worked on getting dead relatives and friends out of trouble in their classrooms.

Thus the Raccolta brought the very latest papal nonsense fresh from the official Vatican press into the bogs of Ireland.  On page 51 of O’Reily’s Catechism, 1897, we read:


Sweet Heart of Jesus by Thou my love.
(300 days Indulgence every time)
Sweet heart of Mary be my salvation.
(300 days Indulgence every time)

The catechism, and particularly the indulgenced sections of it, had to be performed before a crucifix. Although rare, a few of these crude wooden crucifixes known as Catechism Crosses still survive.

Once Daniel O’Connell had railroaded Catholic Emancipation through in 1829, he went on to complain about the growing number of Protestant Missionary Societies which had opened Schools. He accused them of proselytising and threatened to “oppose every attempt to interfere with the religious education of Catholic children”.  The British Government reacted very reasonably for the times.  In 1831 Edward Stanley, Chief Secretary of Ireland, introduced the “Magna Carta” of Irish Education, the Irish Education Act, which created the Irish Board of National Education. Under the auspices of this Board, children of all denominations were admitted to schools receiving government grants.  Religious education was to be of an “uncontroversial” nature.  This legisation was introduced some sixty years before anything comparable was to be found in England.

Archbishop McHale

Rabid nationalist RC Archbishop McHale resented the Act and any idea of mixed Protestant and Roman Catholic education.  He kept appealing without success to Rome.  But regular readers will recall that Rome was then as opposed to O’Connell as Britain was.  Rome wanted to bring about the conversion of the UK as a whole and to avoid unnecessary confrontations with the British Government meanwhile.  The pro‑British “Castle Bishops” lead by Murray, Archbishop of Dublin, assured Rome that “the Irish national system ... in fact posed no real threat ... because the largest part of it was under control of the clergy and was therefore virtually denominational,” and also, “a condemnation by Rome would prove to be a social and moral calamity for the Irish people because it was not economically possible for the Catholics of Ireland to mobilise the resources necessary to support a primary system of education of their own”.

When Pius IX ascended the papal throne in 1846, he was furious about the Act.  The first Roman Catholic children educated under it now wished to go on to higher education.  The British Government proposed “to establish a number of Queen’s Colleges which would be non denominational”. Pius thundered out a formal decree in October 1847 that they were “detrimental to religion,” and he, “forbade the [RC] Irish bishops from taking any part in them”. The long suffering British Government resubmitted plans, offering more olive brances to Pius, only to be rebuffed even more energetically in October 1848.

The Queen’s Colleges

When Pius handpicked Archbishop Cullen to capture Ireland for Rome, the sabotaging of the Queen’s Colleges by setting up a rival exclusively Roman Catholic University was at the top of their agenda. Cullen had, “an almost paranoiac obsession with Protestant Evangelicals,” and the mixed education of Protestants and Roman Catholics was poison to him.  Priests were to place parents under the greatest pressure both to endow an exclusively Catholic University and then to use it in preference to the Colleges.

The Murray camp, who controlled Dublin and other prosperous areas, refused to collect or even hold endowment cash for the new University.  Cullen wrote to Rome denouncing a “real conspiracy to render Protestant or unbelieving the education of Catholic youth”.  He then cunningly exploited the “no popery” outcry in England following the recent re‑establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy in England under Cardinal Wiseman in 1850.   Ro­man Catholic feelings were running high and plans to collect cash through a national church door collection even in “castle bishop” territory were, not surprisingly, successful.

Courting Cardinal Newman

The problem then arose of giving the university sufficient academic standing to attract students. Cullen travelled to Birmingham oratory to charm the new English convert, Father (later Cardinal) Newman, its rector.  Newman was happy to be a visiting academic with “as little absence as possible” from Birmingham in an Ireland suspicious of him as an Englishman and a convert.  Cullen insisted that he have the top job as Rector.  The promise of being elevated simultaneously to bishop was hinted at as a sweetener.  Newman agreed but with misgivings.

The Catholic University in Dublin opened in 1853. Cullen soon became disillusioned with Newman’s part‑time approach. He lobbied against his elevation to bishop.  Meanwhile Newman exhausted himself trying to balance England and Ireland.

Cullen turns on Newman

The eventual show down came when Newman’s attempts at modelling the institution upon Oxford University fell flat.

Bringing over English academics, ignoring Cullen’s dislike of his choices and  incurring expenses that “cannot altogether be defended,” made Cullen as determined to get rid of him as he had once been to pursue Cullen ignored the University and would answer Newman’s increasingly panicky letters and clandestinely took decisions contrary to Newman’s wishes without informing him.  Cullen also wrote to Rome blaming the fiasco on Newman’s absences.  After five frustrating years, Newman resigned in 1857 with an ignominious failure to his name, privately citing the “narrowness and party spirit of Dr Cullen” which “must not be told because it would damage us”.  Cullen subsequently ensured that the Catholic University would be thoroughly Irish and Roman Catholic from then onwards.

Intellectual numbing

The effect of Rome’s boycott of the scribed National system of education at all levels throughout the nineteenth century was an intellectual numbing of Ireland’s Roman Catholic youth.  Such narrow instruction might have produced millions of new Roman Catholics but when such naivety was perpetuated into adulthood in an increasingly sophisticated society the best students themselves disadvantaged in the real world.  Towards the end of the century Cullen’s scheming came back to haunt Irish Roman Catholicism.  Something had to be done to extricate Rome from a terrible admission failure and a tacit affirmation that British Government controlled education had higher standards.  But when the waters are murky, the issues complex, a solution seems to elude everyone and the standing of Rome lies precariusly on the line there is only one thing to do.  Call in the Jesuits! – as we shall see next time, DV.

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