Irish Priests and Universities

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

However opinions may differ as to the best way of settling the question of Irish University Education, no impartial man can doubt that an effective settlement is urgently required. Perhaps the most powerful argument for it is the statement made by the Census Commissioners of 1861 as to the number of persons who annually take their degrees in the two recognized Universities. From a ten years' average of the numbers graduating in the University of Dublin and the Queen's University, the Commissioners thought they could obtain a sufficiently fair representation of the number yearly receiving University education in Ireland. And what was this annual average? Only 335, or 0.006 per cent, of the whole population! The Commissioners contrast this result with the per centage recorded for Belgium in 1850, which stood at 0.017; for Austria in 1853-4, where it rose to 0.026; and for Prussia in 1852, where it was 0.028. Make what allowances we may for defects in computation, the contrast presented here is too marked to permit us to believe that University education in Ireland is in a satisfactory state.

It is sufficiently plain that existing systems lie, as geologists say, unconformably with the inclinations of the people. The two Universities as at present constituted have not won popular confidence; and even if they were as theoretically admirable as their partizans maintain, that would not be a sufficient reason for allowing things to remain as they are. When we want work done, it is not the machine which will look best and do least that our engineers employ, but that which, even if not so ideally perfect, will do most. To engage a more adequate per centage of the people in University studies is the great need; and in the face of such facts as we have quoted, it cannot be reasonably maintained that this is a time to preserve educational monopolies. To do so is a flagrant contradiction both of common sense and liberal ideas. But yet there seems to be a lingering belief in some men's minds that with regard to Ireland they should reverse their ordinary principles of action, and oppose all exceptional legislation which is not directed against the multitude—that they should sustain free trade everywhere, and in all things, except with respect to education in a country where, in that respect, it has been so persistently and so largely demanded.

What influences some, no doubt, is a motive which for want of a better term may be called religious. Men whose profession it is to judge public questions on their merits, irrespective of religious considerations, are found when Ireland is in question to refer to those very considerations as the reasons for their conclusion. They allow their judgment to be warped by a fear that if Catholics are placed on a footing of strict equality with Protestants as regards education, clerical influence and bigotry will be supreme in Ireland. If this fear has any valid basis, the tone of French and American Catholics who have been educated in denominational colleges should be adduced to justify it, but it is little to say that they are never referred to for the purpose. In particular, the harmony in which educated Catholics in America live with the population around them would not serve the argument; and neither in Canada nor in Australia has the denominational system been declared injurious from any similar point of view.

But even supposing that to incorporate the Catholic University of Dublin as a University College, or to charter it as a University, would be to give into the hands of the priests the higher education of the Catholics, what follows? Would it, as a matter of fact, develop, increase, and extend priestly influence? It will hardly be denied that half-educated men are more likely to be swayed by external influence than men who have enjoyed all the advantages of the higher education. And an examination of the subject will show that, with trifling exceptions, Catholic intermediate education is now altogether in the hands of the priests. Changes such as those proposed could not well, therefore, develop, increase, or extend their influence; they would only render those over whom it is exerted more intelligent and more capable of rightly appreciating it.

How important it is to recognize and consider these facts may best be understood by attending to a few official computations. According to these, in 1834 there were 96 Protestant schools for superior education, attended by 4,240 pupils, whilst there were only 23 Catholic schools for the same purpose, with an attendance of only 1,484 pupils. At the last census, however, the number of superior schools distinctively Protestant had declined to 60, and their pupils to 2,075, being a decrease of schools by 36, and of pupils by 2,165. On the other hand, the Catholic superior schools had risen in number to 86, whilst their pupils had increased to 4,962. Thus we have here an augmentation of schools by 63, and of pupils by 3,478. The Census Commissioners point out that this increase of Catholic superior schools is due to the fact that whilst superior education had been provided for Protestants in chartered and endowed institutions much more nearly than it had been provided by voluntary efforts for others, the Catholics had to create anew all the higher orders of schools from their own resources. The reasoning halts. It does not account for the strange decrease in the number of Protestant schools and pupils, but it does allow us to foresee a further increase and development of Catholic superior schools. We may reasonably infer from these facts that whilst a refusal to make some such concessions as those demanded may obstruct superior education in Ireland, it will be as ineffectual to guide it into another channel in the future as it has been in the past.

The question of the age of pupils in these superior schools is one which is equally worthy of notice. According to Tables XII. and XIII. of the Report on Religion and Education, there was a gross total of 20,819 pupils receiving education in these institutions. Strange as the fact may appear when we take into consideration the social status of members of the several persuasions, Catholics are here in an absolute majority over members of the Established Church and Presbyterians. According to this Report, 10,178 Catholics were in school-attendance during the week ending the 13th of April, 1861, against 7,433 members of the Established Church, 1,974 Presbyterians, and 1,234 members of other persuasions. Of these 5,792 Catholics, 5,002 members of the Established Church, and 1,249 Presbyterians were males. Apportioned according to age, the number of males in attendance stood as follows:—

Catholics Members of the
Established Church
Under 5 years 68 36 13
5 and under 15 3,454 3,636 938
15 and upwards, and unspecified 2,270 1,330 298

Thus, whilst the Protestant pupils are in an absolute majority when taken at the ages of from five to fifteen, the Catholic in attendance at an age of fifteen and upwards greatly exceed in number all Protestants put together. More than two-thirds of the Presbyterians, almost two-thirds of the members of the Established Church, retire from the superior schools at the age of fifteen; whilst on the contrary scarcely one-third of the Catholics are thus withdrawn. What is the natural inference? Evidently that the former are drafted into Universities, and reappear at the Queen's Colleges or upon the roll of residents or non-residents of Trinity College.

Over a thousand Catholic pupils should have gone away with them, but they do not see the course clear before them, and so they remain in these superior schools to get all the education they will ever get from teachers. The abstract desirableness of a University degree has never had an opportunity of taking root in their minds, and the difficulties that have intervened of late years have had a tendency to withdraw them from any thought of it. Of course from the number of those who should go through a University after leaving school must be deducted a certain proportion who would be immediately absorbed into business; but this is an argument for rather than against the Catholics, since it is not their decrease but their persistence at school at an advanced age which is in question.

By Table XVI. of the same Report from which we have already quoted, we find that, on the 17th of May, 1861, the number of Catholic males attending classical schools under societies or boards was 1,984; attending classical private schools, 3,134; attending mixed schools under societies or boards, 16; and attending mixed private schools, 1,026.

Now it is necessary to understand that when the Census Commissioners speak of Catholic Classical Schools under "Societies or Boards," they mean that these schools are under the control and direction of religious orders or congregations of the Clergy. The Augustinians, Carmelites, Dominicans, Jesuits, Marists, Oblates, Trappists, and Vincentians have twenty such schools, with 1,649 pupils.

An ordinary reader, however, would be still more likely to be misled by the expression "classical private schools," and to fancy that these, at all events, were under lay direction. They include, however, the great group of episcopal seminaries which exist in numerous dioceses, and which are, as a matter of course, under the immediate guidance and control of the Bishops. They are said to correspond with the Petits Seminaires of France, and the comparison is to a certain extent correct. Candidates for the priesthood receive at them a course of education which qualifies them for the exclusively clerical colleges, such as Maynooth. On passing an examination held at certain seasons, they are drafted into them. These seminaries are fifteen in number, and they muster 1,202 pupils. But in all of them, with one exception in Dublin, the larger proportion of the pupils are not intended for the clerical state. These pupils, too, should have their seasons of examination, when they would be drafted into University Colleges, but they have nothing of the sort. They remain to "complete" their course as best they may.

Some, no doubt, but few comparatively from these and other institutions, go to the Queen's Colleges and Trinity College. They go, however, solely for the purpose of obtaining in professional degrees a means of livelihood. They do not go to liberalize their minds by a complete University course. And the consequence is that, whilst the colleges at Cork and Galway show a comparatively large number of Catholics amongst their medical graduates, the case is far otherwise with the faculty of Arts.

Those who oppose any change in the Irish University system for fear of "clerical influence" should reconsider their position. It is clear that what they have succeeded in doing has been no injury to that influence. They have delivered over the laity almost wholly into the hands of the clergy for education. And they have done much more. They have endowed a college where the clergy may proceed for their own degrees, whilst they have weighted the laity, and hindered them from rising to an equality with the clergy in education. What could more effectually make the young layman feel his inferiority to an ecclesiastic than to note how the latter is taken from the provincial seminary to Maynooth, whilst he himself must for ever be satisfied with what modicum of information he gets from the seminary teachers?

Moreover, if the obstructives are successful for a little longer they may perhaps destroy the possibility of creating or perfecting a wholesome university system —a system which shall oxygenate the current of education in those colleges and seminaries by affiliating them to a high university college.

For the University of London has sent out its examiners to hold examinations in certain of these provincial institutions, and thus to convert them, with all their imperfections, into virtual universities, whilst others are only disputing about the question.