Catholic and Nonconformist Academies

After 1782 Catholics openly advertised schools with extensive curricula; for instance, an academy was opened in Cork in 1783 which taught Italian, French and Spanish as well as Greek and Latin. Schools offering this type of curriculum were opened throughout the country. But one of the most important aspects of the decade 1782–92 was the creation of a basis for expansion that enabled Catholic educational facilities to absorb the sudden repatriation of Irish students studying abroad, when the French Revolution suddenly closed the traditional continental colleges and created an atmosphere in which colleges could be established, such as St Patrick’s, Carlow; and in 1795, 35 Geo. III, c. 21, the Royal College of St Patrick was established with government support.

Academies or independent grammar schools provided secondary education for Catholic and protestant Nonconformists. A few of these eighteenth-century academies, such as the Belfast Academy and the Friends’ School at Lisburn, are still functioning today, but the vast majority were extremely short-lived. Most of these classical schools, regardless of religious denomination, tended to revolve round a single teacher who gave personal tuition to a select number of students, some of whom boarded in his house.

In 1731 there were known to be at least 45 Catholic schools in the city of Dublin, some of which were almost certainly academies, and 13 in the diocese of Waterford and Lismore, eight of which were stated to be Latin schools, with philosophy being taught in two. Of the 20 schools in the diocese of Killaloe Latin was taught in two and philosophy in one, and in the archdiocese of Tuam, where there were 32 such schools, ‘several teach philosophy and divinity’.

Information about these institutions for the early eighteenth century is very slender, but by the late century there were a number of noted schools and schoolmasters. The latter included Richard McElligott of Limerick, who in 1805 described himself as a teacher of 36 years’ experience, and his contemporaries Philip Fitzgibbon of Waterford and Patrick Lynch, who taught at Cashel and Carrick-on-Suir before opening a Classical and Mercantile School at 30 Lower Ormonde Quay, Dublin. Catholic teachers were often priests.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century Daniel O’Connell attended such a school run by the Rev. James Harrington at Cork before going to St Omer’s, a preparatory college for Douai. From there, in 1792, O’Connell, then in his seventeenth year, wrote to his uncle in Ireland that ‘in this college are taught the Latin and Greek authors, French, English and Geography, besides lessons given during recreation hours in music, dancing, fencing and drawing.’ Mathematics cost a guinea per month extra.

The school had a country house, and O’Connell wrote that ‘all the boys go there once a fortnight and remain a day; this renders the summer very agreeable.’ In September 1792 O’Connell and his brother transferred to Douai. This educational pattern was completely disrupted by the French Revolution, after which the revocation of restrictions on Catholic education in Ireland made possible Catholic secondary and university education at home.

Before his nephews arrived in France, Count Daniel O’Connell suggested that his brother, Maurice, should make the necessary financial arrangements for their education through the La Touche bank in Dublin and its Paris correspondents. Earlier in the century it was probably more usual for money for this purpose to be transferred through the various merchant houses.

For instance, in 1741 the Belfast Protestant merchant, John Black of Bordeaux, wrote to his brother Robert, a merchant in Portugal, about ‘the order you gave me to furnish the needful for Captain O’Dwyer’s sons boarding and school at Pau which I have ever since continued to do per the priest Mr Macegan’s bills upon me’. The amount involved was now considerable, and Black was beginning to feel concerned about his reimbursement.

Black himself was well aware of the problems of educating children abroad. In 1740 he had written to tell his brother that he had sent ‘Joseph, Alexander and Samuel, my three boys to the schools at Belfast whence they are well arrived and ordered my son John from thence hither’. It is unlikely that such a hard-headed businessman as Black would have allowed sentiment or patriotism to dominate his educational plans for his children. It is therefore reasonable to presume that the schools in mid-eighteenth century Belfast offered a high standard of education, even before 1755 when an outstanding schoolmaster appeared in that town.

David Manson was born in 1726 at Cairncastle, Co. Antrim, where he began his career as a farmer’s boy. He arrived in Belfast as a brewer, a trade that he was subsequently to combine with the profession of schoolmaster.

Manson’s educational methods were based on encouraging success rather than punishing failure. There was a hierarchy of success, while those who refused to work were known as the Trifling Club.

In 1755 Manson advertised in the Belfast News Letter stating that at his school in Clugston’s Entry he ‘teacheth by way of amusement English Grammar, Reading and Spelling at moderate expense’. He also started a night school, offering free tuition to any schoolmaster who would attend. He was so successful that in 1760 he moved to larger premises in High Street and eight years later to still larger ones in Donegall Street.

His pupils included the children of such prominent Belfast families as the Joys and the McCrackens. In 1779 he received the freedom of the borough. When he died in 1792 he was accorded the final honour of a torchlight funeral attended by all classes of society. His generosity in offering free instruction to his fellow teachers ensured the diffusion of his methods, traces of which could be found in the hedge schools at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The most famous of the Presbyterian academies of the early eighteenth century was that of James McAlpine at Killyleagh, which operated between 1697 and 1714. This ‘seminary for the instruction and education of youth in principles contrary to the Established Church and government’ enjoyed a great reputation throughout Ireland, much to the annoyance of the Vicar of Belfast, Dr Tisdall, who pointed out that it was no less than a training ground for the Presbyterian ministry; indeed, many of its students including the philosopher Francis Hutcheson went on from it to Glasgow university.

Dr Tisdall’s displeasure was shared by the Bishop of Down, in whose diocese the school was operating. However, there was little that they could do as the school enjoyed the support of the local landlords who, in 1697, agreed to provide McAlpine with a dwelling-house, assistance to bring home 200 loads of turf a year, grazing for four cows and a meadow to provide them with hay. McAlpine closed his school in 1714 to become minister of Ballynahinch congregation. Later in the century there were other famous academies, for instance at Rademon (1770), Strabane (1785) and Dundalk (1797).

Although no longer closely connected with the Presbyterian Church, the Belfast Royal Academy, which celebrated its bicentennial in 1985, has proved the most enduring of the Presbyterian academies. Interestingly, the most famous of its early principals, the Rev. Dr William Bruce, was a Dubliner and a graduate of Dublin University. Presbyterians were usually barred from the university but, although the son of the minister of Strand Presbyterian Church, Bruce entered Trinity College as a pensioner in 1771 during the reign of Provost Andrews.

One of the original subscribers to, and patron of, the Belfast Academy was the Rev. James Porter, the minister of Greyabbey, who was executed after a summary court martial in 1798. Porter was a man of considerable intellectual attainments. He had taught at Dromore and Drogheda for a number of years before his ordination.

Probably the most successful of all religious denominations in securing a consistently good education for their children was the numerically small and comparatively wealthy Society of Friends. Their aversion to oaths is the subject of a number of statutes, and parliament’s responsiveness to this reflects their importance in the community. Their schools, intended primarily though not exclusively for their own children, were sustained by local subscriptions among themselves. ‘Sobriety and decorum’ were at all times encouraged in these efficiently run establishments. The governors were urged to ‘act discreetly as parents and directors of a well-ordered family’.

Nevertheless, ambition and meritocracy were not discouraged, as the children walked to the meeting-house on Sundays in accordance with their academic achievements during the week. At first the society established day schools, but the scattered nature of the Quaker communities eventually led to the foundation of boarding schools: a girls’ school at Edenderry in 1764, and co-educational schools at Mountmellick in 1786, Lisburn in 1764 and Newtown, Co. Waterford in 1798.

The most famous of the Quaker schoolmasters was John Gough, a Westmorland Quaker from Kendal. Gough came to Ireland as a young man, and taught at Cork and in the Friends’ School in Dublin before he became master of the Friends’ School at Lisburn in 1774. He was the author of possibly the most widely used textbooks on arithmetic: Gough’s Practical Arithmetic in four volumes presented the pupil with a host of practical problems related to the contemporary commercial world, involving invoices for importing wine from Bordeaux, exporting butter to Lisbon and beef to Jamaica, and other similar mercantile situations.