The Erasmus Smith and other Benefactions

Possibly the most influential private benefaction given to Irish education at all levels was that of the London alderman, Erasmus Smith. After the Restoration, in 1669, Smith, who had made a fortune speculating in Irish lands during the Commonwealth, prudently obtained a Royal Charter vesting part of his Irish estates in an educational foundation. Under the terms of this foundation grammar schools were established at Drogheda, Galway and Tipperary, where, in addition to providing education for the children of the tenants on Smith’s estates, each school was to provide instruction for 20 poor children.

As the value of the lands vested in the foundation increased and the income from the corporation rose, a fourth grammar school was established at Ennis, Co. Clare and ‘English’ schools were supported in various parts of the country. The scope of the foundation was extended to endow exhibitions, lectureships and chairs in Dublin University: for instance, one of the Chairs of History bears Smith’s name. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the foundation’s income was £8,396 p.a. About £1,000 of this was being expended on the four grammar schools, which had about 270 pupils between them.

These schools were to teach not only writing and accounting but also Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and they were to prepare children for entrance to the university if they so wished. Under the terms of the foundation the masters were bound to take no money from any children coming from Erasmus Smith’s estates and from the 20 poor scholars in each school. From the rest of the students they could accept only 2 shillings on admission. On Sundays the masters were required to: ‘catechise their scholars, and for that purpose shall make use of the Catechism set out by the late Most Reverend Father in God, James Usher … and shall spend some time in expounding some part thereof unto them.’

Trinity College, Dublin University, was a major beneficiary of the Erasmus Smith foundation and also of grants from the Irish parliament. For instance, in 1711, 1717 and 1722 parliament made grants of £5,000 towards the completion of the great library, designed by Thomas Burgh (0280), MP for Naas, and completed in 1732 after his death. It was acknowledged to be ‘amongst the noblest repositories for literature in Europe’. Parliament Square commemorates the subsequent generosity of the Irish parliament. Between 1752 and 1763 alone, £45,173 was expended on new buildings.

Three formidable Provosts – Baldwin, Andrews (0040) and Hely-Hutchinson (1001) – presided over the university’s destiny from 1717 to 1793. The two last were prominent parliamentarians. Parliament was ever ready to support the College – the alma mater of many members, of which they had a right to be justly proud. Educational standards there were certainly as good as, and probably better than, those of Oxford or Cambridge during this period.

Unfortunately, it was sectarian, all Nonconformists being officially excluded, although some Presbyterians, such as William Bruce, managed to evade this restriction. Eighteenth-century education provided a clear illustration of the divisive multiculturalism of Irish society in the eighteenth century, which has left an enduring legacy.

Erasmus Smith was not the only educational benefactor: as we have seen, various others, such as Bishop Foy and Dr Maule, contributed to alleviating this need in a more limited way. Two contributions in particular have been important and long-lived. At the beginning of the century, Archbishop Marsh’s Library in Dublin was established by 6 Anne, c. 19; Archbishop Robinson’s Library was founded in 1771 at Armagh, followed in 1789 by an observatory.

The concluding decades of the century also saw the development of the lending library movement. Possibly the most famous of these is the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, but there were many others scattered throughout the country. Their literature did not always enjoy government approval, and in 1803 Thomas Russell, librarian of the Linen Hall Library, was executed for complicity in Emmet’s rebellion.