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Education And Schools In The Workhouse

Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan

11. Education And Schools In The Workhouse

In the 18th. and early 19th. century, the State financially aided the schools that existed during this period. These schools were established by Protestants, and were seen as instruments of conversion by Catholics who formed the vast majority of the population. [1] Thus Catholic children rarely attended these schools. One of the societies formed was the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor of Ireland, usually known as the Kildare Place Society. This society was more tolerant of Catholics than the others. It had the latest methods of teacher training and produced good reading and spelling books. However, the State grant to this society ceased in 1831 as Catholics found it impossible to co-operate with the society, owing to the rule 'respecting the reading of scripture without note or comment.' Hedge-school teachers operated during this period. These were teachers who might have had a school-room, but they often taught their classes in the open, beside hedges. These hedges acted as a shelter for the teacher and his pupils. The teacher taught his classes to the poor. Funds were at times raised by the Parish Priest to pay a village Schoolmaster. Sometimes payment was by way of supplying food and lodging. They taught the basics of education, namely the three R's of reading, writing, and arithmetic, using tablets or blackboards and chalk.

County Waterford Agricultural School Mid 19th Century


In October 1831 Lord Edward George Stanley, the first chief secretary appointed the Duke of Leinster as chairman of the National Board of Education. The Board members were representatives of the various religious denominations in Ireland. The government gave a grant to this Board to enable it to assist local schools. These schools were under the patronage of the various denominations. Each denomination ran its own school. The Board then allocated two thirds of the cost of building such a school. It also supplied them with text books at a reduced price, and paid a gratuity to the teachers. In return, the schools receiving the grants undertook to keep the building in repair, to pay part of the teachers' salaries, and to purchase the books produced by the Board. A training college for teachers was established in Dublin by 1838. They received lectures in English, history, geography, political economy, natural history, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, and teaching methods. Agricultural instruction was also given. There were originally 25 school districts in Ireland. This was eventually raised to 32 districts. A model school was placed in each, and the superintendent of each inspected and reported on the schools  and teachers in his district.

The Workhouse system of education was based on the system used by the Board of National Education. The books in use in the Workhouse schools were those in use in the National schools. [2] However, the Board of National Education had no power over the Workhouse schools, it could only offer advice. Inspectors from the Board of Education visited the schools and made reports on their findings. During the 1840's and early 1850's numbers in the Dungarvan Workhouse schools were very high, with well in excess of 100 pupils in each school. There was often only a Schoolmaster and assistant master to educate the boys, and a Schoolmistress and assistant Schoolmistress to cater for the girls. In addition to large numbers, the Workhouse schools were often staffed by teachers who were not properly trained or qualified. Thus conditions in the schoolrooms were very difficult. Bonuses or gratuities were recommended by the Inspectors when it was thought that the teachers were doing a particularly good job. In 1845 the Schoolmaster of the Dungarvan Workhouse school, Richard Walsh, received £12 per annum, while the Schoolmistress, Elizabeth Flinn, received £10 a year. This was increased to £15 and £13 per annum respectively in 1846.

In addition to being taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and religious instruction, the boys were also taught in the methods of farm agriculture, tailoring, shoemaking, weaving, milling, baking, carpentry, etc., while the girls were trained in knitting, sewing, embroidery, and laundry services. As regards agricultural training, the system in use at Temple Moyle Agricultural Seminary was used, whereby half the number of boys were taught lessons for half the day. They worked on the farm for the second half of the day. The rest of the boys had the reverse time-table, namely they worked on the farm in the morning and had school lessons in the afternoon. This system ensured that there was a constant supply of labour on the farm as well as a constant number attending school.

Education 1846 - 1860
Due to pressure of accommodation, on 23 July 1846 the Board of Guardians ordered the erection of a platform in the school-room, to be used as sleeping quarters for the infant school children. A report by the Inspector of education on 22 April 1847 stated that the teachers and their method of teaching were tolerable. However, he did not examine the children due to the prevalence of dysentery and fever within the Workhouse. As a result of these illnesses, the teachers had been unable to devote more than one hour per day to school instruction, as recommended by the Medical Officer. The children were kept in the open as much as possible, either at work or at play. The salary of the Schoolmaster was increased to £17 per annum due to increased numbers. In 1849 it was reported that many of the children could not speak English, this despite the fact that English had been taught in the schools for a number of years. It was reported however that the girls were better English speakers than the boys. The reason given for this was that the Schoolmistress paid more  attention to the teaching of the subject than the Schoolmaster.

Pressure on numbers was increasing all the time at this stage. The school-room was partitioned into five other rooms to accommodate this increase, thus resulting in overcrowding. This overcrowding increased the spread of diseases. Eventually, in September 1849 the Board decided to use Albert house as a boys' school, and Boyle's as a girls' school. Keating's Auxiliary also accommodated both a boys' and girls' school. The conditions of the school-rooms were noted to be in a neglected state. Some were found to be filthy and ill ventilated. Clothing was not only dirty but also very light. There were over 300 boys in school in April 1850, in addition to 200 children under 7 years in Galwey's. An infant-Schoolmistress, Miss Elisa Wilkinson was appointed at a salary of £12 a year and rations. She had previously been Schoolmistress at a Youghal convent school. Mr. Thomas Meagher was appointed Schoolmaster at Keating's, at £30 per annum plus rations. He had previously been in Innishannon. Cornelius O'Sullivan was appointed assistant master, at £25 per year.
On 3 June 1850 it was decided to convert an outhouse at Keating's into a girls' school. This had been the stable up to then. In October 1850 the boys' school was removed from Albert house to Keating's, as was the infant school removed from Galwey's to Keating's. The boys' school was again relocated, this time to the main house. Mr. Thomas Byrne was appointed master in 1851. On 1 February 1852, the other Schoolmaster, Mr. T. Meagher, emigrated to the United States. Mrs. Eiffe was appointed Schoolmistress. Margaret Power was appointed Schoolmistress on 22 April 1852 in place of Mrs. Eiffe who resigned. Miss Mary Keane was appointed female teacher of embroidery on 10 June 1852, at £15 per annum with rations and apartments.

By 1850 educational standards had not greatly improved within the Workhouse schools. This is evident from the following report that stated that in December, it was discovered that there were several boys employed in the tailor's shop who could neither read nor write. Many of these boys had been in the Workhouse for some considerable time. As a result of this, the Schoolmaster was ordered to examine all young persons under twenty years of age to ascertain the amount of neglect of their education. The National Board of Education examined the teachers competence from time to time. For example, on 27 November 1850 all the female teachers in the district were examined in Cappoquin, and all the male teachers were examined in Waterford, on 14 April 1852.

The state of the school had vastly improved by 1852. In that year a new order was issued by the Commissioners requesting the Board of Guardians to furnish them with quarterly reports on the schools. Mr. Roger Wiseman, Cork Union, reported that he visited the house and observed that the children had a clean, healthy, contented appearance. He stated that their answering in geography and grammar was very good. Mr. W. Graham, Inspector of National Schools, examined 182 boys and reported them as being, 'orderly, clean, and healthy,' and the school as being, 'efficient and creditable.'

On 26 June 1852, the visiting committee reported that they visited the school at Keating's, and reported as follows:-

  • Numbers in attendance in Girls school 210 on 26 June 1852,
    Numbers in attendance in Girls school 253 in June 1851,
    Numbers in attendance in Infant school 144 in June 1852,
    Numbers in attendance in Infant school 212 in June 1851.

These figures illustrate that there was a decrease of 43 in girls' school, and 68 in infant's school. Of those numbers, half belonged to the Kilmacthomas Union. These left in September of that year. Thirty-one of them were in the girls' school, and 41 in the infant's school. The Board of Guardians ordered the removal of the girls' school from Keating's store to the new building, at the main house, on 13 July 1852. Poles and bars were placed in the yards as exercising equipment for the pupils. Another form of recreation introduced was swimming at the strand.

In 1853 Mr. Hamilton, Poor Law Inspector, stated that both the Schoolmistress, and the infant-Schoolmistress, were unfit for their offices, and consequently called for their resignations. These resignations were duly received. Subsequently Honora Begley was appointed Schoolmistress at £20 per annum, with rations. Mrs. Margaret Byrne was elected assistant Schoolmistress in January 1854. Her salary was £15 a year with rations and apartments. There were 205 school girls in attendance at that time. However one Schoolmistress was supposed to be competent to teach 75 pupils. In order to comply with this pupil teacher ratio Miss Elisa Berry was appointed infant Schoolmistress at a salary of £25 with rations and apartments. She had upwards of 100 pupils in her charge. On 24 November 1853 the Schoolmaster, Mr. T. Byrne, the Schoolmistress Mrs. Honora Begley, and the assistant Schoolmistress tendered their resignations, the latter being incompetent. Miss Marianne Hayes of Patrick's Well National school, Co. Limerick was elected head Schoolmistress on 9 February 1854. Mr. John Corry, Drogheda Union, was elected Schoolmaster at £30 per annum and rations. Mary Maher was appointed assistant Schoolmistress, at £15 per annum with rations. Messrs. Maurice Cross and James Kelly, Secretaries and Inspectors of National Schools, visited the Workhouse on 2 March 1854. They stated that 'the Schoolmistress of the female department is fairly qualified, her method of teaching is skilful and efficient. The infant school teacher is duly qualified and conducts the business satisfactorily.'

Due to a decline in the Workhouse numbers, and also in the school numbers, the Board of Guardians decided to dispense with the services of the assistant mistress, in February 1855. On 19 July 1855 the Clerk counted the number of girls in the school aged between 9 and 15 years and recorded a figure of 91, the number of this age group in hospital was 29, making a total of 120. The number of children (both sexes), aged from 2 to 9 years was 74, the number in hospital of this class was 34, thus totalling 108. Some of the school children resorted to drastic measures to try to secure extra food rations. For example, on 14 April 1853, one school boy, Edmond Fitzgerald, put lime in his eye for the purpose of his admittance into hospital, thus receiving extra rations of white bread and milk. Another boy, John Crotty, put clay in his eye for the same purpose.

There were various reports of punishments inflicted on the school children. Corporal punishment was a feature of these schools. On 4 October 1849 it was reported that 'two boys were beaten with undue severity by the Schoolmaster.' Boys were often sent before the magistrates. Boys and girls were also locked in a cell called the 'black hole.' Soup rations were stopped from those who misbehaved. On 15 April 1854 three boys were ordered to be flogged for disobeying the Schoolmaster's orders in the dining hall, another was brought before the magistrates for disorderly conduct in the wards, and a fifth boy was ordered to be flogged for misconduct in the school. Milk was stopped for 2 days from 7 seven girls for stealing leeks. Another 5 girls were placed in solitary confinement for 2 hours on 2 days as punishment for stealing vegetables.

The head mistress, Miss Hayes, tendered her resignation in September 1855. She was in dispute with the Master and Agriculturist, who claimed that she had no control over the school girls. Miss Hayes took up a position in Killarney Union immediately afterwards. Miss Catherine O'Keeffe of Kinsale Workhouse was elected head Schoolmistress on 11 October 1855. In July 1856 she also took charge of the infant school, as Miss Berry resigned her position. Miss O'Keeffe was granted £10 a year extra for this service. The Schoolmaster, Mr. Corry, took charge of the agricultural department. He was also granted an additional £10 per year. The district school Inspector reported on 23 October 1856 that the male departments were progressing satisfactorily. He reported that all the boys wrote extremely well. In the female department, he reported that the pupils had attained 'considerable proficiency and skill.' By August 1858 the number of boys was reduced to 34 pupils and the number of girls reduced to 29.

Relations between various officers became strained in 1859. On 16 September of that year a row occurred within the house. The Master punished some pupils for misconduct during supper. The mother of one of those punished was a servant to the Schoolmistress. She reported to the Schoolmistress that the, 'Master and the Schoolmaster were killing her son.' Uproar broke out in the house as a result of this activity. On the same day another incident occurred. This involved the Matron, Mrs. Keane; the Schoolmistress, Miss O' Keeffe; the Schoolmaster, Mr. Corry; the Master, Mr. Nolan; and two school girls. These girls reported that the Schoolmaster ran after them and tried to molest them. The Master and Schoolmaster stated that no impropriety occurred. The Schoolmaster informed the Board that he ran after the girls in question because they were on the male side of the house, thereby breaking rules. This explanation was accepted by the Board of Guardians. However, by April 1860 matters came to a head. During supper the Schoolmistress approached the Master and an argument ensued. She accused him of informing the Board that she had returned her meat on the previous Saturday. She then followed him to the bread store where 'she then in a most disgraceful and disrespectful manner wheeled her back at him, lifting up the hind part of her clothes.' All this occurred in the presence of the boys and girls at supper, and some adults. As a result of this incident the Commissioners required the resignations of the Master, schoolmaster, Schoolmistress, porter, and laundress.

Education 1860 - 1888
On 12 July 1860, Miss Elizabeth Fitzsimon of Lismore was elected Schoolmistress. Mr. Matthew Shine from Rathkeale was elected Schoolmaster on 16 August 1860, on condition that he act as agriculturist. Another condition was that he attend to the discipline of the boys in the event of the amalgamation of the boys and girls schools, as had been proposed by the Board on that day. This amalgamation was proposed due to the decrease in numbers of pupils within the house at that time. The Schoolmistress was given charge of an amalgamated school of both male and female pupils. The Commissioners sanctioned this move on 6 September 1860, on the understanding that she had the exclusive charge of the literary education of all the children.

There were only five boys in the agricultural class at this period. A school Inspector visited the house on 26 November and reported that the male pupils in the advanced classes had been transferred to the adult class, the school having been amalgamated under the female teacher. He reported that, 'a considerable improvement both in the proficiency of the pupils in all branches and in their general intelligence was observable. This was due to the earnestness and attention on the part of the teacher, Miss Fitzsimon.' On 8 May 1861, the Inspector stated that the classes were advancing from lower to higher lesson books, and that on the whole the school was in a very satisfactory state.

The Schoolmistress was called for attendance at the training institute from 15 January 1862 to 16 June 1862. Her sister Margaret Fitzsimon, a trained teacher, took her place. The school Inspector reported that her classes continued to be efficiently and successfully conducted. The Schoolmistress, Miss Elizabeth Fitzsimon, was appointed mistress of the Lismore female school, under the patronage of  the Duke of Devonshire, on 22 May 1862. Miss Mary Naven, teacher of Villierstown National School, was elected Schoolmistress on 24 July 1862. There were only 62 pupils in school at this time, 27 of whom were children aged from 2 to 9 years.

The following table is the school time table, for the Dungarvan Workhouse school, that was in operation from August 1862:-

The Sisters of Mercy were allowed into the school from 11 September 1862, from 12 noon to 1.00 p.m., for religious instruction. Children of a different persuasion were placed in another apartment during this instruction.

The number of boys in school in January 1864 was 22. The Poor Law Commissioners ordered that a Schoolmaster be appointed at £30 per annum. The person elected would also instruct the boys in agriculture, and also work the farm. Thus the position of agriculturist was transferred from Matthew Shine. He continued as Master of the Workhouse. Mr. Patrick Prendergast, assistant to Lismore National School was selected as schoolmaster and agriculturist in March of that year.

It was decided, in April 1864 to use as text books those used by the Christian Brothers. These were ordered from Gerald Bellow, agent for the sale of the Christian Brothers books. The list was as follows:-

  • 100 1st. books (in cloth),
    200 2nd. books (in cloth),
    50 Sequels,
    100 rd. books, 
    30 arithmetics (complete),
    1 set of tablet lessons,
    1 map of the world,
    1 map of Ireland,
    1 map of Europe,
    1 map of America,
    1 map of Asia,
    100 round hand copies,
    100 large hand copies,
    100 no. 1 Initiator copies,
    100 no. 2 Initiator copies,
    50 English grammars,
    100 geographys,
    50 expositors,
    50 introduction to do.,
    50 2nd. book geography,
    6 3rd. book geography.

The Commissioners of National Education, in a letter dated 3 March 1864 directed that the Dungarvan Poor Law Union national school be struck off their roll, and all grants cancelled, from 31 December 1863. This was as a result of the Guardians refusing to use the form of prayer used by the National Board of Education. They were using, since 6 November 1862 a format composed by Dr. Halley, P.P. of Dungarvan. Dr. Halley was then requested by the Board of Guardians to make a weekly report on the progress of the school. This was to replace the reports made by Inspectors of the Board of National Education. This development also explains the change in the use of text books as listed above.

Dr. Halley made his first report on Monday 18 May, when he examined the boys. The numbers of boys present was 19. He reported that their progress in spelling, reading and writing was as  'fair as could be expected from boys of their age.' On Wednesday 20 May, he reported on the girls progress. There were 57 girls present. He reported that he was greatly pleased with their progress and intelligence. He stated that he had 'outside the house 1,100 children getting gratuitous education. He is happy to state that the children in this school are equal to any in the parish schools.' He further stated that most of the children in the higher classes were well grounded in grammar, geography, mental calculation, and writing from dictation.

In a report made by Dr. Halley on 11 August 1864, he reported that the girls' school was progressing very satisfactorily. However, the boys' school was not advancing as well as could be expected. There were, at that time only 9 children attending this school, with only one of these above 8 years of age. He suggested that the boys' school be united with the girls' school. This was passed by the Board of Guardians on 18 August 1864. On 16 January 1872, Dr. Halley reported on his visit to the school. He examined every class, and his report stated that he was 'greatly pleased and amazed at their knowledge of simple and compound addition, grammar, geography, and Christian Doctrine.' He stated that 'their knowledge was far beyond what could be expected from children so young. Though immersed in poverty at present such in general is their talent that at a future day they will rise to respectable positions in society.'

On 10 June 1875 it was passed by the Board of Guardians that the school be placed in connection with the National Board of Education, Dublin, as had been the case up to 1864. However, the Commissioners of the National Board of Education refused to take over the Workhouse school because of the use of Christian Brothers text books. On 28 October 1875 the Guardians voted in favour of adopting the rules and regulations of the Board of National Education, Ireland. A school committee was formed. On 6 January 1876 this committee recommended that the school open at 9.00 a.m. and close at 2.00 p.m., with an interval at 11.30 a.m. to 12 noon, for recreation. Two hours in the evening were devoted to household work, sewing, knitting, or outdoor exercise. The time table adopted was as follows:-

Time First Class Second Class Third Class
09.30 – 10.00 Morning Prayer Catechism General Lesson
10.00 – 10.30 Writing On Slate Writing On Paper Writing, dictation and transcription on alternate days
10.30 – 11.00 Arithmetic Arithmetic Teaching Junior Class
11.00 – 11.30 Spelling and Meaning of Words Dictation Teaching
11.30 – 12.00 Recreation Recreation Recreation
12.00 – 1.00 Angelus Angelus Angelus
1.00 – 1.30 Tables Lessons Lessons
1.30 – 2.00 Reading Teaching First Class Arithmetic

On 30 March 1876, the new Parish Priest, Fr. Vincent Cleary P.P. asked the Guardians to retain the Christian Brothers text books in school and he also offered himself as Inspector. These suggestions were agreed to by the Board, thereby contravening one of the conditions necessary for placing the school under the National Board of Education. Fr. Cleary visited the school on 5 July 1876 where he found 15 boys and 35 girls. Only 8 or 9 of them were more than 10 years of age. Most of them were only infants. He reported that 'some of them exhibited a fair knowledge of Irish geography, while others read fairly well, and more had a good grounding in arithmetic. All showed that they were well cared for and are as proficient in their elementary education as the dull children of a Workhouse may ordinarily be expected to be.' He further states that 'the children of all classes, even the youngest, are very well instructed in religious education and Christian morality, considering their age, and the difficulties under which the poor Workhouse children labour in comparison with the children reared in the homes of pious Irish Catholic parents.' Miss Eliza Downing was elected principal in September 1881 at £30 per annum and rations, and Miss Johanna Walsh was elected assistant teacher at £20 per annum.
On 22 September 1881 John Wall, Guardian, proposed that the Workhouse school be again placed under the National Board of Education. The Commissioners of the Education Office stated on 10 December 1881 that the Workhouse school would be recognised as a national school by them, from 1 January 1882, provided that the school arrangements be brought into strict conformity with the principles of the national system of education. These steps were taken by the Board of Guardians. Thus the Workhouse school was re-integrated with the National Board of Education after an interval of 18 years.

According as the century progressed there had been various reports on the conditions of the school-rooms, and on the type of entertainment organised for the children. For example, on 29 October 1887 it was reported that the school boys were sleeping in wards that were greatly in need of repair. 'The boarding along the walls is loose, and the rats are numerous there at night which is dangerous to the children.' In December of that same year, Mr. Brennan 'and other gentlemen gave the children a treat of tea, cakes, toys, and also an exhibition of the magic lantern.' The Board supplied a football for the boys, and a skipping rope for the girls. On 28 August 1888, Mrs. M. Villiers Stuart, Dromana, invited the school children to her house to have tea. Thirty-six children and four officers availed of this invitation.

The Local Government Board advised the Board of Guardians, on 30 October 1888 to have separate classrooms for the boys and girls as had previously prevailed. This suggestion was adhered to by the Board. The school organisation was now restored to its original format. The educational standards in the school compare favourably with similar Workhouse schools throughout this period, dating from the 1840's. The living conditions of the pupils, although bad, appear to be better than conditions in other Workhouses. The Guardians were also very vigilant in ensuring that the children got plenty of fresh air and exercise.


  1. Edwards and Williams, The Great Famine, p. 57.
  2. Burke, Helen, The People and the Poor Law in 19th. Century Ireland. England, 1987, P. 204.

Author: William Fraher

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