The County of Meath seems fated to be a cockpit for disputes about the place of religion in education. Three years ago a controversy sparked by the actions of the Parish Priest of Trim, Fr. Andrew Farrell attracted media attention. Fr. Farrell objected to paying the full local contribution of £8.50 for each child in each of the four national schools in his parish; he was prepared to pay only £7.50 per child on the grounds that many new families sending their children to the schools made no contribution to the parish (see Church and State No 64). Some years before that the Bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, hit the headlines when he vigorously opposed Department of Education plans to locate a VEC (Vocational Education Committee) Community College in Dunboyne; a compromise favourable to the Bishop was eventually worked out. And, years before that, a national controversy arose when the then Bishop of Meath, Dr McCormack, refused to ratify the appointment of a religion teacher, Donal Callaghan, at Dunshaughlin Vocational School, despite Mr. Callaghans having been in the post for two years. Natural justice favoured Donal Callaghan but the Courts sided with the Church.
latest row concerns the Irish language Primary School (Gaelscoil), Thulach na
nOg, in Dunboyne. In a nutshell matters at the interdenominational school became
national news when the principal, Tomas ODulaing was suspended without
pay in April 2002 when he opposed a management directive that all religious
teaching take place within school hours. The suspension was upheld in late July
by the schools Board of Management which reports to An Foras Patrunachta,
the patron body for forty-one Gaelscoileanna that do not have a Catholic Bishop
as their Patron.
row has been very damaging to the school and to the school community. A bitter
divide has opened up between parents supporting the Principal and parents supporting
the Board of Management. Mr. ODulaing was the founding Principal of the
school, and has been described as "extremely committed and energetic"
and "the heart of the school" (Irish Times 1/8/02).
kernel of the dispute revolves around the preparation of Catholic children for
First Holy Communion (for children aged 7/8 years) and Confirmation (for children
aged 10/11 years). Tomas ODulaing, backed by the active parents earlier
in the year, stipulated that such preparation should take place outside of school
hours. As the school was interdenominational, ODulaing maintained and
continues to maintain that Catholic and Protestant children should receive most
of their religious education together: holding the preparation for Catholic
ceremonies within the curriculum prolongs the period of separate instruction
out of all proportion, causing effective segregation.
the position of An Foras Patrunachta, is that the school must adhere to the
policy of An Foras of delivering the full religious programme as part of the
new General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, John
Carr, has demanded that the Department of Education should not sanction a replacement
for Mr. ODulaing until a forum on interdenominational education, as proposed
by the INTO, is established and has completed its work. A spokeswoman for the
Minister for Education, Noel Dempsey (a Fianna Fail deputy elected for the Meath
constituency as it happens), has stated that the controversy represented a "single
school issue" and that the Department would not be getting involved.
twist in the story occurred when a letter appeared in the Irish Times on 10th
August 2002 From a Protestant prelate, Robert MacCarthy, the Dean of St. Patricks
Cathedral. The letter reads as follows:
What seems to be lacking in the Dunboyne school dispute is an appreciation of the nature of religious education. It is a subject in its own right and has nothing whatever to do with preparation of children for first Holy Communion and Confirmation.
The Roman Catholic Church has been very quiet in this controversy and it is not hard to guess the reason. For if Holy Communion and Confirmation took place outside the school curriculum (as it should), then the numbers being presented for these sacraments are likely to be significantly reduced. The Church seems happy that, instead, almost everyone should be prepared for nothing more than rites of puberty by teachers who may never darken the church door themselves.
A striking aspect of this dispute is the number of Gaelscoileanna that have opted to become interdenominational thereby requiring a patron other than their local Catholic Bishop: forty-one. This number is a lot higher than the number of Multi-Denominational schools which is still less than thirty.
obvious anomaly is the manner in which the Department is able to treat the matter
as outside of its jurisdiction. This is in line with the States role as
laid down in the Education Act of leaving the question of school ethos to Patrons
(Bishops) or Patron Bodies. The corollary is that parents, teachers and patron
bodies are left to sort out sensitive religious issues which should properly
be regulated by state authorities.
historically it is impossible not to see the present Dunboyne dispute as part
of the legacy of the handing over of control of the school system by the Irish
state to the Catholic Church in the early years of independence. The 1998 Education
Act was the culmination of a ten year exercise in consultative, consensus politics.
The idea was that all the educational interests would outline their requirements
and that the education system would be based on partnership, co-operation and
compromise. But conciliation was never going to provide a lasting solution when
the starting point was one where the Catholic Church held the lions share
of power. It is a nonsense that the Minister for Education can now, under the
Education Act, simply refer disputes over religion to the relevant Patrons.
As these disputes persist, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Education
Act represents an untenable compromise.
the Dunboyne dispute neither the logic of the position articulated by Tomas
ODulaing, nor the logic of the unusually forthright opinion expressed
by Dean MacCarthy can be seriously challenged. If Catholic parents sign up to
a school which is interdenominational, then they must expect that preparation
for ceremonies will not take place as if the school was a denominational school.
From a religious viewpoint Dean MacCarthy also has a point in stating that many
of the teachers who are expected to prepare Catholic children for Communion
and Confirmation have long since stopped attending Church themselves. A dramatic
change in public attitudes to religion has taken place which is not recognised
in the patron-based system legalised under the Education Act.
of these disputes would arise if the original plan for national education devised
in the nineteenth century were re-instated. That system was predicated on children
from different religious backgrounds attending the same schools. The next time
a major reform of Irish education appears on the political agenda, the legacy
of denominational control will need to be confronted head on. The state should
acquire ownership of the schools and model the ground rules on the original
scheme for national education. Under such a system Fr. Andrew Farrell would
longer need to finance educational facilities for parents who are not parishioners,
the Bishop of Meath would no longer need to concern himself with the provision
of post-primary education, the appointment of religion teachers would be regulated;
and a committed school Principal like Tomas ODulaing would not be burdened
with a religious dispute that has cost him his job. Then perhaps the citizens
of County Meath could return to a life untroubled by religious disputation.
the Irish News, 13.08.02)
School Places For Catholics Row
A Co. Meath priest has caused a storm by warning that the children of lapsed Catholics could be black-listed by a local primary school.
Fr. Michael Daly sparked the row after issuing a statement in the Stamullen parish newsletter.
With Dublin expanding into Meath, Fr. Daly said that if there was pressure on school places he would give preference to the children of practising Catholic families.
"The National Parents Council warned against setting a dangerous precedent.
A spokesman for the department of education said it was the responsibility of a schools board of management to draw up its own enrolment policy under the Republics Education Act. But he added that parents who experienced difficulties in having a child admitted to the school system could contact the department, which would work to secure a suitable placement.
Fr. Daly said in the newsletter that non-practising, non-believing families would have to contact the department of education to request that a school with an ethos and culture similar to theirs be provided for their children.
I want people to think about whether they want to be Catholics or not and if they want their children to be Catholic.
If they do, I will work with them, if they dont, let them work away themselves
National Parents Council chief executive Fionnuala Kilfeather said that her organisation feared that Fr. Dalys stance could cause grave difficulties in the future.
Historically, the majority of primary schools are run under the patronage of the Catholic Church, which very often runs the only school in a community.
She added: There are major financial implications here. If the Catholic church can turn away pupils because their parents dont practise the right religion then the state must provide some system of state schools.
(Irish News, 13.8.02)
of Autumn 2002 issue, No. 70
Dispute Points Up Weaknesses In Education Act.
Editorial (D. Alvey)
Places For Catholics Row
Views On The Angelus
Cavan Reformation Of 1826-1827
Navvies'; Byron; Gideons; Saint's alive!; Land; Cardinal Cormac's Top Of The Pops
Revisionism And School History: A Review Of Roy Foster's Modern Ireland
On The Angelus
Church & State Aims
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