(Editorial from Church & State Magazine, No. 70, Autumn 2002)

Dunboyne Dispute Points Up
Weaknesses In Education Act

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. Callaghan’s having been in the post for two years. Natural justice favoured Donal Callaghan but the Courts sided with the Church.

The 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 O’Dulaing 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 school’s 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.

The 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. O’Dulaing 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).

The 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 O’Dulaing, 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, O’Dulaing 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.

Essentially, 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 curriculum.

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. O’Dulaing 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.

A 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. Patrick’s 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.

Another 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 State’s 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.

Viewed 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 lion’s 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.

In the Dunboyne dispute neither the logic of the position articulated by Tomas O’Dulaing, 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.

None 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 O’Dulaing 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.

David Alvey

(From 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 school’s board of management to draw up its own enrolment policy under the Republic’s 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 don’t, let them work away themselves…’

“National Parents Council chief executive Fionnuala Kilfeather said that her organisation feared that Fr. Daly’s 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 don’t practise the right religion then the state must provide some system of state schools.’…”

(Irish News, 13.8.02)

Contents of Autumn 2002 issue, No. 70

Dunboyne Dispute Points Up Weaknesses In Education Act.
Editorial (D. Alvey)

School Places For Catholics Row

Two Views On The Angelus
Angela Clifford

School For Scandal
Sean McGouran

The Cavan Reformation Of 1826-1827
Kenneth Robinson

Vox Pat:
Navvies'; Byron; Gideons; Saint's alive!; Land; Cardinal Cormac's Top Of The Pops

Irish Revisionism And School History: A Review Of Roy Foster's Modern Ireland
David Alvey

Some Secular Bigots
Esme Geering

More On The Angelus
Angela Clifford

Church & State Aims

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