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Fighting for education

Second Reading
“The persistent soundtrack to Irish life in the ’40s and ’50s was the shuffle of feet towards Holyhead.”

Fr Kevin HegartyFr Kevin Hegarty

YOU may not have heard of him, but I believe that Jim Guinane deserves a footnote in the social history of modern Ireland. Let me explain. He was a Limerick man who, in the early 1940s, came to Charlestown to teach in a co-educational secondary school run by a lay principal. The Catholic Church then frowned on the practice of teaching teenage boys and girls together. Faced with this opposition, the Principal, Maura Cahill, gave up the struggle of running the school. The Marist Sisters took over and promptly confined the enrolment to girls.
Several parents then approached Jim Guinane, asking him to set up a second-level school for boys at affordable fees. He took up the challenge, hired a disused bakery in Swinford and announced he was open for business. The parish priest of Charlestown advised him that he needed the permission of Bishop Morrisroe of Achonry to establish a school. Dr Morrisroe refused permission stating that ‘if and when the bishop is satisfied that there is a need for a secondary school in Swinford he will take steps to provide it in the manner approved by the Church authorities’. Shades of De Valera’s assertion that when he wanted to know what the Irish people needed, all he had to do was to look into his heart.
When Jim Guinane persisted with his plans he received a further letter from the bishop which deserves quotation, if only for its epic arrogance: “You are still persisting, it seems, in opening the Swinford Secondary School, contrary to the bishop’s express prohibition.
“Once more I formally notify you that it is the right of the bishop to establish schools in his Diocese for Catholics and that if you disregard this right, I shall be obliged to place the school under the ban of Interdict. This means that those associated with the school or teachers will be disbarred from the reception of the sacraments and that pupils or their parents may also incur punishments of the Church for their disobedience to their ecclesiastical superiors.”
If Guinane had proposed to set up a forties-style lap dancing club or Ann Summers shop he could hardly have received a heavier belt of the crozier. When the Department of Education, anxious to avoid a confrontation with the bishop, refused to sanction the school, he knew he was beaten and left Charlestown to teach in Sligo.
This sad affair is an example of how oppressive clerical power, frequently exercised in the early decades of the Irish state, could kill youthful idealism. It is an illustration of how a Church had lost its way by abandoning the ideal of service for a dangerous infatuation with its own power. The seeds of the later cover-ups of clerical sexual abuse were sown then.
One can sense, from the affair, the desperation of east Mayo parents to provide further education for their children. Then educational opportunities, beyond national school, existed only for those whose families could afford them. The vocational education system, which since the 1930s sought to provide free technical education, had yet to make a substantial impact. The persistent soundtrack to Irish life in the ‘40s and ‘50s was the shuffle of feet towards Holyhead.
Jim Guinane’s attempt to light a candle in the educational darkness of east Mayo was quenched by the heavy breath of Episcopal disapproval. It was an honourable defeat. By 1966, a fellow countyman, Donagh O’Malley, had become Minister for Education. Aware that the 1916 Proclamation pledge to cherish the children of the nation equally had been more honoured in words then observance, he announced, in September 1966, free second level education for all from the following year. In 1966, one in every three children left school with only primary education and only 20% sat their Leaving Certificate. O’Malley asserted that these statistics were ‘a dark stain on the national conscience’. With one stroke of his ministerial pen, Donagh O’Malley changed the future of Ireland. It was the most revolutionary political act since the foundation of the Irish state. It gave a psychological boost to people akin to that given to the Catholic community by the Emancipation Act of 1829.
Every Sunday afternoon the streets of small western towns are clogged by buses bringing students back to third level colleges. Many of them will not have heard of Donagh O’Malley. At best, to them, he is a paragraph in a history text book. Forty years on, however, it is good for us to remember a Limerick man who did as much to lift the tyranny of poverty in 20th century Ireland as did a Mayoman, Michael Davitt, in the 19th.