Fr Kevin Hegarty
What was the most significant decision in the history of the Irish State? My money is on the provision of free second-level education in 1966. It revitalised the social, economic and cultural fabric of the country. It was the brainchild of the then Minister of Education, Donogh O’Malley, the centenary of whose birth occurs on January 18.
O’Malley belonged to a comfortable middle-class Limerick family, of the kind immortalised in the novels of Kate O’Brien. His father was a civil engineer. After an education at Crescent College and Clongowes, Donogh followed a similar path at UCG.
He was an avid sportsman, excelling at swimming, rugby and soccer. He also loved horse and greyhound racing. He was a vocal opponent of the GAA ban on participation in foreign games, that lingered until 1971. He once said that “rugby and soccer people were sick and tired of having the finger pointed at them as if they were any worse Irishmen. When Ireland was asked for sons to call to the colours we were not asked what shape of ball we used.”
From his student days he was interested in politics. In the 1954 General Election, he won a seat for Fianna Fáil in Limerick city. Though from an affluent background he had a particular empathy for the city’s working class, who idolised him. He often spoke of his motivation to address their abject poverty, memorably evoked later in Frank McCourt’s memoir, ‘Angela’s Ashes’.
Flamboyant in manner and elegant in dress, he provided a striking contrast to his drab fellow TDs, many of them veterans of the War of Independence. He led an exuberant social life, often in the company of Charles Haughey and Brian Lenihan. The media labelled them the Three Musketeers. He was friendly with journalists, especially the legendary Mayo writer John Healy, and at ease on television, then a new medium.
An emotional man, when Minister for Health, he found visits to children’s hospitals traumatic. He married Dr Hilda Moriarty, a great beauty, with whom Patrick Kavanagh was infatuated. She is the subject of one of his best known poems, ‘On Raglan Road’.
Notwithstanding his ability, due to heavy drinking episodes, political promotion came slowly. In 1961 he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary at the Department of Finance, with special responsibility for public works. He embarked on an ambitious programme of school building and land drainage. He became Minister for Health in 1965. In that ministry, he planned the development of regional health boards, devised a ‘Nurses Charter’ and improved the pay and conditions of health workers.
After only 14 months he was transferred to the Department of Education. Aware that in 1966 one in every three Irish children left school only with primary education and most of the others could not afford university, he determined to reform the system. He announced his plans at a meeting of journalists in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire on September 10, 1966:
“In every year, some 17,000 of our children finish their primary school course and do not receive any further education. This means that almost one in three of our future citizens are cut off at this stage from the opportunities and denied the benefits of cultural development that go with further education. This is a dark stain on the national conscience. I am glad to announce that I am drawing up a scheme under which in future, no boy or girl in this state will be deprived of full educational opportunity, from primary to university level, by reason of the fact that the parents cannot afford it. I propose from September 1967, the opportunity for free post-primary education will be available to all families.”
Donogh O’Malley died suddenly in March 1968. He was only 47. His legacy is an enduring one. With one stroke of his ministerial pen he changed the future of Ireland for the better. It was the most revolutionary act since the foundation of the Irish state. He gave a psychological boost to people akin to that given to the Catholic community by the Emancipation Act of 1829.