History of Education

Q. How has the study of the history of Irish education at primary informed your understanding of contemporary issues relating to education and teacher identity in education?


Throughout the history of the Irish education system there have been many contemporary issues and controversies which have arisen. In my opinion it is important for teachers to be informed on the history of the education system they work in, as this can help them to understand the ideology behind curriculum formation and policy development.

The Irish language

Since the establishment of the Free State (1922), the revival of the Irish Language has been a focal point of educational policy (Ó Murchú, 2016). Prior to this the number of Irish speakers had been on decline due to factors such as the 1831 National School system, The Famine and mass emigration (Ó Murchú, 2016). The education policy that emerged at the time was one of compulsion and nationalism (Kelly, 2002). This policy failed in its aims as children’s levels of Irish were not increasing and educational standards in other subjects were declining (Mac Murchaidh, 2004). At the time only one third of teachers were competent to teach Irish, this number increased by 1924 due to a significant in-service provided for teachers (Hyland, 1986). Nowadays teachers must fulfil the Irish language requirement of a H4/C2 in Higher level Leaving certificate and complete placements in Gaeltacht areas (DES, n.d.). Since then, there have been developments and policies implemented to continue this ‘language revival.’ The rise in Gaelscoileanna and the introduction of the New Primary Language Curriculum are examples of this. Before 1970 less than 1% of schools were Irish medium schools (Coady and O’Laoire, 2002) , compared to approximately 9% as of 2019 (with 247 schools) (McCárthaigh, 2019). The New Language Curriculum changed the focus of the teaching of Irish to an emphasis on oral language and practical application of the language. A more child-centred approach is promoted with this curriculum with opportunities for learning language through play in younger classes (NCCA,2019).

I created this timeline resource to help myself remember some key events that contributed to language revival.

From exploring the history behind language revival and reflecting on my own experience of being taught Irish, I think it is obvious to see what works and what doesn’t work in terms of teaching methodologies. Many years of policy throughout the 1900’s with a focus on rote learning, made no significant impact on the standard of Irish and if anything turned people against the language. Looking back on my own experiences too, I can remember the chanting of verbs repeatedly. This has all impacted on my own teacher identity and made me think more creatively about language education. Using the new language curriculum as my base, I aim to create engaging, hands on lessons which provide the children with the necessary tools for using the language outside of the classroom. I will focus on oral Irish and casual ‘comhrá’ to enable children to explore the language with their peers. I could never see the benefit of learning Irish when I was younger, and I hope that in my own teaching I can instill a love for the language in my students.

Curricular changes and the purpose of education

The Irish education system has undergone many curricular changes throughout the years which have oftentimes changed the function or ‘purpose’ of education. The ‘payments by results’ system,  introduced in 1872, identified the purpose of education as rote learning and a direct teaching style (O’Donovan, 2013). During this period teachers were paid an additional salary for students who performed well in inspections, hence why the purpose of education then surrounded these results (Walsh, 2007). In 1900, a revised programme was introduced which brought about a more progressive child-centred education programme. It aimed to cater for the needs of all children and provide a balanced and flexible curriculum (Walsh, 2007). This curriculum unfortunately failed in its implementation due to lack of investment in the form of inhouse teacher training and necessary resources and lack of support from teachers (Bennett, 1999). From 1922, there was a significant shift in ideology, instead of maintaining a child-centred system, curriculum emphasised religious instruction with cultural nationalism and the revival of the Irish Language at its centre (Walsh, 2016). During the early 70’s  there was another curricular change, a return to child-centred learning. The curriculum published in 1971 pushed for an education which aimed to develop the full development of the child. It was an integrated curriculum based on the idea that children did not consider subject barriers while learning (Bennett, 1999). While there was teacher support behind this change and the greater emphasis on child led education, issues arose in terms of implementation due to large class sizes, lack of teacher training and parental expectations. The aims of the subsequent and current 1999 curriculum are directly based on the aims of the 1971 curriculum (NCCA, 1999). The 1999 curriculum built on the foundations of the one previous, involved more partners in its development and received more funding from the government in its implementation.

This image is taken directly from the 1999 primary curriculum and shows how the current curriculum is built on the previous 1971 curriculum. Image source: NCCA (1999), Primary Curriculum

Over reliance on rote learning, to pushing a political agenda, to the continued debate of child centred learning, the ideology surrounding the purpose of education in Ireland has been continuously evolving. I think that our perception of the purpose of education influences the teacher you will be. My experience of learning of the importance of lifelong learning and my experience working in the special education sector has shaped my own understanding of the purpose of education. I align my beliefs with those outlined in the 1971 and 1999 curricula understanding the function of education to be one which aims to develop the whole child (mentally, physically and emotionally) and one which caters to the needs of every child. In being a teacher, I need to ensure that when delivering the curriculum to my students I take the role of the facilitator and guide and that I differentiate my lessons to cater to all of my student’s needs. As well as teaching to the curriculum, I aim to inspire my students to be creative and autonomous in their learning and to understand the power of a lifelong relationship with education.


The revival of the Irish language and the changing purpose of education are two contemporary issues which have clearly had an impact on my own teacher identity. From a combination of study of these topics through history modules both in Hibernia and on my undergraduate degree, as well as exploring my own experience related to these issues, I have been able to explore my own teacher identity and what these issues mean to me. From this exploration I have reflected on issues around effective teaching methodologies, the importance of holistic development in education and how to support the developing child.



Bennett, J. (2006) ‘Curricula and primary education in Ireland, North and South, 1922- 1999’, Oideas, (47), pp.7-31

Coady, M. and O’Laoire, M. (2002) ‘Mismatches in language policy and practice in education: The case of gaelscoileanna in the Republic of Ireland’, Language Policy, 1, pp. 143-158.

Department of Education and Science (DES) (n.d.) Initial teacher education [Online] Available at: https://www.education.ie/en/Education-Staff/Information/-New-Teachers/-Initial-Teacher-Education-ITE-Primary.html (Accessed: 10 November 2020).

Hyland, A. (1986) ‘The process of curriculum change in the Irish national school system, 1868 to 1986’, Irish Educational Studies, 6(2), pp. 17-38.

Kelly, A. (2002) Compulsory Irish: Language and Education in Ireland, 1870s-1970s. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Mac Murchaidh, C. (2004) Who Needs Irish?: Reflections on the Importance of the Irish Language Today. Dublin: Veritas Publications.

McCárthaigh, S. (2019) ‘Number of primary school pupils taught through Irish at record level’, The Irish Times, 9 September. [Online] Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/number-of-primary-school-pupils-taught-through-irish-at-record-level-1.4011570 (Accessed: 11 November 2020).

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) (1999) Introduction to primary curriculum. [Online] Available at: https://www.curriculumonline.ie/getmedia/c4a88a62-7818-4bb2-bb18-4c4ad37bc255/PSEC_Introduction-to-Primary-Curriculum_Eng.pdf (Accessed: 12 November 2020)

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) (2019) Primary Language Curriculum. [Online] Available at: https://curriculumonline.ie/getmedia/2a6e5f79-6f29-4d68-b850-379510805656/PLC-Document_English.pdf (Accessed: 11 November 2020).

O’Donovan, B. (2013) Primary School Teachers’ Understanding of Themselves as Professionals. PhD thesis. Dublin City Univeristy. [Online] Available at: http://doras.dcu.ie/17725/1/Bernadette_O%27Donovan_Doctorate_Thesis.pdf

O’Murchú, H. (2016) The Irish language in education in the Republic of Ireland. 2nd edn. Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning.

Walsh, B. (2016) ‘100 years of primary curriculum development and implementation in Ireland: a tale of a swinging pendulum’, Irish Educational Studies, 35(1), pp. 1-16.

Walsh, T. (2007) ‘The Revised Programme of Instruction, 1900 – 1922’, Irish Educational Studies, 26(2), pp. 127-143.

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