School Life in 19th Century Ireland


In the early 19th century, poor children in Ireland received little or no schooling, often being sent out to work in factories and on farms from an early age.  In country villages many children would have worked as farm labourers, while some were taken on as pages and scullery maids in large houses such as Emo Court. The census records for the Emo area, for example, include records of girls as young as 11 working as servants in the houses of local farmers.


During the Penal era (1750-1820), the only educational facilities for Catholic children were illegal ‘Hedge Schools’ which would have existed in the parish. With the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, Catholic children were permitted to attend school and in 1831 the National School system was set up allowing Protestants and Catholics to learn together.


At first the Commissioners encouraged denominationally mixed schools, although over time schools catering for only one denomination became the norm. The Board of Commissioners worked on the principle of state support for local initiative. Local sponsors, such as the Earl and Countess of Portarlington, employed the teachers and were expected to contribute to teachers’ salaries and maintenance costs. The Commissioners contributed most of the costs for teachers’ salaries, books and school buildings, publishing textbooks and employing inspectors to oversee schools.




The National School system was set up to encourage children to learn ‘the three Rs’: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. These were the basic subjects taught, but boys might also receive instruction in bookkeeping, geography and grammar, while girls were taught needlework. Where boys and girls were taught together, a work mistress was employed to instruct the girls in needlework (knitting, sewing and dress-making), provided that there was an attendance of at least 20 girls. At Coolbanagher National School, the examination records of the teacher, Mrs Keegan, give an idea of the range of skills required of a school teacher in 1903. In addition to needlework and literacy, she was tested in ‘hand and eye training’, which included ‘stick-laying’, paper-folding, scale drawing, drawing plan elevations, and ‘string work’. She also taught lessons on ‘common things’, doing practical experiments such as extracting salt from brine.




The majority of children probably went to school from the age of 5 or 6 until they were 12 or 13, when they left to help support the family. School hours were usually from 10-3pm, with a half-hour per day designated to religious instruction of prayers and catechism.




Schoolrooms in National Schools were generally quite basic and sparsely furnished. In 1879, the girls’ schoolroom at the Emo National School, for example, contained only five desks with seats attached, a blackboard and a clock, with only a single fireplace for heating. Fuel was kept in a small cloakroom next-door, where the girls hung up their bonnets and coats. The schoolrooms were described as well-ventilated and free of damp, but would have been cold and basic by today’s standards.


Schooling was harsh and beating was a common punishment for miscreant pupils. The school registers often contain fleeting references to these grim conditions. At Morette National School, for example, one inspector’s report observed that of the 26 girls engaged in needlework, only six were provided with thimbles, while other reports mention outbuildings in dire need of repair.


Sickness was also rife and child mortality high. For example, an application for funding for the Emo girls’ school, dated 1873, notes that sickness “was very general in the area” causing poor attendance and the closure of the female school for a time. The high child mortality figures are illustrated by the 1911 census records for Emo, where more than one demesne worker had lost one or more children (the gamekeeper, John Dempster, for example, had lost two children).



In contrast to today, attendance at school was not compulsory and many children were unable to attend because their parents could not afford the books or because they had to work to help support their family. At National Schools such as Emo and Morette, only those children who could afford to pay fees of 1s a week were charged; paupers and children of widowers generally received free instruction. Attendance figures show that the number of children on the rolls far exceeded those in actual attendance: at the Emo girls’ school, for example, there were 80 pupils on the roll in 1835, yet the average daily attendance was only 39. Moreover, in the summer months, attendance figures dropped considerably, when children were busy helping out with farm-work.



Literacy Rates

It is not surprising then that literacy rates were very low and census figures for Queen’s Co. show that they remained low until the early 20th century. In 1881, only 57% of the inhabitants of Queen’s Co. could read and write, 14% could read only and 28.5% were illiterate. By 1891, the figures had improved somewhat, with 68.2% of the inhabitants now able to read and write, and 21% illiterate.


The census records for 1901 show that some of the farm labourers on the Emo estate had little or no formal education. William Coss, for example, a 57 year old labourer who later became the gatekeeper, never learned to read or write, while another labourer, John Whelan, could read only. In contrast, the indoor staff at Emo Court were generally literate, especially staff employed as upper servants. An exception is Anne Conway, the 80 year old retired housemaid who still lived at Emo in 1901. Unlike her younger companions who worked at the house, she never learned to read or write and it is likely that her signature in the census record was in fact written for her by another servant.