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Ostensibly an official history, John Cunningham’s study of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), and its relationship with the education system, also touches on four key elements of Irish society over the past 100 years: religion, class, politics and economics. It looks at the changes in Ireland since the foundation of the association in 1909, the role of the various Churches in education, the expansion of the secondary school system in the late 1960s, the growth of militancy among school teachers in the 1970s and 1980s regarding wages and women’s issues, and the move from the 1980s onwards towards the commodification of students and results. It also brings into focus the uneven relationship between economic and social class, with secondary school teachers finding themselves for much of the 20th century with a middle class status, but a working class wage.

In 1919 a government report into the conditions and service of intermediate-school teachers stated that it was not possible ‘for men and women of culture’ to live on the salaries offered by schools, nor was it possible for them to teach in circumstances where they were ‘perpetually harassed by financial embarrassment.’ Three years previously, Padraig Pearse wrote in The Murder Machine that ‘many an able and cultured man is working in Irish secondary schools at a salary less then that of the viceroy’s chauffeur.’ Wages were not standardized, with externs paid an hourly rate. The Irish feminist and agitator, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, wrote that female interns who worked for a fixed sum in Catholic schools kept convent hours and were as shut off from the outside world ‘as if she were herself a cloistered nun…. Frequently, she instructs the nuns, and, having equipped them in certain subjects, she finds her place filled by her pupils.’

Secondary school employment was overwhelmingly temporary and casual for non-religious staff. ‘No degree of efficiency’ wrote one teacher, ‘no amount of devotion to his work, no conduct, however satisfactory, guarantees him security of tenure.’ It meant that teachers were constantly moving around, going where the jobs were, and living out of digs and lodging houses. John Cunningham describes the experiences of Eileen Gould, the wife of the writer Sean O’Faolain, in a small midland town:

Her digs were a lodging house, which was otherwise patronised by male bank clerks, members of another peripatetic profession, and she did not feel at ease beside the small parlour fireplace, so each evening after tea, she withdrew to her room to spend cold lonely hours by herself.

The economic reality of secondary school teaching at this time was in contrast to the social background of the teachers, as well as the social pretensions they felt they had to maintain as members of the professional classes. Not that these teaching troubadours were treated with equal respect by the small town elites. Again, Cunningham:

The well-attested poverty of teachers was relative, though no less severely felt for that. They were generally well-educated, with about 40 per cent of them being drawn from the small cohort of university graduates, and they had expectations of professional status. Many had the title of ‘professor’ and felt obliged, not least to the institutions that employed them, to keep up middle-class appearances. But the signifiers of middle-class status – respectable dress, an acceptable address, support for local causes, maintaining a servant – were not easily afforded on salaries that were totally at the discretion of the employer and that, while varying considerably, averaged £48 a year for women and £82 for men in the early twentieth century. In the circumstances, according to an ASTI founder, it was inevitable that rosy expectations yielded to an ‘ignominious acceptance of one’s self as the outcast pedagogue, who had no social rating among the solid citizens of the town.’

By way of contrast, housekeepers and cooks earned around £40 a year, while a Dublin building tradesman in regular employment earned around £100 a year.

One of the reasons why lay teachers were paid so low was due to their work environment and conditions. Secondary schools were precariously funded, with a mixture of public and private funds influencing wage levels. Also, the secondary-school system was small and denominational, with a strong division between Protestant and Catholic schools. In 1900 there were about 2,000 second-level teachers, of which 824 were Protestant, 382 were Catholic lay, and 722 were Catholic religious.

In Protestant-run schools, generally there were opportunities for advancement, but this was rarely the case in Catholic schools where all senior posts were held by diocesan clergy or members of religious orders. With religious in most of the ordinary teaching positions also, lay teachers had little leverage, which was why conditions became so unattractive and staff turnover was so high. The observation of one chairman of the Intermediate Board that ‘no lay-man wilfully takes up teaching as a permanent career’ is supported by impressionistic evidence, and there are indications that a high proportion of those working as secondary teachers were doing so either because they were disqualified from, or not yet qualified for, other professions. Micheál Breatnach’s colleagues in one academy, according to his memoir, were a Trinity theology graduate who had last-minute qualms about taking orders, a former civil servant sacked for drunkenness, and a man who failed his medical exams.’

It was within such an environment that the first stirrings of organisation began to take place.

The forerunner of the ASTI was the Association of Intermediate and University Teachers (AIUT), which was formed in 1897. It core demands were for the registration of teachers, adequate salaries, security of tenure, and good service pensions. These goals would also become the mainstay of the ASTI. ‘If one of the noblest of professions was to attract the necessary numbers’ argued the AIUT, ‘the rewards had to be adequate.’ As one of the founders of the ASTI, P.J. Kennedy, put it in 1910, ‘a system of education which ignores the teacher is radically unsound.’ ‘There could be no satisfactory education without professional conditions for teachers’ the ASTI argued, ‘because able individuals would seek their livelihoods elsewhere until there were reasonable career expectations in teaching.’ The fact that there was a large pool of low-wage and compliant secondary teachers in the Religious orders, working in schools essentially governed by the Catholic church, helped to create a bulwark for decades against the goals of the organised teachers´associations.

Cunningham focuses in on the experiences of women, who made up more than 40 per cent of non-clerical secondary teachers. Not only that, in pre-partition Ireland ‘over 80 per cent of lay women in the profession were Protestant, whereas the majority of lay men were Catholic.’ In 1911 the decision was taken to establish a women’s section within the ASTI, which was named the Women Teachers´Association (WTA). The divisions on the island were reflected in the ASTI and in 1919 large sections of the association in Ulster broke away and formed the Ulster National Teachers’ Union after the ASTI registered as a union and affiliated to the left-leaning and decidedly Republican Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress.

At the same time, the rise in post-war industrial militancy, which saw gains not only for tradesmen and labourers but white-collar workers as well, did not leave the ASTI untouched and the first strike by Irish teachers was undertaken on 3 May 1920. ‘To the argument of [the Religious] employers that they were constrained by the low level of fees in their schools’ writes Cunningham, ‘the teachers asked whether they were expected, through their low salaries, to continue subsidising the education of the children of those such as comfortable farmers who had made enormous profits from the increased food prices of wartime.’

The strike was a relative success for the ASTI, and a milestone in its history. It had taken on the Catholic religious employers, had won concessions, and had done so through the backing and solidarity of the Irish trade union movement, of which it was for now a full and active member. The cross-class alignment of white-collar and tradesman, coupled with the upheavals of the post-war period, was enough to make the Catholic religious file a tactical retreat. With the formation of the Free State, however, the dynamic changes somewhat, with cabinet and crozier singing from the same, Catholic, hymn sheet.

Possibly the most influential individual on the southern state’s education policy was the ‘phantom’ minister for education, Rev. Timothy Corcoran, the Jesuit professor of education at UCD. Cunningham explains that

Corcoran… was a pedagogical traditionalist, favouring classical over modern languages, and critical of liberal and child-centred educationalists like Montessori, Froebel, and Pestalozzi for failing to take into account the ‘effect of original sin’ on human nature, and thereby ‘perverting the whole professional mentality and action of teachers.’ He was a prolific polemicist, a founder of the periodical Studies, and a contributor to the Catholic Bulletin and the Irish Monthly. His articles in these publications conveyed his general outlook, but on occasion, they could be quite specific in their critique of proposals, and unambiguously directive in their tone. They were read, and were intended to be read, by senior public servants and political leaders. According to E. Brian Titley, Corcoran acted as a ‘watchdog’ for the bishops in educational affairs, and his comments precisely reflected their attitude in every respect. for Seosamh Ó Néill, secretary of the Department of Education, his influence was unparalleled: ‘In the reconstruction of the Irish state, he was from the beginning the master-builder in Education.’

In 1926 only 34 per cent of of the 1,461 registered secondary teachers in the Free State were lay teachers, an average of two in each of the country’s 283 schools. The loss of the six counties meant that the ASTI’s catchment area was far more reliant on the relatively small pool of Catholic lay teachers than might have otherwise been the case. This weakened the power base of the ASTI within the educational system, a situation which the union overcame by drawing on personal connections with leading figures. Although by the late 1930s the ASTI had won concessions on pay, pensions and, finally in 1937, a limited form of security of tenure, Cunningham argues that

the agreement of 1936-37 marked an acceptance by the ASTI of the particular character of the new state and of the strength of Catholic authority. In the Association’s early years, British governments, for their own reasons, had been prepared to press for the extension of the role of the state in secondary education, and were prepared to use financial incentives to win concessions from the Catholic bishops. But even though they had ex-ASTI members in influential positions, neither Cumann na nGaedhael nor Fianna Fáil governments wished to quarrel with the Catholic Church regarding the limits of its authority in secondary education. Moreover, as one of its leading spokesmen on education indicated, the Catholic Church would accept no such limits in any case: ‘On issues of Catholic education,’ insisted Rev. Corcoran, ‘there is no appeal to the civil state, least of all here in Ireland, where our schools have by all historic tradition, their title to existence from the Catholic Church alone, and not from any civil power.’ Irish self-government, in other words, did not change anything.

This is not to say that the ASTI and its members were exactly out of step with the conservative, Catholic nature of the Free State. In 1927 the association disaffiliated from the Labour Party and Congress. Cunningham highlights the minutes of the Dublin branch meeting in April 1926, where one member, Mr. Keane, objected to the organisation’s association with Labour in part because ‘we were educators of middle classes, and as such, our connection should be with that class.’ The fact that the ASTI was able to achieve modest gains for its members through its personal and political connections with the Free State’s power structures was no coincidence. There were significant tensions between the ASTI and the other teachers’ unions, with the former holding a somewhat snooty attitude of the latter. Secondary school teachers were well aware that they came from the middle class and that they taught the middle class: they just weren’t paid very well for their troubles.

The shake-up in Irish education in the 1960s also changed the dynamic within the ASTI in terms of its membership, as well as upsetting the relationship between the organisation, the employers, and the state. In 1963 the organisation voted to re-register as a trade union, and in January 1969 it re-joined Congress. By this time Donogh O’Malley had ushered in free secondary education for all, while throughout the 1960s secondary teachers watched as workers in other industries improved their pay and work conditions through militant action. As with the 1918-22 period, the lesson was not lost on them, and once again secondary school teachers were working to rule and going on strike – but this time with limited success. Moreover,

in the period between the exam boycott of 1964 and the abortive strike of 1971, the ASTI became a really vibrant organisation. Teachers were drawn to meetings in unprecedented numbers to learn about the issues, to express opinions about them, and to vote upon them in increasingly frequent national ballots. Those of them who held strong views competed with one another for delegateships to annual convention and to the many special conventions. The vitality of the debate and the ever-present danger of strike ensured that enlistment in the ASTI became almost automatic for many entrants to the profession. With the concurrent decline in the proportion of teaching religious, it became more difficult to dispute the Association’s claim to speak for the body of Irish secondary teachers.”

The loosening of the Catholic church’s hold on education in the Republic affected not only teachers, but parents and pupils as well. In the 1980s ‘parents were becoming more organised and more independent, and consequently it was desirable to establish good relations with their representatives.’

The assault on education in the 1980s met fierce resistance from teachers’ unions, culminating in a rare show of solidarity and strength in December 1985 when ‘an estimated 20,000 men and women, drawn from the ASTI, the TUI and INTO [travelled] on a cold winter’s day to Croke Park by car, coach and special train from all corners of the country´to protest against the cutbacks. The theme of inter-union relationships dominates the final chapters of Unlikely Radicals, particularly the extremely bitter and divisive pay disputes of 2000-2002.

The ASTI’s criticisms of Partnership carry a certain poignancy today, as we look back on the period with a much more sober view of the Celtic Tiger ‘miracle’ and its fantastic promises of constant, eternal, economic growth. Indeed, the commodification of results, such as the Irish Times league tables and grind-school sweatshops, is singled out for particular criticism. Whereas in the 1930s the Irish secondary school system was run with the production of priests in mind, today the production of business and marketing souls is the new mantra, one that is just as narrow as the clerical collar of former years. Since 2004 the role of the ASTI, and indeed the other teachers’ unions, has been largely defensive, as the chimera of ‘modernisation’ and ‘productivity’ takes up the column pages once occupied with equal force and absolute certainty by the words ‘miracle’, ‘tiger’ and ‘Celtic’. Teachers are in danger of being side-lined once again, as they were in the early decades of the 20th century. The gains which were achieved through years of struggle and persistence, one fears, will only be held through resistance and organisation.

Unlikely Radicals is a timely book, well-written and informative. It provides a clear and concise account of the organisational history of the ASTI, as well as placing that history within the social, cultural and economic development of the Irish Free State and Republic. Finally, in its own subtle way, it manages to show aspects of the power and dynamic of class in Irish society, and for such insights alone it is well worth the effort.

[Unlikely Radicals is available here from UCC Press, and here from Kennys Irish Bookstore Galway.]