School Patronage: Give or Take?

Even though Mayo football is on the crest of a wave rural GAA clubs are going through hard times. Emigration, the rural population shrinkage, the popularity of other sports have all contributed to the decline. A few short years ago, when everything seemed possible in the Celtic Tiger years, GAA clubs greatly improved their grounds and developed their facilities.
An extraordinary level of commitment by individuals and communities has meant that even clubs in small parishes – through constant fund-raising, low or no interest loans from individuals and grants – have provided a remarkable level of facilities for the GAA and the wider community.
In the area in which I live three rural clubs in small parishes – Moygownagh, Ardagh and Kilfian – all with impressive facilities developed painstakingly over the years, are the very heart-beat of their parish-communities, building parish identity, generating energy, serving the community.
The pressure on player-numbers has surfaced suggestions of club amalgamation. The point is made that – population-wise and player-wise – amalgamation would make great sense. But rational arguments, no matter how persuasive, don’t give due attention to the fact that GAA clubs in rural Ireland are not like factories that can be opened or closed. They’re the result of an extraordinary level of fund-raising activity, individual and community commitment and local skills – achievements that can’t be wiped out by a stroke of a brush by national sporting or political authorities.
Let me change tack for a moment. Just suppose that the three clubs decided to amalgamate. Just suppose too that another sport, say cricket, asked that one of the three facilities be handed over, lock, stock and barrel, to the Cricket Association of Ireland. In that event how would we expect any of the above three communities to react?
The probable response would be to tell cricket enthusiasts in the area to do what the GAA clubs have done over the decades : fund-raise, train youngsters, borrow money from the bank or from interested individuals, organise games, encourage participation and support for their chosen sport and so on. I suspect that if national politicians suggested that in view of the fact that, in a given area, GAA facilities were surplus to requirements and that one club should hand over a property to the cricket authorities, that they would be told to take a hike for themselves.
Let me change tack a bit more and apply that principle to primary schools.
Remember a few years ago when the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, in his grand plan for the future of Irish primary education, predicted that, within a few years, half of the primary schools in Ireland would be divested by the Catholic Church and handed over to the State to secure a system of ‘secular’ schools? It was the beginning of a concerted campaign to introduce ‘religion-less’ schools by pressurising the Catholic Church to hand over half its schools.
To be fair, the divesting proposal for significant numbers of Catholic schools looked promising initially as the archbishop of Dublin seemed to give it his support. And soundings, from hard-pressed ‘Catholic’ schools in city areas struggling to retain a ‘Catholic’ ethos, seemed to indicate a willingness to divest. And, of course, there was the factor too that with the Catholic Church’s standing at an all-time low, and with the heretofore powerful lion of Irish education so bloodied and traumatised from fighting other battles, that it would be easy to move in for the metaphorical kill.
The first fatal presumption, unrecognised by the campaign, was that the archbishop of Dublin (or any other bishop or collection of bishops) could deliver the divesting programme by, say, issuing an edict from Maynooth. The truth is that only Catholic parents can make that decision. And the experience has been that parishes and subsequent generations of parents – after pouring their savings into buying sites, building schools, fund-raising to develop facilities, and so on – have no intention of handing over their local school to anyone. The second presumption was that there is huge demand for a secular school system. Even though every effort was made to present this presumption as fact, the surveys conducted by the Department of Education indicated clearly that this was not the case. The result was that support for secular schools ran at between 1% in rural and 8% in urban areas. In other words the vast majority of parents want the present system retained.
The third presumption was that secularism could claim special status and presume special treatment because, unlike religions, it had no values-agenda or ethos. This is patently untrue. Secularism is, effectively, a form of ‘religion’ in that it has its values, its agenda and its ethos. Giving the secularist minority support in this debate is helping the tail to wag the dog.
A fourth flaw was the condescending nature of the orchestrated campaign to force the handing-over of Catholic schools, in order to facilitate an ideological agenda by a vocal minority. This is evident in the pretence that secularism and atheism inhabit some higher ground and unlike religion don’t seek converts to their cause. Evident too in the new-found (and unconvincing) worry of atheists, agnostics and angry former Catholics that the sacrament of Baptism might be brought into disrepute by using it as an entry requirement for Catholic schools! And evident in letters to the Irish Times like the one describing the Catholic Church’s policy of admitting Catholics first to its schools as ‘discriminatory’. Is the GAA discriminating against other sports if it gives preference to its own members?
The real demand in Ireland is not for secular schools but for school places and providing adequate places is the responsibility, not of the Catholic Church, but of the State. If Atheist Ireland want schools to reflect their ethos then let them do what Catholic parishes (and Church of Ireland parishes, Muslim communities etc.) have done for generations: build their own schools, propose their own curriculum, fund-raise and all the rest of it.
It’s a bit rich expecting the Catholic Church, often disparaged at every opportunity by some of the same people, to rush to their aid.
The present orchestrated campaign to force the handing-over of Catholic schools is punching above its weight. The presumption in media circles is that the debate is done and dusted, and that the only impediment to resolving the situation is for the very bold Catholic Church to do the bidding of Atheist Ireland, the education correspondent of the The Irish Times and those who imagine that Irish parents are waiting with bated breath for a religion-less, spirituality-neutral system of education.
There’s as much chance of that as Moygownagh GAA giving their football field to Cricket Ireland.

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  1. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Well put, Brendan.
    There seems to be a widespread impression that the Catholic church subverted the National School system from the start for its own ends as a power-grab in the 19th century. The facts do not bear this out.
    In The Irish Times of 13 Feb 2010 Garret Fitzgerald gave an account of the introduction of the National School system, in the context that in 1782, penal legislation prohibiting schools other than those teaching the doctrines of the established Church of Ireland was repealed.
    He wrote: “In October 1831, shortly after Catholic Emancipation, chief secretary Edward Stanley, by way of a letter to the Duke of Leinster inviting him to chair a new board of commissioners of national education, founded our national school system… Joint applications for the establishment of interdenominational schools were to be made to this board by the different religious groups in each area. But, while the Catholic hierarchy had accepted this new interdenominational system, it was bitterly opposed, (and within eight years had been comprehensively sabotaged) by the Protestant religious authorities, who refused to join in making joint applications. In 1839 the Presbyterians secured changes in the rules which gave a strong denominational complexion to their schools, and in the same year the Church of Ireland created its own separate organisation to run its schools: the Church Education Society. The board, clearly anxious not to disappoint the Catholic community, felt it had no choice but to accept applications coming from one denomination only, and so a de facto Catholic national school system came into existence, with the bishops as school patrons in each diocese, ensuring that the teachers in their schools were Catholics.”
    With increasing diversity in Irish society, it seems strange that this would not be reflected in our education system, and that demand is made for a one-size-fits-all system. I do not have great confidence that a system controlled totally by the State would prove more fair than the current system. We have a Public-Private Partnership model in our various National Schools. Let us work together to improve that, rather than throw out the baby with the bathwater, to replace it perhaps with new Irish Water.

  2. Prodigal Son says:

    The Vatican II Declaration on Christian Education, paragraph 6 states that “parents should enjoy the fullest liberty in their choice of school.”
    As a catholic I regard the divestment project as a gift not to be declined. It is difficult to implement but is necessary.
    Recent referenda and social legislation suggest that the Irish baptised place little value on Catholicism and on “Catholic” school experience. What should this experience be?
    Catholic school should have certain characteristics. Any institution with the word “Catholic” over the door is part of the evangelization mission of the Church. A sense that Catholicism “is where it’s at” should pervade the school day. A child should not only learn about and grow in faith, but it also be able to articulate the faith and share it with the world. A teacher should pray before class with students, refer to God in general teaching, and freely proclaim the Church’s teaching on abortion, euthanasia, marriage, etc.
    In a world where kids are taught the lie that there is no right or wrong, Catholic schools should teach not simply the academic subjects, but through these subjects an understanding of who we are, why we exist, and how we should live in the Truth that will help people find peace and purpose in their lives. In this way Catholic schools prepare kids for Catholic life.
    This is clearly not the case in many Catholic schools now because many teachers do not share the Catholic faith, or are reluctant to teach it, and many parents resent it. Divestment offers the opportunity to maximize parental choice as to school, and enables the Church to run its schools as organizations of Catholic experience. State schools should outnumber Catholic Schools.

  3. Cornelius Martin says:

    The future of Catholic schools in on a stickier wicket than many think, irrespective of who funded the pitch. On foot of canvassing in the recent referendum, I don’t believe the populace is concerned about the loss of Catholic schools. Gay marriage has intensified the problem.
    Increasingly on this island celebrating gay marriages has become a precondition for making a living. In all likelihood businesses will have to provide comprehensive staff training, ensure compliance, and then file intermittent obedience reports with the government on gay issues.
    Gay marriage conflicts with the Catholic faith. One must ask what is meant by a Catholic school in this context, when the state, encouraged by the divisions in Catholicism, has now tasked itself with determining for Catholics when religion should matter. Not only can the State now apparently hold the power to bore into the souls of business people to establish that their religious objections aren’t authentic, but it can also decide when their prejudice is. Non-participation in any event for theological reasons will be assumed as motivated solely by bigotry.
    And the crusade will accelerate until the advocates get to religious institutions, including schools. No doubt advocates will work backwards to come up with a great legal rationalization for all of it.
    Even in Mayo a minority Catholics consider Catholic schools as important. Preserving them is about much more that who funded them. Preserving them is a question of culture – are they necessary for the State. Indeed are they necessary for Catholicism? And how many?
    Is it not time for those priests, bishops and laity who want to preserve Catholic schools to make a combined serious, cultural and democratic, case for the provision of a number of Catholic schools nationally? There is currently no cultural case for maintaining the number as high as it is.

  4. peter Hinchliffe says:

    Imagine a scenario where every person paid a Tax to the GAA, an individual club would be funded by The GAA who then used this money to run its facilities, it paid for the upkeep of the buildings and pitch, the wages for all the staff, the insurance and all costs and bills- extra funding was raised in the community by members for extra coaching and the occasional away game transport.
    It is mandatory for every Child to attend a GAA club 5 days a week outside of holidays.
    But, the clubs themselves are not directly run by the GAA- they are run by a patron, 95% of the Clubs are under the control of political parties, 90% under the control of one single party.
    The Party takes Credit for the donation of lands decades ago to supply local clubs, it takes credit for all the local fundraising done by the club and its members.
    The party insists that its members children get 1st place, all others being categorized according to political affiliation.
    The party insists that a pledge of loyalty to the party be said everyday by the children, and that the children attend membership rallies and pledging ceremonies where they commit to the party throughout their formative years.
    The party’s manifesto is intertwined with every subject and there are up to 3 hours of study set aside per week to be used for political study along the party’s own lines.
    The local Chairman of the party (and it must be a man) takes the role of representing the party at the top of the Clubs management structure- He has the last word on the Hiring and firing of staff, promotions and sets the moral ethos of the club on party lines.
    Imagine you belong to a different party, you live in the village and you want your child to attend the club with his peers in the local community, given room in the club and at the discretion of the party Chairman you may use the Club, you will be expected to collect your child at any time in the day and remove him from the club should you wish to avoid direct Political indoctrination, but you must accept that the party owns the club and it will be biased unashamedly to the party line.
    The Party also happens to run every club in your area, except for one oversubscribed one miles away in the local town.
    You decide this is unfair- You pay your GAA tax, You help fundraise, the Club is in your village and is funded as part of the GAA remit to serve the entire community.
    You do not want to separate your child on political lines, you do not want to remove him from his community- you see no need for a club that is directly financed by people of all political persuasions in the community to be controlled and to work for a political cause- you campaign for change.
    Now, re read the political party line in the opening letter and tell me if there is not something disturbing about a triumphalist claim to ownership that is all about the party and tells us nothing about what is best for the children of the community.

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