- Education and Social Class in Joyce’s Dublin
As Leopold Bloom walks down Dorset Street on his way to Dlugacz’ butcher shop on the morning of 16 June 1904, he passes “ . . . St. Joseph’s National School. Brats’ clamour. Windows open. Fresh air helps memory. . . . “ 1 Even this early in the story we are becoming accustomed to Bloom’s interest in practical and scientific lore. Hence the “Fresh air helps memory” fits an emerging pattern. But the “St. Joseph National School” is not quite so clear. The linking of “St. Joseph”—sounds like a parochial school—with “National School”—sounds like a non-sectarian publicly supported school—is momentarily puzzling. If we have a minute, we might look it up in Ulysses Annotated, in which the usually reliable Gifford, says “The National Schools were the Irish counterpart of the American public schools, although they bore more resemblance to trade or vocational schools because their emphasis was on practical education for the working and lower middle classes. The National Schools were dominated by an English Protestant point of view and were regarded by the Irish as part of an English plot to control Ireland religiously and socially as well as politically.” 2 That sounds reasonable, and it brings up an appropriate colonial theme, and we likely move on. In fact, Gifford is mostly inaccurate here, but understandably so, granted the complex history of Irish education. The school that Bloom is passing was essentially the parish school of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. (If Bloom had been a practicing Catholic, this would have been his parish.) The school was likely managed by the pastor of the parish, the Reverend Daniel Dowling, P.P., and it was nearly totally supported by funds from the Imperial treasury administered by the Board of Commissioners of National Education in Dublin. Definitely not a school dominated by an English Protestant point of view.
Understanding the educational system of Joyce’s Dublin, including its historical roots, helps to decipher some of the cultural details of social class, religious belief, and social mobility that [End Page 329] are generally left unspoken by the characters in Joyce’s fiction but are nonetheless important for our understanding of the world in which they work out their destinies. In the case at hand, for example, Bloom’s thoughts as he passes the school convey a slightly dismissive tone (“brats clamour”) that his fellow Dubliners would easily have understood.
In 1800, essentially all education in Ireland was privately funded, so that the poor in Ireland, perhaps three-quarters of the population, were uneducated or ill-educated. Reliable census data is not available for 1800, but extrapolating back from data from 1841, it is reasonable to estimate that only twenty-five to thirty percent of the Irish over the age of five were able to read and write English, and this literate fraction was predominately Protestant: the illiterate poor were disproportionately Catholic and, of course, many were Gaelic speaking. At this time a variety of privately funded philanthropic organizations, most notably the Kildare Place Society, undertook to assist in the education of the Irish poor. Although the Society’s schools were nominally non-sectarian, the clear intention of at least some of the Society’s Protestant backers was to wean Roman Catholic children away from their superstitious and disloyal religion and was viewed as such by an apprehensive Roman Catholic clergy. By 1825, the Kildare Place Society was receiving a significant treasury grant to carry out its work. 3
Perhaps the most notable Catholic initiative in education at this time was the establishment of the Christian Brothers Order by Edmund Ignatius Rice. The Christian Brothers were (and are) a group of men pledged to poverty and communal living who devoted their lives to the Catholic education of the poor. The Christian Brothers received no governmental support, so they had to charge fees for their schools, but because of the spartan lives led by their teachers and their vigorous fund raising activities, the cost of attending a Christian Brothers school was very modest. Edmund Rice opened his first school in 1804, and the number of schools under his supervision grew steadily...