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  • The Christian Brothers and the Second Reformation in Ireland
  • Dáire Keogh (bio)

The common perception is that Edmund Ignatius Rice founded the Christian Brothers in Waterford in order to care for the poor boys of the city for whom nobody else cared. The reality of the situation, however, is quite the contrary; rather than lacking educational provision, Waterford was the third most literate city in Ireland after Belfast and Dublin (table 1).2 Quite clearly, Rice was concerned not merely with schooling but to offer a "special kind of education, even a special kind of Catholic education," in his adopted city.3 Like his patron, he saw education as critical to the process of renewal, but like Ignatius of Loyola, too, circumstances combined to give his efforts a combative character. In the context of the Second Reformation the Christian Brothers not merely advanced the Tridentine surge of the age but became synonymous with the Counter-Reformation zeal that constituted the hallmark of nineteenth-century Irish Catholicism. [End Page 42]

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Table 1.

Extrapolation of Literacy Levels for Males in 1851 in Waterford


In 1791 there were ten fee-paying schools in the city of Waterford. Two of these were under Catholic management—one conducted by Fr. Roynane and the other by Mr. Waters, whose school was attended by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In these private schools the annual fee was six guineas for day-boys and thirty for boarders. Such charges automatically excluded poor children. There were no Erasmus Smith or diocesan schools, and a mere eight parochial schools were attended by 235 pupils, paying annual fees. Free education was provided by three endowed schools: the Charter School at Killotran, which had fifty to sixty students; the Blue Coat School for poor girls, which had thirty-four pupils in residence; and the Bishop Foy School, founded in 1707, serving seventy-five boys.4

Six years later, Thomas Hussey, the founding president of Maynooth, was installed as bishop of Waterford and Lismore in February 1797. Hussey was radically different from his predecessor and episcopal colleagues in Ireland. A cosmopolitan cleric, he had spent his adult life in London, where he had served as chaplain to the Spanish ambassador. This appointment had placed him at the center of a bustling social circle that included Dr. Johnson, Charles James Fox, and most significantly Edmund Burke, who became his political mentor. This experience set Hussey apart from his episcopal colleagues in Ireland, and he shared none of the deference and reserve that penal Ireland had taught them. Within a month of his [End Page 43] arrival in Waterford, Hussey embarked on a formal visitation of his diocese and described the conditions that he encountered to his confidant Edmund Burke. The bishop devoted considerable attention to a description of the schools of the diocese and boasted that he had already established a charity school in the principal towns of the diocese "in order to instruct the children of the poor, gratis, in reading, writing, and accounts."5 Characteristically, the bishop was alarmed at the presence in the city of the charity schools described above, "where the clergy of the establishment wanted to have no catechism taught but the Protestant one, and seemed inclined to assimilate them to the Charter Schools."6 Hussey condemned this proselytizing tendency and the illiberality of the established church, but noted that his opposition was shared by the Quakers of the city, the most numerous branch of Protestants and the "most regular and industrious sect."7

The bishop revisited this theme in a notoriously controversial pastoral address, published later that year, which raised considerable ire by its references to the remaining Penal Laws, which he labeled "remnants of old oppression," and by his characterization of the Church of Ireland as a "small sect." Hussey was particularly blunt in his assault upon the proselytizing schools and urged his priests to oppose their efforts:

Stand firm against attempts which may be made under various pretexts to withdraw any of your flocks from the belief and practice of the Catholic religion. Remonstrate with any parent who would be so criminal as to expose his offspring...


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