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  • Educating for Ireland? The Urban Protestant Elite and the Early Years of Cork Grammar School, 1880–19141
  • Ian d’Alton (bio)

“My thoughts at this time were greatly occupied in fixing upon some English school for my boys, the advantages of which I see more clearly every day,” wrote Captain Otho Travers, the East India Company’s recruiting agent in Cork, in 1834. At pains to confide to his diary that “I wish not to speak against my country,” he felt that English schools taught better manners and had more éclat.2

Nearly half a century later, two founders of Cork Grammar School—Mervyn Archdall, the Church of Ireland archdeacon of Cork, and Thomas M. Usborne, a prominent merchant—articulated a very different vision for Irish Protestant secondary education. According to Usborne, the school “was simply set on foot for the purpose of supplying a great want in Cork—namely, a good public school, and with the object of inducing persons who had been sending their children to England, to educate them at home.” The archdeacon suggested that

it is a great pity that Irish parents who labour at home and expect their sons will live in the country, for wear [sic] or woe, will not see [End Page 201] how desirable it is to keep up the connection during the time of their education with the people amongst whom they are to live subsequently. . . . They did not want to make Englishmen of their boys. There was much to admire in the Irish character and they wanted to maintain it.3

While Archdall’s comments indicated a somewhat more Hibernocentric perspective, Usborne’s could be interpreted as a desire for a soi-disant English public school in Cork (it was more than ironic that he sent his only son to Harrow and Cambridge).4 Their remarks beg at least a couple of big questions. In an Irish context, what was “superior” or secondary schooling actually for? And what part, if any, did such superior education play in shaping the world of the minority Protestant elite in southern Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth?5 This essay offers some observations on these questions, using Cork Grammar School as exemplar. First, the scene is set by outlining briefly the economic and educational dynamics of Cork Protestants over the latter part of the nineteenth century; second, the impetus for the establishment of schools such as Cork Grammar is examined in a national context; and third—by reference to these national factors—we analyze how two charismatic headmasters “worked the system” to the better advantage of the Protestant community in Cork. What emerges above all is the significance of the cult of the headmaster in the nineteenth century, particularly the role of the leader in a relatively mundane school, and how different a direction such a school can take with a change of personality. [End Page 202]

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Table 1.

Percentage of Protestants in Selected Occupations in Cork City, 1833 and 1881

Cork city’s economic life remained dominated by Protestants for much of the nineteenth century. The landscape, however, was changing, as demonstrated in Table 1.6 John O’Brien suggested that as early as 1841, with their capture of Cork Corporation, “the Catholic middle classes had arrived.” But that did not necessarily mean that the formerly dominant Protestants had left.7 At the time of Cork Grammar School’s foundation in 1881, with Protestants accounting for only 15 percent of the population, they still held around 40 percent of the jobs in the professions.8 Even by the early twentieth century they remained overrepresented in the city’s civil administration, in such posts as public notaries and district registrars of marriages, for instance.9 [End Page 203] In socioeconomic terms, of course, Protestantism was by no means monolithic, as Martin Maguire has demonstrated in the case of Dublin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cork was broadly similar, though it must be said that long before Dublin’s Protestant working classes had melted away by the late 1930s,10 the “hundreds” of Protestant inhabitants...


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