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Home Uncategorized One Onion, Many Layers

One Onion, Many Layers

Maurice Earls

Catholics of Consequence: Transnational Education, Social Mobility, and the Irish Catholic Elite 1850-1900, by Ciaran O’Neill, Oxford University Press, 272 pp, £65, ISBN: 978-0198707714

Social class is a widely employed conceptual tool in the writing of history yet it is often ignored, and sometimes met with a shrug of indifference, by historians of Ireland. National and confessional perspectives ‑ important as they are ‑ always seem to push class to one side. But class exists in Ireland; indeed it has a long past, with evidence of its presence often taking spectacular material form.

Not all Catholics suffered from emigration and famine in the nineteenth century. Families with wealth, cultural capital, influence and power did not register these experiences. Elite Catholics were successors of the traditional landed cohort which, though buffeted and very significantly reduced, managed to survive the eras of expropriation and penal oppression with not inconsiderable wealth retained. This landed element was joined by the many Catholic families who managed to become wealthy during penal times. In the nineteenth century successful professionals were to expand still further the community of elite Catholics.

In the latter half of that century, when the Irish population was falling and the poor were emigrating in vast numbers, the experience of the Catholic elite was the opposite of that of their co-religionists: elite numbers, it seems, rose significantly. Given this remarkable phenomenon and the fact this body of elite Catholics survived into the independent state, it is surely worthy of study as a social class. Ciaran O’Neill, in his scholarly analysis of Catholic elite education in the latter half of the nineteenth century, joins a small number who have addressed this challenge.

Catholics of Consequence is an interesting and thoughtful book, remote from the characteristic dullness of school histories. The author brings a reflective intelligence to his work, linking the detail of his subject to broader historical and cultural questions. He mentions in passing and with a hint of criticism the tendency of Irish historians to privilege “the nation-state as a conceptual lens”. Ironically, in this case the result of stepping away from that focus is an enhanced understanding of the social currents that were to comprise the nation-state which took form in the twentieth century.

Elite Catholics, who made up approximately three per cent of the later nineteenth century population, were by no means a homogeneous phenomenon. Some had substantial and long-established landholdings. Others had used capital accumulated in the previous century to buy or buy back land. Others were highly successful professionals whose families had recently graduated from the middle classes. (This is the element which saw significant nineteenth century growth.) Some, like the Murphys and Powers from Cork, were prosperous and long-established merchant families, whereas the commercial prosperity of others was more recent. There were also political differences. Some were quite happy to live under the crown whereas for others the urge to resist English power persisted.

The modern Catholic elite took its initial form in the wake of the final military defeat it suffered at the end of the seventeenth century. Under Protestant hegemony Catholic behaviour became pragmatic and unassertive. However, as the century neared its end and the urge in Westminster to penalise Catholics abated, anti Catholic penal measures were gradually disbanded, leading to the partial opening of the restricted profession of law, and even of Trinity College itself, to Catholics.

In response to these changes there was a huge release of pent-up Catholic energy, which ultimately manifested itself politically in the O’Connellite movement. The primary purpose of this new political phenomenon was to position property-owning Catholics at the heart of government and administration in a transformed Ireland, an Ireland characterised by an organic relationship between the social classes and a shared national culture. It was a hugely ambitious programme which among other things envisioned an Irish industrial revolution. Indeed, its heyday was perhaps the only time when elements of the Catholic elite came close to resembling a modern bourgeoisie.

When the O’Connellite movement collapsed, the vision and ambition of its tentative bourgeoisie declined correspondingly. But the erosion of Protestant dominance in the legal and administrative worlds continued, and this occurred at a time when the modern growth of the professions had begun. So, if there was to be no substantial Irish industrial bourgeoisie drawn from the Catholic elite, there was to be a growing and confident elite Catholic professional and administrative class.

The cultural politics which evolved and which were embraced to advance this process essentially involved a continuation of the O’Connellite tactic of appealing to centres of power in London over the heads of the existing and defensive possessors of privilege in Ireland. But this time the objectives were the micro advantages of position rather than legislative autonomy, an objective which did not focus attention again for a generation following O’Connell’s defeat. And when it did revive, in O’Neill’s estimation, the desire for autonomy did not centrally engage this elite.

Choice of school, as many a parent will perhaps grudgingly admit, is the first decision affecting status to be made in relation to a child. In the eighteenth century the children of elite families were educated abroad. Like many upper class Catholic youths of his time, O’Connell attended school in France. Indeed, his was the last generation for whom the educational journey to France was de rigueur. The relaxation of the penal laws not only enabled O’Connell to study law in Trinity, it also enabled the Jesuits, the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Vincentians and others to establish schools for elite children in Ireland. His own sons attended Clongowes. Indeed the Liberator contemplated retiring there when he reached sixty-five.

Catholic elite education was about succeeding in a world shaped by British interests and culture, a culture which was residually anti-Catholic and negative in its perception of the Irish. In this demanding environment privileged Irish Catholics sought parity of opportunity within the empire. Clongowes Wood College was set up in 1814, Castleknock in 1835, and Blackrock College in 1860. These schools offered an English public school-style education, with cricket, rugby and a powerful internal culture which encouraged students to place the school towards the centre of their identities throughout their lives. The idea was that graduates could pass muster in the company of the English elite, who would therefore not be ill-disposed to granting them appointments.

The project was highly successful. At an old boys’ dinner in Clongowes in 1896 the Old Clongownian and chief baron of the exchequer Christopher Palles declared: “we are now upon equality with any other persons in the kingdom … an equality that we are determined to maintain.” (Interestingly, O’Connell himself declined the same appointment in the 1830s but the elite in his era were more muscular in their politics.)

As the nineteenth century progressed and the Catholic elite penetrated senior administrative positions and the legal world, others, noting the pronounced anglicisation of their manners, denounced them as “West Britons”. There was perhaps some justice in the charge but “getting by” and “getting on” in the Anglo-dominated world were issues for all social classes. Militant nationalist newspapers of the 1914-16 period carried small ads for grind schools which prepared students for lower-level civil service positions in the empire. The fact is that the business of getting on involved a voluntary anglicisation across Irish society over a lengthy period. Arguably, this was an unavoidable consequence of the intense colonisation experienced in the country. Certainly the phenomenon of anglicisation was observable over a wide social range; not even the Irish Ireland romantics could avoid it. In the end Irish elite schools simply reflected an intensified and highly conscious version of what was a widespread and long-established phenomenon.

When the anti Catholic laws were relaxed, most English Catholic schools which had decamped to the continent in earlier centuries resettled in rural England. The Jesuit Stoneyhurst was the leading Catholic school; the Benedictine Ampleforth and Downside were others. In the eighteenth century many Irish elite Catholics would have been educated in those or comparable institutions on the continent. The tradition continued into the nineteenth century, with many old families and some ambitious newcomers sending their children to English Catholic public schools. The education was virtually identical to that offered in schools such as Clongowes, but the English public schools had greater prestige and appear to have been more attractive to landed Catholics. In the latter half of the nineteenth century twenty per cent of the students at these English schools were Irish.

For some of the old Catholic elite the emergence of the professional newcomers was distasteful. In 1840 a correspondent of Lady Bellew criticised her decision to send her sons to Clongowes, saying they would associate with “boys far below them in station”.

Religious orders offering elite education in Ireland wished to ensure that any anglicisation of the Irish Catholic elite did not lead to a general apostasy. As O’Neill emphasises, the real core of these schools was a Catholic education. The cricket and the air of polish was, in comparison, more decorative. It might be added that the Jesuits would presumably have welcomed the prospect of a cohort of committed Catholics operating within the upper echelons of the British state. The hope that Britain might abandon its experiment in reformationism had not altogether disappeared from Catholic strategic thinking. A romantic nationalism which advocated full political separation and a Gaelic-orientated public culture would hardly have appealed to Jesuit universalist principles. If nothing else the religious aura around advanced nationalism would have been apprehended as a competitive phenomenon. Yet, given the way things turned out in the early twentieth century, pragmatism presumably required that elite schools emphasised what connections they had with such politics. Connections to The O’Rahilly and others including Francis Meagher, who said he loved his time in Clongowes but learned nothing of Ireland there, were presumably emphasised. Indeed, the revivalist tide, it seems, temporarily dented the main programme of manners in the school and for a period “hurling, rebellion and Cuchulainn would briefly (though never entirely) replace cricket, loyalty and Tom Brown in the pages of the school annual”.

The Jesuits’ mission to propertied Catholics extended beyond the elite to embrace also the merely comfortable. Belvedere College was established in the 1840s to offer education to those somewhat down the social scale from Clongowes ‑ and yet above the Christian Brothers’ level. Again the objective was to give the boys sufficient polish to set them apart from those beneath them and to render them employable at a respectable level. The order, it seems, had a very exact understanding of class in Ireland. Stephen Daedalus’s father who, perhaps foolishly, went into business instead of the professions found he could no longer afford his son’s fees in Clongowes. Mrs Daedalus‘s suggestion that the boy be sent to the Brothers was rejected out of hand by the knowing paterfamilias, who, declaring for Belvedere, said he did not wish his son to be educated with “Paddy Stink” and “Micky Mud”. Simon Daedalus, it would seem, shared an understanding of the niceties of social class with Lady Bellew’s correspondent.

As in the English public school system, accent was of central importance to the Irish elite. Local accents when blended with approved Anglo tones may have given rise to the famed speech of Montenotte; this could also be responsible for Ross O’Carroll Kelly’s tortured vowels. Certainly at the beginning of the twentieth century there was a great deal of fun poked at “Cawstle Catholics”, including by some who may have been unwittingly, or otherwise, adjusting their lives to take account of Anglo cultural and economic power.

Interestingly, the importance of accent, like class itself, did not vanish with the disappearance of the British. A mother who wrote to The Irish Times in 1983 seeking advice on schools clearly appreciated the social aesthetics of accent: “I sent my first son to the Christian Brothers and he has got pretty good results all round, but he has a frightful Dublin accent  … Now I have to decide where to send my second son. I would prefer to send him somewhere with a bit more polish … Among those suggested have been Blackrock, Gonzaga … I have heard that the Jesuits are tops in education. Is this true?”

O’Neill considers the politics of the Catholic elite intermittently throughout his book. He argues that the subjects of his study were socially above the typical IPP activist and, by implication, also socially above popular revolutionary types. This area is complex and is not the main focus of the book. It is safe to say that this fascinating subject would repay further attention. In O’Neill’s reading the Catholic elite were not much involved in the Home Rule campaigns. Thus he rejects Conor Cruise O’Brien’s suggestion that they were a ruling class in waiting, permanently confounded by the success of revolutionary politics.

Yet John Redmond, who led the Home Rule movement, was celebrated and honoured by Clongowes. Redmond, of course, was not adverse to a continuing British connection and was not as ardent an advocate of autonomy as some in the IPP. Perhaps his politics were compatible with the core Clongownian outlook. He said he learned in Clongowes that the “highest duty of a gentleman was in every circumstance of life to play the game”. Support for the British war effort was, in a sense, a logical outcome of this outlook and of the conscious self-anglicisation that occurred throughout the nineteenth century in elite Irish schools; it is interesting that there was a disproportionate number of war dead among those who attended such elite schools. Whether the explanation is the influence of Redmond or the result of anglicisation is not clear.

Perhaps, as is still the case across many social classes, students simply took their politics from the home environment and the diversity that existed within the Catholic elite was reflected in the politics of the students. Indeed it may not be too much to hope that questions of this sort may, in time, give rise to research directed at unravelling the many layers of the onion that is social class in Ireland.


Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.



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