Jesuits teaching the teachers

August 25, 2009 in General, News

ucd_ed_02It is 100 years since Tim Corcoran SJ was appointed the first professor of education in UCD. Speaking at the launch of the centenary celebrations last May, Prof. Sheelagh Drudy noted the pioneering work done by Fr Corcoran (both pictured here).  “He began the important work of professionalising teacher education in Ireland,” she remarked; “and he developed education in UCD within a very short time as a full, genuine university discipline with a profile of programmes bearing a similarity to that in university schools of education today.” The Jesuits have had strong links with the school of education up to recent times, when David Tuohy lectured there. Below Paul Andrews SJ, who taught there in the 1970s, offers a personal reflection on the Education School’s centenary.


Paul Andrews SJ

This is an incomplete, one-sided, Jesuit view, but at least, dear reader, you know what you’re getting: not a full picture of the school – which would be mainly about the student teachers who went through it – but a brief look at those who ran it, especially in its early days.

It was unwise to get on the wrong side of the first and most durable holder of the chair of education in UCD. He was a Jesuit, Tim Corcoran, a tough Tipperary man of high intelligence (first place in Ireland in the Intermediate exam, first class honours in all his university exams), hugely energetic and determined.

He was Professor from 1909 till his final illness in 1942, and made a profound mark not merely on secondary and primary teachers, but on government educational policy, especially in his insistence that all young children be taught through Irish, though many of their teachers could not speak it properly. His assistant lecturer W.J.Williams languished in Tim’s shadow for years, and was popular with the UCD staff, who felt he deserved the chair after suffering so long. When Tim reluctantly retired, a sick man, the advertisement laid down that his successor should be able to lecture in Irish. Williams did not claim to speak Irish, much less lecture in it.

A memorable row followed, illustrating many of the tensions in Irish society of 1943. There was the lay v cleric tension (the alternative to Williams was Fr Fergal McGrath SJ – though the Jesuits openly backed Williams, and when he applied for the job, McGrath withdrew his application). There was the tension between compulsory Irish and a freer approach. There was Fianna Fail (represented by Tim Corcoran and NUI Chancellor Eamonn De Valera) v Fine Gael (represented by the most influential UCD professors). The students took sides, and a battle was fought in Earlsfort Terrace with hosepipes and stones.

When the NUI Senate met to make the appointment, UCD’s president proposed Williams. De Valera proposed the reluctant Fergal McGrath, claiming that a candidate with Irish should have preference over a candidate without Irish. He held that the University should accept the principle then openly accepted in the Civil Service, that the less qualified candidate with Irish, provided he is genuinely qualified, should have precedence over a better candidate without Irish. The bishop of Galway seconded Dev’s proposal, but the vote went to Williams. He was already a sick man, and retired in 1948.

Another Jesuit, Seán O Catháin, was chosen to succeed Williams, but only as a lecturer – the school had been downgraded through the influence of President Michael Tierney, an old adversary of Tim Corcoran. Seán was upgraded to professor in 1966. After he retired, Paul Andrews was asked to lecture on curriculum and exams. He remembers motorbiking out to Belfield to face 550 Higher Diploma students in a huge lecture hall – and how his heart sank every June at the sight of 550 exam scripts. In those days each paper carried the name of the candidate. Dublin is a small town, and he could identify several of the writers, including students with prominent political names like de Valera and Haughey: not a good system, ripe for change.

The chair of education was vacant again. Though Paul enjoyed the students and liked teaching, he knew he did not want to become an academic. However a group of UCD staff persuaded him to apply. It was interesting to go through the motions of seeking a job which he did not want. He motorbiked round the country showing his face to the members of the Governing Body who would have to vote on him. They put him on the final list of three. After the crucial interview by the selection board, its chairman Desmond Williams (the historian son of old W.J.Williams) wrote him a delightful letter reflecting on the interview: “You were obviously well qualified for the job, but clearly you did not really want it.”

The days of clerical and Jesuit appointments are well behind us. If you Google “UCD School of Education” today, you will find that out of a staff of 21, two thirds are lay women, which reflects nicely their dominance in the teaching profession. There’s a happy ending for you.