HC Deb 25 March 1824 vol 10 cc1399-413
Sir John Newport

rose for the purpose of calling the attention of the House to a subject of considerable importance, namely, the state of Education in Ireland: and he could assure them, that if he thought it would require any display of eloquence to enforce its necessity, he should most willingly have resigned it to some individual more competent than himself. But he believed that whatever difference of opinion might exist as to the mode of accomplishing the object, there could be but one feeling as to the great and important advantages that must arise from the diffusion of education in Ireland. He should therefore proceed, in the first instance, to state in detail the progress which had been already made; and he should next state the course which it appeared to him advisable to adopt, with a view to render more efficient the funds which parliament had already granted, and the money which had been devoted by private bequests, to accomplish an object of such paramount importance, to the community at large. He said of "paramount importance," because he was sure all men must admit, that the education of the great body of the people must be conducive to the general welfare.

In stating to the House what it was his intention to propose for their adoption, it would be seen that he had to deal with a question of the most delicate nature, which was beset with difficulties, in consequence of the conflicting opinions of people who were divided by religious tenets, and he should therefore most studiously abstain from any observation that could possibly lead to any acrimonious feeling. He could assure the House, that he felt he was discharging a duty of the most serious importance, and he conceived, that none could be more essential, either to the interests of the public generally, or the more sacred cause which he had in view, than a strict avoidance of every topic that could exasperate the feelings or impute blame to any body of men." In any effort of his to promote his object, he should censure no man, because he was persuaded, that whatever impropriety might have arisen in the course which had been followed, was not occasioned by any unworthy feeling; and sensible as he was how liable he was himself to errors he should avoid imputing blame to others.

He should take the liberty of stating what parliament had already done on this subject; for, although he was sensible that such a course must be uninteresting to those who had looked into the subject, still he thought it would be necessary, as he was addressing many gentlemen whose different pursuits and various occupations had not allowed them to bestow much consideration upon it. He therefore trusted the House would excuse him whilst he trespassed upon their attention for a few moments. So long back as the year 1787, five years after that memorable period when the Irish parliament had asserted their independence, the public attention was drawn to this object. This circumstance he mentioned with a view to shew, that, at the moment the parliament had fully established their independence, they turned their thoughts to a subject which appeared to them so important. In the month of January, 1787, his grace the duke of Rutland, the then lord lieutenant of Ireland, in his speech to the Irish parliament, in calling their attention to the subject, made use of these words:—"And I hope that some liberal and extensive plan for the general improvement of education will be matured for an early execution." Accordingly, on the 16th of April afterwards, the subject was taken into consideration, and an act was passed, appointing a commission to take into consideration "the general condition of all the schools in Ireland, the funds thereof, together with all the abuses that had taken place in the government and management thereof." However, down to the year 1796, no further steps were taken, and thus the measure of inquiry proved abortive; and he really was surprised how a subject which had been taken up so warmly could have been so easily abandoned. He believed the truth was, that such was the state of parties, and with so many difficulties was the question beset, it was not considered advisable to proceed further; but, if the commissioners had gone on with the examination, he believed, it would have been found that great abuses had taken place. However, nothing was done, and matters continued in this state until the year 1806.

He trusted, in what he was now going to state, it would not be supposed that he meant to assume to himself any merit for the course he had pursued; for, had any other person been placed in the situation which he then filled, the subject might have been taken up in the same manner. However, previous to his coming into office, in 1806, a copy of the minutes of evidence taken before the commissioners appointed under the act of parliament had fallen into his hands, which contained an account of great abuses in the management of the schools which were supported by royal donations, as well as those which were maintained by private funds, and he had felt it his duty to lay the statement before the lord lieutenant. His excellency considered the subject of paramount importance, and, accordingly, a bill was passed for the appointment of a commission; six to be nominated by the lord lieutenant, and five by the commissioners of charitable donations, who consisted of the archbishops and bishops of Ireland and other Ecclesiastics; and it was considered, that a mixture of lay and ecclesiastical commissioners would be the most prudent course to adopt; at the head of the lay commissioners stood first in order, as he always stood foremost on all occasions, in which the interests and happiness of Ireland were concerned, he meant his late lamented and never to be forgotten friend, Henry Grattan [Loud cheers]. It was only necessary to mention his name to convey to the House an idea of the character of those who were selected for the inquiry. Several reports were drawn up from time to time, but they were all delivered in between the years 1809 and 1812, and considerable labour was bestowed in drawing them up, as well as receiving evidence; for they contained twelve appendixes. They developed considerable abuses, and recommended various remedies.

But, it was to the fourteenth report that he principally wished to direct the attention of the House, because it contained the real principles upon which, as it appeared to him, the education of the people of Ireland should be founded. The right hon. baronet then read several extracts from the fourteenth report, stating, that the commissioners had applied their efforts to frame a system of education for all classes of the people, keeping clear of the religious tenets of any; and that the true system was, to treat them all as one undivided body. It certainly was most desirable, and the reasons would at once strike the House, that such a course should be adopted. They should keep clear of the religious tenets of all classes, and avoid not only the reality, but even the appearance of proselytism. It was of the first importance that education should be free from all interference on religious subjects; and when the minds of men had been formed by education, they would best be able to judge of the merits of any particular creed [hear hear]. Now, it was quite manifest that education should be had on the most moderate terms. Any person who had turned his attention to this subject, must have found how indisposed the people of Ireland were to receive gratuitous instruction. The poorest labourer in that country would rather pay for the education of his child out of his own hard earnings, than accept the benefit of gratuitous instruction. If then, that was the honourable feeling of the people of that country, surely it was incumbent on the legislature to secure to them the opportunity of receiving the education which they required, on the most reasonable terms, and it was quite obvious how great an anxiety prevailed on the part of the people to receive it [hear, hear]. The right hon. baronet next referred to the opinion of Mr. Grattan * as to the system which should be acted upon with respect to religious instruction. It was the opinion of Mr. Grattan, that in all the schools the christian religion should be taught, but no particular form of it. Children should be instructed in the four great moral duties—their duty to God, their duty to their neighbour, their duty to their country, their duty to the government. These he considered sound and excellent principles keeping clear of all proselytism, and studiously avoiding all interference.

It would be found upon inquiry that in the schools which had royal endowments, there were very few free scholars on the foundation. There were six in one, thirteen in another, and nine in a third. The funds which they possessed were very considerable indeed, and he was sorry to say, that the rate of tuition was considerable also; and he was sure the House would agree with him, that in schools, which "had funds amounting to 700l. and to 1000l. a year, twelve guineas a year was too much to be paid by the day scholars. If there had been no separate establishment at all, that sum would be as much as they could expect from day scholars; and the consequence of these high terms was, that a vast portion of the people were excluded from the benefit of education. He owned he was disposed to think, and in that opinion he was supported by some of the ablest writers on education, that, so far from supposing that masters of schools should have large incomes independent of their scholars, it checked the improvement which it was meant to extend. In like manner, in the Diocesan schools, there were very unequal incomes. The school of Deny had 900l. a year; and upon this subject he could not avoid bearing his testimony to the praiseworthy conduct of the London companies, and particularly the drapers' and fishmongers' companies, who deserved the highest honour for the manner in which they managed their estates in the north of Ireland. A report had been drawn up by the drapers' company, which would do honour to the pen of any statesman that ever lived; and in this assertion he was borne out by his noble friend, the chancellor of the University of Oxford (lord Grenville), to * Appendix B, to 14th report. whom he had had the honour of sending the report, and on returning it, his noble friend had stated, that "the Report does the highest honour to the body from which it emanates; and it is a proud consideration for this country, that a body of men so situated, not attending to their own local interests, but the general welfare of the community, should inculcate principles which would do honour to the head of any statesman" [hear hear]. A new system of school had lately been introduced into Ireland, he meant the "farming school," which was established in the county of Wexford, which he thought would be productive of great advantages, if it should obtain a more general extension. A report of its proceedings had been made to the "farming society," a copy of which, at his suggestion, had been ordered by the House to be laid upon the table. In a country, the greater portion of which was agricultural, such an institution could not fail to produce much good. He was afraid that, from various causes, considerable uneasiness was felt at the jealousy and distrust which was manifested at the extension of education in Ireland. Now, he would take the liberty to state, that it would be not only advisable, but just, to make some allowance for this jealousy and distrust. It should not be forgotten, that they proposed to educate a people, the majority of whom were of a different religious creed from themselves; and it was by no means unnatural, that they should regard with jealousy the views and proceedings of those who undertook to provide them instruction. And he must say, that those who considered the matter fairly and candidly, would do well to make some allowances; and the great object of the legislature should be, if they could not wholly remove, at least to abate this jealousy as much as possible.

He trusted, that in any thing he had said, no observation had fallen from him that was calculated to increase the acrimony which he feared existed; if so, he could assure the House, that nothing on earth was further from his purpose. His great object was to control and allay, not to augment the feeling which at present existed. In addition to the statements which he had made, he must inform, the House, that many schools had been founded by the private donations of Roman Catholics. In the city which he had the honour to represent, there was an individual who was entitled to the highest praise, for his exertions on this subject. He had been originally a butcher, and afterwards became a drover, and having realised a considerable property, devoted, not a part, but the whole of his income to promote the cause of education—[cheers]. The right hon. baronet then went into some details respecting the Roman Catholic schools in the dioceses of Cloyne and Tuam, and proceeded to state that he had entered into these particulars for the purpose of shewing what had been done. That much remained still to be done, all were agreed; and that in any further steps that might be adopted, all collision of religious feelings should be studiously avoided, was a desideratum which he trusted the legislature would attain. With that view he meant to conclude the observations he had to make, with proposing an Address to the Crown for the appointment of a commission to proceed to Ireland, to inquire into all the circumstances connected with the system of Education in that country. There were two modes that might have been adopted: the one was the appointment of a committee of that House; the other a commission to examine the subject on the spot, and report their opinion, as to the best means of carrying into effect the intentions of the legislature. That there were advantages and disadvantages attendant upon either course, no man would deny; but you cannot purchase any great advantage without also taking the disadvantages with which it was accompanied. A committee of that House would certainly excite more attention than a commission. Commissioners on the spot would have the opportunity of investigating into all the details much more fully than any committee of the House. On a question so deeply involving the dearest interests of the community, it appeared to him impossible that any government intrusted with the protection of those interests should feel indisposed to give its support and sanction to such an inquiry. When he recollected what had been effected by the two commissions appointed to inquire into the nature and extent of the abuses in the courts of justice, and in the collection of the revenues in Ireland, he felt the fullest conviction that a commission similarly constituted would be productive of the most essential benefits to the public. The abuses developed by the commission on the Irish revenue proved what could be effected by energy and perseverance. The commissioners had probed the existing abuses to the very bottom, and their reports were the best proofs of their unremitting industry in the performance of their duty, as those evils were deeply rooted in the system. In drawing up these reports, and carrying the whole proceeding to its completion, they had fulfilled the object of their appointment, in a manner that reflected the highest credit on themselves, and impart ed a permanent service to the country.—It only remained for him to return to the House, his sincere thanks for the kind attention it had given to his statement, which, under the deepest sense of its importance, he had felt it his duty to submit to its consideration. The right hon. baronet, amidst loud cheers, concluded with moving.

"That an humble address be presented to his Majesty that he will be graciously pleased to issue a commission under the great seal, for inquiring into the nature and extent of the instruction afforded by the several institutions in Ireland established for the purpose of Education, and maintained, either in whole or in part, from the public funds; for inquiring into the state of the diocesan and district schools, and the nature of the instruction there given; for ascertaining whether any and what regulations may be fit to be established with respect to the parochial schools; and for reporting as to the measures which can be adopted for extending generally to all classes of the people the benefits of Education; and that his Majesty will be pleased to direct the proceedings of such commission to be laid before parliament."

Mr. Goulburn

observed, that there was so much of candour and temperance in the speech of the right hon. baronet; he had introduced his most important motion in such a judicious and conciliatory manner, that he only wished that, in returning his thanks to the right hon. baronet, those thanks proceeded from an individual possessing a more prominent station, and higher influence. Most sincerely he concurred with the right hon. baronet as to the importance of the subject; as to the great value of building up a system of amelioration and improvement in Ireland, on the solid foundation of a general system of public education, and by such an exertion placing the humbler classes of the Irish community on a level with the people of Great Britain. He entirely agreed with the right hon. baronet, that education in that country should be extended as widely as possible, conducted on Christian principles, and avoiding all attempts at proselytism. With respect to any attempt of that kind, he felt justified in saying, that, under the existing system of national education in Ireland, it was generally avoided. He did not mean to say, that in such a variety of schools, through so great an extent of country, there might not have occurred instances, where the over-zeal of some, or the mischievous interference of others, had made such endeavours. But, as a general principle, he felt warranted in saying, that all efforts at proselytism were deprecated. The right hon. baronet had, therefore, acted most wisely in forbearing, on the present occasion, to go into a statement of those exceptions. Having made these general observations, and impressed with the convictions, that without reference to political attachments, all sides of the House were most solicitous to carry the great object into effect, he felt that to enter into any details after the judicious speech, of the right hon. baronet, might only lead to an interruption to that general concurrence, with which the House appeared, disposed to receive the proposition. He should, however, bear testimony to the fact, that there existed at that moment, as there ever did exist in Ireland, the greatest anxiety on the part of the people, to avail themselves of that invaluable blessing. He knew with what liberality parliament was disposed to afford the means of realizing the gratification; and that there existed in Ireland a number of individuals, of the highest consideration and influence, who most unremittingly laboured to give effect to the wishes of the people and the liberality of the legislature. Education had already made a considerable progress; and though he knew the solicitude of the people on that head was not of a recent date, yet if he now augured more favourably as to its increasing progress, it was because the subject had of late years been brought more to the notice of the higher orders of society in that country. So impressed were they with its paramount necessity, that he anticipated that the completion would not be long delayed, of a comprehensive plan, which should have for its object the diffusion of knowledge among their less-enlightened fellow-countrymen.

Mr. John Smith

said, that particular circumstances had brought to his knowledge facts, which it was his intention to have alluded to on the present discussion; but, after the concession of the hon. secretary for Ireland—a concession which he considered a proof of the liberality of his majesty's government—he should not intrude any statement upon the unanimity of the House. However, he must be permitted to express his surprise, that having heard some years ago, one of the most able and eloquent speeches from the right hon. secretary opposite (Mr. Peel), on the necessity of a comprehensive system of education in Ireland, that nothing had followed such an enlightened recommendation on the part of his majesty's government. At least he might be allowed to say, that the fruits of such apian were not visible, in the increasing tranquillity and good order of the lower classes in that country. For his part—and he said so after the fullest conviction—he could not understand how any government could overlook that great duty it owed the public, by not attending to the instruction of the poor. He would endeavour to establish the cogency of that duty, by a very familiar illustration. We felt it necessary, whether for the purposes of interest or pleasure, to prepare our horses or dogs for the services we expected from them, by a previous discipline aad training. Man alone was left in a state of total ignorance, a prey to his own unruly passions; and yet, strange to say, from him, thus abandoned, we exacted a complete obedience to the ordinances of society. Without previous instruction, he was expected to be subjected to our laws, or he was hanged or transported. So long as he had a voice, he would contend, that a government which withheld instruction from the great class of the people, had no right to make them amenable to its bloody and ferocious code. He should have preferred a committee of that House to investigate the great subject connected with the funds applicable to the education of the Irish people, rather than a commission. In a committee, the House would obtain "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." A commission, he feared, would never get at the bottom of the subject. But, before a committee, he must be a most able witness who could conceal the truth, from fourteen or fifteen able members adapting their questions to the objects of the investiga- tion. How far, under existing circumstances, it was practicable to extend education amongst the poor of Ireland he should not say, without further information. But he feared that inquiry would furnish such proofs of existing ignorance and wretchedness amongst the poor of that part of the kingdom, as, if clearly exhibited to that House, would, he was persuaded, render it the earnest wish and immediate employment of every member, no matter on which side of the House he sat, to provide an effectual remedy. We were actively and creditably engaged in extending our benevolence far and wide. The black population of the West-India colonies had attracted the attention of the country, and of the legislature. It was therefore the more inexplicable, that we had so long overlooked the condition of a people with whom we were so closely and intimately connected as the inhabitants of Ireland. In the present state of the world, it was impossible that we could get on without some real and comprehensive remedy for the evils that so long afflicted that country. The first great feature in that system of amelioration should be a general system of education. After the benefits of such a course began to develope themselves, other measures must follow, which should impart to the people a full participation in all the rights and privileges of the constitution. He should not at the present moment, speak of the constitution of the proposed commission, but the House must feel that every thing depended on the manner in which it was constituted. He sincerely hoped that it would be composed of individuals, selected, not because they possessed the confidence of his majesty's ministers only, but because they possessed the confidence of the whole House. They should be persons, who were disposed to sift the subject thoroughly; who would ascertain how the funds, destined for education, were applied; and who were competent to report to the House their views of a full and comprehensive system of education.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that though there was no member in that House more impressed with the importance of the question, as it related to the necessity of educating the people of Ireland, yet, after the speeches of the right hon. baronet, and of his honourable friend the secretary for Ireland, he should not have offered a single observation, had it not been for what had fallen from the hon. member opposite. That hon. gentleman had alluded to a speech, made by him several years ago, recommending to that House the pressing necessity of education in Ireland. He could assure that hon. gentleman, that the sentiments he then uttered he felt most sincerely, and the same sentiments he now entertained. The hon. member, however, had observed, that he recognized no measures in consequence of that speech; at least that the fruits of such a system were not to be traced, in the tranquillity and good order of the lower classes of the Irish population. Now, even if it were true that no improvement had taken place since the year 1814, he still thought that such a result should not induce the advocates of education to despair. But, the fact was otherwise. Education had not been neglected, and its progress had been considerable. And* without assuming to himself any undue credit, he thought he might fairly add, that he had not neglected to act upon the opinions which he had supported in 1814. In the next year, he had introduced a bill, having for its object to appoint a commission for the avowed purpose of correcting the abuses which existed in the endowed schools in Ireland. That commission made fourteen reports; the first thirteen referred to the abuses that were found to exist; the fourteenth gave a new plan of education, calculated, in the judgment of the commissioners, to meet the condition of the great body of the Irish population. That he had no wish to disguise the existing evils, but to provide a remedy for them, was evident from the very preamble of the act itself. He was free to confess, that with respect to any general plan, whatever his wishes were, they were qualified by the fear, that the solicitude to do too much might be productive of mischief. He was afraid that in the then existing state of public feeling in Ireland, to attempt by any broad legislative measure, to interfere with the education of the people would have been attended with considerable irritation; that alarm, anxiety, and, jealousy, would have been the result. But, within one year after the speech alluded to, the subject of education was taken up unostentatiously by himself, and his right hon. friend near him (Mr. V. Fitzgerald), then filling the office of chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland. An association of men of the highest distinction, and of all religious persuasions, was formed for that purpose. It was founded on the principles of a Christian education, disavowing all attempts at proselytism. It was the anxious wish to bring together both the Protestant and Catholic children in their earliest infancy, under the natural and laudable presumption, that the bond of attachment, formed under such attractive circumstances, would consolidate the relations of mature life, and eventually lead to reciprocal conciliation and kindness. The education as he said before, was founded on the broad principles of Christianity leaving, however, to the pastors of the respective religions to instruct the children of their persuasion in the doctrinal parts of their religion. In three years after the formation of that society in Dublin, the number of schools was 320. In 1821, they amounted to 530; in 1822, to 727; and last year, there were flowing out of that association no less than 1100 schools in different parts of Ireland. Surely these undisputed facts were a sufficient proof that the advantages to be derived from the education of the Irish poor had not been neglected [hear!]. He could not sit down without expressing his full concurrence in the address that had been moved for the appointment of a commission. It was of importance that parliament should be assured of the progress that education had already made. Let it see to what extent it had been carried. Let every information be afforded, to ascertain whether the system could be amended; and it was desirable to have the reports of commissioners who were qualified to recommend the best means of extending it. As to the appointment of the individuals qualified to act as commissioners in such an important investigation, he begged to assure the House, that those whose duty it would be to advise the Crown, were not unconscious of the severe responsibility, and that he trusted the commission would be constituted in a manner to insure its efficiency, and to obtain the general satisfaction of that House and of the country.

Mr. Brownlow

said, he was one of those who felt that there was no hope for the prosperity of Ireland, until the most liberal and comprehensive system of educating the great body of its population was acted upon, under the sanction and protection Of his majesty's government. He trusted that few men could be found without the doors of parliament—he hoped not a man had crossed the threshold of that House— who was not a friend to education in the abstract. He knew that an opinion existed in some minds that Ireland from circumstances, was an exception to the general rule. Had such persons witnessed what he had had the gratification of seeing at the last anniversary of the St. Patrick's charity, they would have been furnished with abundant reasons for altering such impressions. Any man who had on that day seen the children of that charity, selected from the most indigent of the Irish population in this metropolis, must have been persuaded, that in place of Ireland constituting an exception to the general principle of the inestimable value of a diffusive education, that people would become the brightest illustration, as they most needed it, of the value of such a system of improvement. It had been well said, that no other system could possibly be beneficial than that by which the Catholic and the Protestant were brought together in the same school. To any system different from that he was decidedly hostile. Nor could he consent, that the instruction of the people should be placed on any other basis than that of religion. He would never consent that the instruction of the people should be placed on the basis of a specious morality. Whatever might have been said by some writers, such as Mr. Hume and others, who insisted upon morality, to the exclusion of religion, he was convinced that no system of education would thrive, from which was excluded that knowledge which was the beginning of all true wisdom. The Catholic bishops in the petition which they had presented to the House, while they protested against the use of the bible in the schools, without note or comment, declared also, that they were averse to the separation of literary from religious instruction. In the latter sentiment he entirely agreed with them. It must be the object of the proposed commission, to ascertain how far both questions might be satisfactorily arranged. If it should appear that the use of the Scriptures, without note or comment, was insuperably objectionable to the Catholics he should certainly be disposed to wave their use as a class book or primer; although in no other way. But if this concession were made on the part of the Protestants, some concession ought naturally to be expected on the part of the Catholics. These were points to which the commission would have to attend. They would see what neutral ground could be taken on which both parties might amicably meet. For his own part, he desired no concession: he desired no proselytism. He had often said, that he believed a Roman Catholic subject was just as good as a Protestant subject. He could not sit down withot uexpressing his acknowledgments to the hon. baronet by whom the present motion had been made. The right hon. baronet's exertions that night were only a part of the long train of efforts by which he had endeavoured to serve his beloved country. Approving as he did of the right hon. baronet's views on this subject, he trusted that the mode in which those views would be carried into execution would prove highly beneficial to Ireland. The motion was then agreed to.