Taking the church out of Irish primary schools

The Catholic Church is patron of almost 90% of primary schools. Can a new reconfiguration plan deliver more choice for parents?

For more than a century parents in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, have had little choice but to send their children to religious-run primary schools. That is all about to change next September.

St Mary's Boys Junior School, a Catholic school founded in 1913, will reopen as Nenagh Community National School.

"There's great interest in the change," says principal John Gunnell. "I'm getting calls from parents in places where we would never be enrolling from. Staff feel very positive about the move; it's very exciting."

The reforms mean the patronage of the school will transfer to the State-owned Tipperary Education and Training Board. The new mixed school will be multidenominational and the sacraments will be taught outside school hours.


The move is part of a wider Department of Education reconfiguration policy aimed at facilitating a more diverse school patronage in eight pilot areas where there are no multidenominational primary schools.

The pilot areas include Arklow, Athlone, Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Galway, Limerick and Youghal. It is the latest attempt to inch forward plans to divest schools from the Catholic Church.

It is estimated that the State owns 5 per cent of primary schools. The Catholic Church, by contrast, controls almost 90 per cent. The State, however, pays teachers and foots the bill for the vast bulk of capital costs involving school buildings.

In the past decade or so, about 20 multidenominational primary schools have been handed over from the church to the State under divestment or reconfiguration programmes.

The Government has committed to improving parental choice by meeting a target of delivering 400 multidenominational primary schools by 2030.

While the reconfiguration plan received a broadly positive welcome initially, some are now questioning key aspects of it – and whether the modest aims will provide any meaningful choice for parents.


Controversially, the new school in Nenagh (or the State) will rent the premises from the church. The ETB will pay an annual rent over the course of 40 years for an undisclosed sum.

The fact that these schools have typically benefited from State-funded upkeep or extensions is a source of anger among some campaigners. The Department of Education and the Catholic Church have declined to say how much could be paid under the plan. There are also concerns about the extent to which parental choice will feature under the plan in areas were Catholic schools will be “reconfigured”.

Multidenominational patron bodies such as Educate Together and an Foras Pátrúnachta, which runs all-Irish schools, say they feel they are being excluded from the new plan. They argue that parents may not have a chance to vote for their preferred school patron.

Critics argue that the existing target isn’t enough and say reconfiguration plans will still leave the vast majority of primary schools – about 88 per cent – under some form of religious control.

The Education Equality campaign group sees divestment as a side issue and believes religious faith formation should not form part of the core curriculum. "While divestment may be helpful to some families in certain areas, it is not the answer. Taken to its logical conclusion, Ireland would end up with a Balkanised – and prohibitively expensive – education system where children are sent to separate schools along religious lines," the group said, in a statement.

Instead, it argues that religious instruction should be offered on an opt-in basis after core hours in all publicly funded schools.


The church’s private ownership of publicly funded schools is another complex factor in the divestment process and the payment of rent by the State is heavily contested.

The Catholic Church in Ireland is rich, with a property portfolio in the billions. For decades their bank balance has been boosted by land and property sales in sought-after areas like Drumcondra, Goatstown, and Blackrock.

Sr Liz Murphy, secretary general of the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland (Amri), says: "It is a bit like downsizing. It is a generational shift." The money, the church argues, is needed to look after ageing clerics and to fulfil various redress schemes.

But their ownership of land is circumscribed by complicated lease arrangements when it comes to national schools. According to the Department of Education: “Ownership and control of school property is a complex issue, both constitutionally and in terms of property law and rights…Local circumstances may vary, and the ownership of each relevant school property will need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.”

Áine Hyland, UCC emeritus professor of education points out that national schools, built up to and including the early 21st century, were almost all vested schools.

The vast majority were vested in trustees (usually for 99 years) under the terms of a tripartite lease to which the Commissioners of National Education (before 1922) or the Minister for Education (after 1922) was a party.

“In almost all cases after about 1850, the land on which the school was built was owned by diocesan trustees [in more recent years the diocesan trustees were replaced by a diocesan trust],” says Hyland.

“The diocesan trust is usually the first party to the lease. The Minister for Education is the second party, and the third party is either the diocesan trust or three named trustees.

“While the diocese owns the land, the school building was grant-aided by the State. The State usually paid between 66 per cent and 95 per cent of the cost of the building.”

However, parish congregations, at home and abroad also funded the Catholic Church’s building projects.

“These building funds supported the development of schools, churches, convents, monasteries and social institutions,” writes UL history lecturer, Dr Niamh NicGhabhann.

According to Irish National Schools Trust, little is being done to control potential financial gains made by the church. It claims these gains, however lawful, break the spirit of historic church/state relations.

Under the Charitable Donations and Bequests (Ireland) Act 1844 a body corporate known as the Commissioners of Charitable Donations and Bequests for Ireland was created to ensure “the more effectual application of charitable donations and bequests in Ireland”.

These commissioners are at the centre of regulating the trusteeships of schools. Their job is to make sure the charitable bodies don’t abuse the trust placed in them by the people.

However, Irish National Schools Trust argues that it has taken many applications from the church, allowing them to sell or move school property for profit, particularly in Dublin where land and property is highly valued.

Given that issues of ownerships are so complex, some feel there is a simpler solution. Karin Fischer, author of Schools and the Politics of Religion and Diversity in the Republic of Ireland: Separate but Equal?, says the situation in Quebec bore an uncanny resemblance to the Irish situation.

In 1998 a new piece of legislation replaced the system of denominational control of schools with new committees or boards. A syllabus of “ethics and religious culture” common to all Quebec schools replaced the former courses on religious and moral education from 2008 onwards.

The Catholic hierarchy broadly accepted the new situation, declaring that the church would fulfil its responsibility for religious education outside the public school network.

Whether there is an appetite among Government, the church and wider society here for a similar solution remains to be seen.

Origins of the non-denominational Irish national school

Ireland’s original plan for national education was non-denominational in nature.

Under the terms of The Stanley Letter (1831) one of the main aims was to unite in one system children of different creeds with an expression of "the necessity of separate religious instruction on the day set apart for the purpose".

In constitutional terms it wasn't until 1965 that schools became truly denominational through "a little-noticed change by the Department of Education in the national school rules" according to Garrett Fitzgerald.

In Article 44.4 new rules declared that the State “gives explicit recognition to the denominational character of primary schools”.

There are 164 multidenominational schools in Ireland and 2,750 Catholic primary schools in Ireland.

The 1995 Constitution Review Group said Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution, which sanctions State funding of denominational schools, was also meant to protect the rights of minorities.

The United Nations and Council of Europe have since made numerous recommendations in relation to human rights violations in the Irish education system.