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'Ireland Owes More Than It Will Ever Realise to the Brothers'

Irish Independent, 9 June 2006 by Daire Keogh

THE Christian Brothers were founded in Waterford in 1802 in an effort to provide free education for poor boys along the lines of that offered to girls by Nano Nagle's Presentation sisters.

Their founder, Edmund Rice, was an unusual genius; a 40-year-old widower and the father of a handicapped daughter, who had amassed a fortune in trade and various investments.

Rice combined his religious enthusiasm with this business acumen and very quickly put in place a highly effective system of education based on a combination of the best available pedagogical practices of the day.

Critics rounded on the ethos of the schools, but few could challenge the effectiveness of their teaching. By the time of his death in 1844, the Brothers had 19 foundations in Ireland and almost as many abroad.

In 1920, the Brothers had 30,000 pupils in Ireland, but a massive explosion of student numbers occurred in the 1970s following the introduction of free secondary education.

The Christian Brothers were uncompromising in their attachment to their core values of Catholicism and patriotism. This created serious difficulties for them under British rule, when their withdrawal from the National System of Education in 1838, led to a huge loss of funding which threatened the very existence of their schools.

Yet with characteristic determination, they responded to the challenge, operating a parallel system with its own elaborate textbooks. In 1878, the Brothers' schools received a needed lifeline with the introduction of the system of 'payment by results' for Intermediate students.

In time, their pupils were winning nearly 50pc of the fees payable after the annual examinations. This was a remarkable achievement, given that their boys numbered less than 10pc of the total receiving secondary education in Ireland.

Some would argue, however, that these results were not achieved without costs; a sacrifice of the Brothers' prophetic vision and an over-reliance by them on strict discipline.

Historically, the influence of the Brothers in society greatly exceeded their numbers. Perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on their massive contribution to the nationalist cause, but the fact remains that seven of the 15 men executed as leaders of the 1916 Rising were past pupils of the Brothers.

Eamon de Valera famously acknowledged that debt when, during the centenary of Edmund Rice's death in 1944, he declared that Ireland "owes more than it probably will ever realise to the Christian Brothers".

The Brothers provided leaders for the Irish State and a new bourgeoisie was quick to emerge from among the ranks of their past pupils.

More recently, the public reputation of the Brothers in Ireland and abroad has suffered.

This is due, in part, to Ireland's rejection of their values of 'Faith and Fatherland', but more specifically on account of revelations of the abuse inflicted on children by some members.

Dr Daire Keogh is a lecturer at St Patrick's College