The reform of convent education in Ireland, 1885-1910

Although the majority of convent schools remained outside the Intermediate system in the latter half of the 1880s, the hope of gaining permanent careers for girls, the desire to prove that they were capable of beating the Protestant girls' schools, and the competitive system itself, became irresistible forces. Gradually Mathematics and Latin were introduced into girls' schools.

Dominican College, Eccles Street, Dublin which had opened a secondary school in 1883, entered three pupils privately for the Intermediate examinations in 1884. University classes were started in 1885 which ensured that Latin and Mathematics were on the curriculum of the secondary school in addition to the more usual convent subjects. Although its university classes ended in 1893 when St. Mary's University College was started in Merrion Square, Dublin, it is significant that it was Dominican College, Eccles Street which was the first convent school to gain first overall place in the Prizewinners' List of 1901.

The Ursuline Sisters founded St. Angela's High School, Cork in 1887, geared specifically to the requirements of the Intermediate and Royal University of Ireland examinations. A year later, Mary Ryan, one of their students gained first place in Ireland in the Junior Grade with a total of twelve subjects: English, French, Arithmetic, drawing, Music, Domestic Economy, Latin, Euclid, Algebra, Natural Philosophy, Botany and Bookkeeping. She went on to repeat this success in Middle Grade (1890), taking second place in Senior Grade in 1891.

Publication of examination results in the newspapers heightened the competition between Protestant and Catholic schools and colleges and this all too often took on a denominational character. The first outstanding university success won by a student from a convent school came in 1892 when Katherine Murphy was awarded first place in the Royal University of Ireland examination in Modern Literature with a studentship prize worth £300. She had been educated in the Dominican Convents of Sion Hill and Eccles Street, Dublin. Her success was seen as a Catholic victory and a vindication in general of convent education.

We do not wish to make any ungenerous comparisons but at a time when it is not unusual to suggest that the convent schools are unequal to a programme of higher education, it cannot be uncalled for to state the fact that on this first occasion when the Alexandra College and a convent school came into open competition for the great prize in connection with the examination for the highest degree in Arts, the convent remains the victor.'
Freeman's Journal, 29 October 1892.

Sister Laurentia, a St Louis nun, in her memoirs stated that when she became a boarder at the St Louis Convent School, Monaghan in 1897 at the age of 13, the pupils were urged to aim at replacing Protestant supremacy in the exhibition lists. She remembered that the Middle Grade and Senior Grade students got up 'voluntarily' around 5 a.m. for months before the examination. Sister M. Raphael would appear around 6 a.m. with a plate of bread and jam for the students and in 1899 their school achieved its greatest triumph, by gaining second place in Ireland with 36 distinctions.

New career opportunities opening up to Irish girls in the period 1880-1910 also helped change the climate of opinion. Due to the high percentage of unmarried women (48%) aged 15 years and upwards in Ireland, employment for many women was not just a matter of choice but a necessity. The Post Office opened up the first real opportunities for girls of ability to obtain clerical jobs on a purely competitive basis. The census returns show a great increase in the number of women civil servants in Ireland: from 1,103 in 1881 to 2,984 in 1911. This in turn highlighted the need for a good secondary or Intermediate education and helped raise standards.

Convent school courses changed radically during the period 1885-1901. The reports of the Temporary Inspectors in 1901 revealed a remarkable achievement. Out of 48 convent schools inspected, Mathematics was taken by 94% and Latin by 67%.

Change in the teaching of the Irish language was much slower, partly due to the fact that 'Celtic' was given a very low rating (600 marks) and partly because there were few women teachers who could teach this subject. During the 1880s and early 1890s, only a few girls featured on the Results Lists of the Intermediate Board for Celtic compared with hundreds of boys for the same period. The St Louis Convent, Monaghan became one of the first convent schools to take Celtic in the Intermediate examinations in 1895. Together with the Christian Brothers they remained the mainstay of Celtic in these examinations. Even as late as 1900, in a period of growing national consciousness, only 80 girls passed the Intermediate examination in Celtic out of a total of 473 students.

Nonetheless Sister Raphael Nugent's remark in a letter to Eoin McNeill in 1900 that 'to-day the conversation at the boarders' dinner-table was carried on in Irish' gives some indication of the enormous changes which had come about in this school since the 1860s when French was then the language spoken at table.


  1. How did competition help change education in convent schools in the 1880s?

  2. List some of the problems convent schools faced in the years 1878-1885.

  3. Discuss some of the most important changes in convent school education that occurred between 1870 and 1901.


  1. Research any school which was involved in the reform of girls' education in the later nineteenth century.

  2. Interview an older person about life in boarding school.
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