The fee-paying day pension schools of the Mercy and Presentation Sisters represented the only new initiative on girls' second level education to come from within Ireland during the nineteenth century. By 1879 there were 46 convent pension schools (37 Mercy and 9 Presentation) in many of the more prosperous towns of Ireland.
The National School system was, as already explained, the dominant force in girls' education in nineteenth-century Ireland. Not surprisingly this system destroyed any possibility that the Convent Pension Schools might become separate second-level schools. Both types of school, particularly in the period 1836-1880, catered for the age range 5 to 16 years and were essentially middle class. Both were so closely intertwined that it is very difficult at times to separate the two.
These were the only schools which gave Catholic girls the opportunity to move upwards in society, catering as they did for both their primary and secondary education. When the Intermediate examination system was introduced in 1878, a clearer definition of girls' secondary education emerged. As a result, convent national schools began to assume their proper role as feeders to convent pension schools, instead of competing with them for pupils. It was then in the period 1880-1910, that the secondary school system for girls only gradually began to evolve into the structured system we know today.
The Special Report on Convent Schools (1864) showed that the girls who attended convent schools were usually the daughters of small farmers and small shopkeepers, whose increased prosperity should have ensured their growth. Yet their numbers remained small during the nineteenth century, partly due to the fact that they were fee-paying. This rendered them less popular than the Christian Brothers Schools, which catered for the majority of Irish boys in the towns and cities of Ireland.
Irish Catholic education became very influential overseas. A remarkable feature of both Mercy and Presentation pay schools was the considerable impact they made on the education of Catholic girls abroad. At a time when most of the new ideas on girls' education in Ireland had come from abroad, the convent pension schools of both these orders were providing new educational opportunities for girls in Australia, New Zealand and America. Both the Mercy and Presentation orders had pension schools established in these areas by the 1870s and this continued into the twentieth century.
One very famous and unlikely past-pupil of this educational system was the feminist Germaine Greer who stated,
|The Presentation Order, whose creature I am, was founded in 1775 by an Irish gentle woman called Nano Nagle, to teach Irish children their faith in defiance of the English ... We were never allowed to forget that Catholic parents paid their taxes for the education of non-Catholic children and then had to pay for their children's schooling, or that our Catholic education was only possible because nuns had no property and lived in communal frugality. As Nano was an heiress, so might they all have been, for every nun had the manners of a queen and strove to impart the same to us all, but somehow the nuns provided for those whose families could not manage and the rest of us were never the wiser. Some of the girls were the daughters of rich men but we never knew who. Nobody thought to inquire. A goodly proportion of the high fliers were scholarship girls but the fact was never singled out for comment.
Sunday Times, 3 April 1983.
As Greer shows these nuns were determined to give girls of ability the chance to gain scholarships and to be educated to the highest level:
|If it hadn't been for the nuns I might well have gone to secretarial college, had streaks put in my hair and married a stockbroker. Certainly my family never intended that I should do anything else. Throughout my secondary school years the demented parent (the only one of the two who had anything to say to me at all) ranted continually about how I should have learnt typing and shorthand, got some pretty clothes and brought some money into the house. If only the nuns hadn't put ideas into my head.The nuns picked me out when I was still a tad, groomed me for a scholarship to a cramming school run by their community where I was duly crammed to bursting, so that I got the next in the series of scholarships and was wafted to the Star of the Sea Convent, Gardenvale.
Germaine Greer quoted in Sunday Times, 3 April 1983
as a student