These were seen as the most exclusive schools for Catholic girls and there were 62 of them in Ireland by the end of the nineteenth century. The most prestigious were those run by European religious congregations with long-established French traditions such as the Sacred Heart (1842), the Faithful Companions of Jesus (1844), St Louis (1859), St Joseph of Cluny (1860), La Sainte Union des Sacres Coeurs (1862), Sacred Heart of Mary (1870) and the Marists (1873). They joined two other European teaching congregations of women already at work in Ireland: the Dominican Sisters (1644) and the Loreto Sisters (1822).
Only six convent boarding schools were run by Irish religious congregations: a Mercy school in Ennis, a Holy Faith school in Glasnevin and four Brigidine schools at Tullow, Mountrath, Abbeyleix and Goresbridge.
Those French congregations which came to Ireland during the nineteenth century did not have to alter their tradition or educational system to any great extent prior to 1880 because, by coincidence, their views corresponded with those of Catholic Ireland on the education of women and their role in society. This French convent tradition was based on the view that girls' second level education should diverge from that of boys since their future lay in different directions. The girls' future role was seen within the family context of wife and mother or within the convent, with a resultant emphasis on the accomplishments and social graces. It was Madeleine Sophie Barat, the founder of the Sacred Heart Order who is credited with the well-known saying that 'to educate a boy means an educated man, to educate a girl means an educated family.'
While French ideas and culture had spread to girls' education in Ireland and England by the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was not until the period 1840-1880, when the majority of French religious congregations had been introduced into Ireland, that French influence on girls' secondary education became a factor of major importance. These French congregations spread to English-speaking countries to gain novices and Ireland was seen as a most suitable spot from this point of view. In coming to Ireland they brought their system of education with them and with little adaptation installed it here.
One such convent boarding school was the St Louis, Monaghan where French was the language of the school in the 1860s. Mother Angela Kehoe who came there as a pupil in 1865 tells how morning and night prayers were said in French and it was the custom to learn off by heart each Sunday the gospel of the day in French. The senior girls' classes were conducted almost entirely in French and pupils soon becoming virtually bi-lingual.
Even though the St Louis nuns had broken with the French mother-house in 1861 and were under the jurisdiction of the local bishop in Co. Monaghan, the French character of the school was still being advertised in 1875:
|After many years experience in directing the education of young ladies in Paris, the Sisters of St. Louis feel confident that their method will meet with the same success in Ireland. At the Boarding School ... the English language in all its branches is carefully taught and French, being the language of the establishment, may be acquired in its purity.
Catholic Directory, 1875.
Politeness and good manners were also stressed together with character formation and religious training.
Kate O'Brien 's Land of spices is a semi-fictional account of her school days at the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ) Boarding School, Laurel Hill, Limerick in the early twentieth century. Here she shows how la politesse was a specialty of the FCJs and how thoroughly education in this area was tackled, especially with regard to table manners. Every Sunday evening, marks were read out for conduct (20); silence (20); politeness (20); exactitude (10); order (10) and application (10). A mark lost for conduct was tantamount to expulsion; 'no one ever remembered it to have happened.'
Day pupils were kept separate from boarders and the fact that the majority of convent boarding schools charged fees ranging from £20 to £40 per annum made them less accessible to girls of limited means. It also helps explain why convent boarding schools retained an aura of being more socially desirable than day schools until the mid-twentieth century.