Women and the university question

The idea of women having a right to higher education was not popular in Ireland. Based on the values of an industrialised society, it was introduced from England by a few women reformers but mainly through Acts of Parliament. There had been no widespread campaign for its introduction in Ireland.

For much of the nineteenth century the political focus was on Catholic claims to a university education rather than on women's right to such an education. Middle-class women, it was believed, should not work or have careers. The Catholic bishops pinned their hopes for the future on an educated middle class. They wanted total equality for male Catholics in the professions which in Ireland were still dominated by Protestants. However, they were concerned with men only.

The university question posed problems in Ireland. How could an endowed university be provided that was acceptable to Catholics? Apart from the University of Dublin (Trinity College) which catered almost exclusively for Protestants, there were three Queen's Colleges, established by the State in 1845 in Cork, Galway and Belfast. These 'godless' colleges were un-denominational and therefore unacceptable to the Catholic bishops who forbade Catholic students to attend. In 1854 the bishops set up their own Catholic University of Ireland (known as University College) with John Henry Newman as first Rector. It could not gain a charter from the government because of its denominational character and this meant that its degrees were not recognised.


  1. Women's right to higher _____ was not a _____ issue in nineteenth century Ireland. The focus was mainly on Catholic ____ to a _____ education.
  2. Why was there no popular demand for women's right to higher education in Ireland for much of the nineteenth century?


  1. Research the history of the University of Dublin, the Queen's Colleges or the Catholic University of Ireland.
  2. Write a brief article suitable for publication in 1855 designed to persuade state and church authorities that the time has come to grant equal rights to university education to women.


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