Journal Volume 4 2004

Lead, Kindly Light? Education and the La Touche Family  (continued/4)

Nineteenth Century

The start of the new century brought Ireland under the direct control of the Parliament at Westminster. While four La Touche Members in the Irish Parliament had voted against the Union, the Rt Hon David III (Marlay) had voted for it, even though he feared that business in general and his family’s bank in particular might suffer if MPs moved to London. The bank's fortunes declined in the nineteenth century without the lead of a really fine banker in the family. It was finally closed in 1870, when its assets were merged with the Munster Bank.

Whatever their interest in and ability for banking, some of the La Touche family were directly involved in what turned out to be a very important period in the history of Irish education: the development of the Sunday School movement, the foundation of the National School system and, later in the century, secondary education for girls and their admittance to University.

The general level and standard of education at the start of the new century was poor. It was also haphazard. Wealthy Protestants generally chose to have their children tutored, although older boys were sometimes sent on to boarding school, Eton or Harrow being the favoured choices for the La Touche family. Children of prominent Roman Catholics, such as Daniel O'Connell, were sent to colleges on the Continent to be educated by monks. Most Protestant children attended the local parish schools, set up as part of English policy in Ireland to give instruction in the Protestant Religion as well as the 3 Rs. Not surprisingly, however, most Catholic parents found these schools unacceptable and, anyway, were forbidden by priests to send their children to them. So many Catholic children attended hedge schools, a legacy of penal times. However, the majority of youngsters across the country received no education at all.

The Established Church thought it had a special position and a right to government support in promoting Protestantism, while the Catholic Church, emerging from suppression, felt it was being unfairly treated in not getting financial support for its massive job of educating the Catholic people. Presbyterians too, who had suffered under penal legislation, sought state support for schools of their own tradition.

Lack of education and the discipline that went with it, increasing urbanisation and a rising population, led to lawlessness. There was general concern and agreement that something would have to be done to address the situation. A Government Commission was set up in 1806 to examine the state of education. It recommended that any new system must unite the denominations and protect children against the danger of proselytism. This view and other proposals greatly influenced a group of professional and business men, including Samuel Bewley, a quaker, Arthur Guinness and several La Touches who formed a group and, in 1811, established the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in Ireland. It aimed to set up schools providing elementary education to all Christians without distinction. As the group's meetings were generally held in Kildare Place, Dublin, the organisation became known as the Kildare Place Society.

The Kildare Place Society

The Kildare Place Society, chaired by John David La Touche (Marlay) in 1816, encouraged more than the setting up of new schools and provision of grants to help finance them. Members resolved to make information available and give assistance by way of grants for building school-houses and to provide guidelines as to having properly qualified teachers. The Society was much influenced by Pestalozzi's educational ideas i.e. learning to read by syllables, writing and drawing lines and curves to train the eye and hand, and headline copies. (The first Pestalozzi-method reading and arithmetic charts in Ireland were printed by John Synge. He had been so inspired by Pestalozzi's ideas when on a holiday in Switzerland that, on his return, he set up a special press on his father's estate in Roundwood, Co Wicklow.) Later Kildare Place went on to pioneer teacher training, the publication of text books and the cheap and efficient monitorial system for schools all over the country.

The Sunday School Movement (i)

After the Union, the established church had retained its special position and a right to continued government support in promoting Protestantism. Several members of the La Touche family were among the sixteen “friends of the education of the lower classes”, who in 1806 attended a meeting in the La Touche Bank and decided that it would be beneficial to encourage the growth of weekly schools (Sunday Schools) - first set up in School Street in the latter part of the eighteenth century - and thereby a “wider circulation of the Scriptures”.

From this grew the Hibernian Sunday School Society, later the Sunday School Society of Ireland, among the first guardians of which were Mrs Peter La Touche, John David La Touche and Peter La Touche (junior). The La Touche Bank acted as Treasurers and James Digges La Touche of Sans Souci was appointed its first Secretary in 1809. He was just twenty-one. James' biographer, William Urwick, suggested that the appointment may have been made after James, a gold medallist in Trinity College, Dublin (1808), had written to a cousin in the La Touche Bank where they both worked, for advice as to how he might spend his “vacant hours” from three to five o'clock in the afternoon. Urwick's life of James Digges, published in 1868, made him out to be an ordinary, undistinguished man in both looks and height who just wanted to be good in life and do the best he could. It also rather painted him as being on the road to sainthood. James was also once described “that short little man in the blue coat, his small dark eyes illuminating his pale face” by an observer attending a Sunday School meeting with him.


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