The Irish National School Readers

Fourth Irish Reader

Fourth Irish Reader (c. 1904) Page 27

Many of the texts in the collection also illustrate their personal use by the children that owned them, as well as the ways in which the texts were passed around within and outside family groups often across several decades. Several of the texts are inscribed with children’s names, dates, where the children lived, and sometimes the school they attended. Several texts contain ‘lessons’ written by children into the inside covers of the textbooks, and many contain black and white illustrations that children have coloured in.

Copies of the Irish national reading books can be found in the State Library of New South Wales, as well as in other library collections across Australia. These textbooks were devised as graded primers for reading and arithmetic, but also include a broader range of subjects for the higher grades, including geography, history and British literature. Due to sectarian tensions in Ireland, the Irish national readers adopted a Christian worldview but were strictly non-denominational, which seems to have been a large part of their appeal for use in the colonies and other parts of the UK.

Third Irish Reader

Third Irish Reader (1901) Pages 18 & 19

As Patrick Walsh has noted, the ‘symbolic’ purpose of these texts was just as important, if not more important, than their educative value. The readers were often localised and children were taught about key Irish political figures like Edmund Burke, but the lessons also consistently foregrounded the imperial dominance and reach of the British Empire. Alongside learning about the gold diggings in Australia, for example, children were also inculcated to believe in an assumed superiority over the ‘ignorant savages’ of Australia’s indigenous population. It is only through a Christian education, write the Irish Commissioners in the Fourth Book of Lessons (1859), that ‘civilisation will be extended … into the very heart of this immense country.’