The Irish National School Readers
The Irish national school reader collections at Queen’s University Belfast and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum [UFTM] are two of the most comprehensive collections of national school textbooks in Ireland. They were originally produced, published and circulated by the British administration in Dublin in the early nineteenth century under the auspices of the Commissioners of National Education. The books were intended for use in the Irish national school system, founded in 1831. These school readers were utilised throughout Ireland, England, and eventually, other outposts of the British Empire including Canada and Australia. As cultural texts of the period, they shed important light on the political, as well as pedagogic, function of education within the wider British imperial project.
The texts held at Queens and UFTM comprise a wide range of the Irish national readers used throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as showcase the multiple grades in use, from primary to advanced text books. The collections also contain schoolbooks produced by the growing number of publishers working in the field of educational publishing in both Ireland and England, such as Browne and Nolan in Ireland; Longmans, Green & Co in London and Dublin; and Blackie & Son in Dublin and Belfast. Many of these schoolbooks are published with the ‘sanction’ of the Commissioners of National Education, others are independently produced and establish their own school books series which closely imitate the Irish national readers.
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.
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.’