The Kildare Place Society, known officially as the Society for the Promotion of the Education of the Poor of Ireland, is formed on December 2, 1811, to maintain non-denominational schools and to promote the education of the poor. It is the most successful of all the voluntary educational agencies founded in the years prior to the establishment of the National Board of Education in 1831.
Set up in 1811 explicitly to cater to the demand for education among the Catholic poor, the Kildare Place Society aims to provide a Bible-based but non-denominational education that is acceptable to Catholics. In 1816 the society petitions the Parliament of the United Kingdom and is awarded 10,000 pounds, an amount that is greatly increased over the following decade. This money allows the society to spread across the country and to establish the rudiments of a national system of primary education. The society aims to modernize the teaching profession with a training college and an inspectorate, decent schoolhouses, and regular salaries for teachers. It also produces reading material aimed at a popular audience, which competes very favorably with the much-derided chapbooks that are the staple of popular reading material at the time.
Despite the commitment of the founders, many of whom are members of the Society of Friends, to respect denominational differences, and despite the allocation of seats for Catholics on the board of trustees, the society is increasingly drawn into quarrels over the use of the Protestant Bible for educational purposes during the second decade of the 19th century.
Particularly significant is the influence of the evangelical members of the board, especially Chief Justice Thomas Lefroy, who insists on the compulsory use of the Bible “without note or comment” in the Kildare Place schools. This measure is openly and stridently criticized by the Reverend John MacHale in the famous Hierophilus Letters of 1820 and is the immediate cause of the resignations of Daniel O’Connell and Valentine Lawless, 2nd Baron Cloncurry from the society’s board in 1821. This gesture is followed in short order by directives to Catholic parents to withdraw their children from the schools.
The substance of O’Connell’s and MacHale’s attacks on the Kildare Place Society is that its policies are in line with the more overtly proselytizing societies associated with the “Second Reformation” and are therefore unsuitable for Catholic children. The society does not survive the challenge. As a result of the ideological conflict over education, the government inaugurates a series of inquiries to determine what kind of educational system would be acceptable to the different denominations in Ireland, and the outcome is the establishment of the National Board of Education in 1831. Although the Kildare Place Society continues its work into the 1830s, its school system suffers an inevitable decline with the spread of the new national system.
(Pictured: The main offices of the Kildare Place Society in Kildare Place, Dublin)