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Unlikely Radicals, Irish Post-Primary Teachers and the ASTI 1909-2009 by John Cunningham

Reviewer: Michael Geaney*

The Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) commissioned Dr. John Cunningham, a lecturer in the history department of NUI Galway, to write a history to mark the hundredth anniversary of that organisation in 2009. Prof. John Coolahan had performed a similar task by similar commission for the 75th anniversary in 1984. Both are commendable works in their scholarship, detail, insight and illumination of the history of the ASTI in Ireland since the early 20th Century.

From the outset, one has to have an eye for the fact that, as a commissioned work, it must to some degree aim to please the commissioners. Also, the sub-title is misleading in that the book is a history of the ASTI and its members and only makes incidental reference to other post-primary teachers and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI). Throughout the book Cunningham’s narrative is liberally interspersed with original documentation - personal accounts, letters and correspondence, union and branch minutes, personal interviews - evidence of the thoroughness of his research.

In the early years of the 20th century, second-level lay teachers, not large in numbers, had very low professional status, very poor conditions of employment and wages averaging £48 per annum for women and £82 per annum for men. The ASTI was founded on St. Patrick’s Day 1909 at a meeting in Cork on an invitation issued by the lay teachers of St. Colman’s College, Fermoy. They were encouraged in this by the existence of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) since 1868 and the latter organisation’s achievement of a fixed salary scale and better conditions of service for their members. Three key aims were developed in the early years of the ASTI: 1. to achieve a system of registration for qualified secondary teachers which would establish them professionally; 2. to gain an improvement in existing salaries with a proper salary scale and pension scheme; 3. to attain permanence of contract. The intention was to establish an organisation which would raise the status of its members within society as properly remunerated and respected middle-class professionals.

From the beginning the Association found itself caught in the struggle for control of education between the Catholic Church and the State - first the British and later the Irish State. Cunningham’s quotation of Rev. Corcoran S.J., first professor of education at University College Dublin and a highly-influential churchman, gives some flavour of the Church view: “On issues of Catholic education, there is no appeal to the civil state, least of all here in Ireland, where our schools have, by all historic tradition, their title to existence from the Catholic Church alone, and not from any civil power”. This tension runs right through the history of the Association; through its first strike in 1920, through its struggles to achieve each of its key aims in every decade of its existence. It is clear that, in each of the battles which the ASTI had to wage, the Catholic Church had a significant say in what the Association could achieve and in what powers it, the Church, was prepared to concede. The book gives a detailed account of the progress of negotiations on the issue of security of tenure in the mid 1930s and in particular highlights the role played by Rev. John Charles McQuaid as chair of the Catholic Headmasters’ Association in outsmarting the ASTI. Cunningham says: “‘Arguably, the agreement of 1936-37 marked an acceptance by the ASTI of the particular character of the new state and of the strength of Catholic authority”.

The book goes on to detail the development of the Association through each of the decades. The account of the disputes which led to the setting up of the Louden Ryan Tribunal on teachers’ pay and the strikes and disputes which followed will be of particular interest to those with grey heads who entered the teaching profession around that time and whose era in the classroom may now have drawn to a close. He has an admirable chapter on ‘Equality and Women’s Issues’ dealing with the abolition of the different pay scales for men and women, the Eileen Flynn case in New Ross and the role of women in the Association. He notes the appointment of a majority of men to the posts of principal to replace nuns in convent schools in the early 1990s.

Cunningham devotes a chapter to the most recent turmoil in the ASTI which ran through the early years of the 21st century - its withdrawal from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), breaking from Teachers United and fractured relationships within its head office. Notable in the early 1970s and again with this more recent dispute was the attempt by the ASTI to steal a march on INTO and TUI teachers in terms of salary, with the inference that they were entitled to higher remuneration as the superior teachers teaching in academic schools. It is to the credit of those who followed after this upheaval that the Association has resumed its place in ICTU and, most importantly, with other teacher unions in the front row of education in Ireland.

The book does not set out to measure the performance of the Association against the social and educational needs of the country of the time. There is limited analysis of the educational philosophy of the Association and limited comment on the significant educational and social changes which occurred during the period – the introduction of free education, the development of community schools and colleges, the abolition of corporal punishment, adult and community education, the increased recognition of the role of parents in education, the decline of clerical involvement in schools – these all are dealt with, but mainly in so far as they impacted on the Association itself.

It is a worthy book and it is to be recommended.