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Prometheus's Fire: Abstracts

Chapter 6: Technical Education and Colonialism in Ireland in the 19th Century

Richard Jarrell

The development of technical education in the core industrial nations of Europe, and in the US, is compared and contrasted. Germany, a late arrival, leapfrogged Britain by central State initiatives aimed at producing an educated workforce, and industrial PhDs were the norm. Irish experience is interesting because it falls between that of the US and that of the Colonies. Agriculture, as practiced by the 'improving landlords' with the aid of the RDS, was the main channel for technical edcation, and this trend led to Plunkett and the Recess Committee at the end of the century.

The 'Mechanics Institute' movement in the Irish context was a false start; they made sense in Britain, keeping factory workers out of the pubs to some extent, but in Ireland they became middle-class clubs; they were a 'borrowed concept in an inappropriate setting'.

The centralising role of the Department of Science and the Arts, set up in South Kensington, under Playfair and Cole, in the 1850s, was a response to French and German influence via the 1851 Exhibition; it led to a large number of local schools with standard curriculum, and in the Irish case these were ill-suited to Irish needs. Under the notorious 'payment by results' system there were cheating scandals.

This centralising under the DSA also had a negative influence, for technical education at third level, on the College of Science, despite its origins in the local experience of Kane, the RDS and the Museum of Irish Industry. Due to the unsuitable centralised curriculum, it took many of its students from abroad, and exported many of its graduates, contributing to the 'brain drain' process.

Local experimentation was the key to the success of industry in France and Germany. Even in Belfast, where one would have expected the match between curriculum and industrial requirements would be not too distant, the local authorities resisted providing funding.

The Department of Agriculture and Technical Instuction from 1900 inherited the DSA schools, such as they were, but under Plunkett's leadership they aspired to integrate science and art training into general education, though this did not happen for decades.

The author identifies the importation of unsuitable models, in a slave-minded colonial importation of ideas from the imperial heartland, as an important negative factor against a creative interaction between industrialisation and technical education.

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