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Chapter 7: Technical Education in Ireland 1870-1899 (Plunkett and the Recess Committee)

SeŠn Mac CartŠin

In the background to period covered author concentrates on obstacles placed in way of technical education by dominant laissez-fairephilosophy goverment. For example it was opposition from Liverpool Financial Reform Association which killed the Model Agricultural Schools Most initiatives were therefore via private benefaction-supported subscriptions.The author outlines many such, including those by Bianconi in Clonmel and by Crawford in Cork.

An important turning-point was the 1884 Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (known as the Samuelson Commission) which laid the basis for subsequent local government involvement, once this was established in 1898. Education in the principles underlying a trade was constructively distinguished from 'learning a trade', thus getting round the 'laissez-faire' objectors.

Important as this was, it was focused on England, and it took the 1895 Recess Committee, organised by Sir Horace Plunkett, to develop the political leverage which arose from Samuelson, using for example the extraordinary discrepancy in the public money spent on science, art and technical instruction per head of population between England (over £3) and Ireland (one old penny).

The Recess Committee (so called because it used the Parliamentary recess to pull in the key politicians) met in the Dublin Mansion House, organised to pick up experience from abroad, and produced a seminal report which led eventually to setting up the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, with Plunkett in the lead. The author develops many interesting themes relating to Home Rule politics and religion in this context; echoes of these are to be found in the current (1999) arguments about the Good Friday Agreement. The Recess Committee included Father Thomas Findlay, the co-operative activist priest, and Rev Dr Kane, the Grand Master of the Belfast Orange Lodge.

The Recess Committee and its work presents a pre-view of a great historical 'might-have-been': economic development under all-Ireland Home Rule, fuelled by a thriving producer co-operative movement which depended for its growth on technical competence.

The author in his conclusion calls for the role of Plunkett to be re-written into history, and his full significance appreciated.


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