Irish history can be mapped by a mishmash of momentous turning points, but when it comes to Ireland’s education system, one landmark event truly stands out. The occasion? The day that Minister Donogh O’Malley (1921-1968) promised the country free secondary education.
The Day That Changed Everything
September 10, 1966, was a mild Saturday in Dun Laoghaire, South Dublin. Back then, the walls of the Royal Marine Hotel had yet to be coated in the peach pink paint of today. Instead, its plain concrete facade overlooked the sprawling front lawn and beyond, out to the expanse of Dublin Bay.
Inside, in one of the hotel’s conference rooms, a meeting of the National Union of Journalists was taking place. Donogh O’Malley, then Minister for Education, took to the podium.
It was still early in the day, press of the nation filtered through the room, their notebooks poised in casual expectation. The entire government — with the exception of Taoiseach Seán Lemass — was entirely unaware of the weight of the announcement O’Malley was about to make.
To the crowd, he began: “Every year, some 17,000 of our children, finishing the primary school course do not receive any further education.
“This means that almost one in three of our future citizens are cut off at this stage from the opportunities of learning a skill and denied the cultural benefits that go with further education. This is a dark stain on the national conscience.” (To view Donogh’s full speech, click here)
With one statement, O’Malley made free secondary education — an idea that had been circulated and debated, though never fully realised — a reality. The Minister for Education had gone out on a limb, unbeknownst to the government behind him, to make a stand.
It’s an act that required extraordinary courage.
When Allianz Insurance first established their new campaign, We Cover Courage, this fearless act served as a point of inspiration. Donogh O’Malley lived a life led by courage, something the people of Ireland would benefit from for years to come.
The Man Behind It All
O’Malley was born in Limerick on January 18, 1921, to Joseph and Mary O’Malley. A staunchly political family, he was the youngest of three sons. Throughout his youth, he was affable and popular, playing rugby and swimming in his spare time.
O’Malley had returned to Limerick after university to work as an engineer and architect, but before long his political ideals began to take precedence. Elected to the Dáil Eireann as a member of Fianna Fail in the mid fifties, O’Malley spent a decade on the back bench before becoming the Minister for Health in 1965. One year later, he was appointed as the Minister for Education.
For O’Malley, becoming Minister for Education marked a revolution of sorts.
The Limerick-man had the foresight to see that free education was Ireland’s key to economic prosperity. However, when it was raised within the walls of his party, the cabinet was reluctant to take action.
To picture Ireland in 1966 is to paint a portrait of poverty. Thirty-One percent of the nation worked on the land. The vast majority of school children from working class backgrounds were forced to leave education after primary school to seek work. Just one-fifth of students stayed in education long enough to complete their Leaving Cert 2.
Working class families, with four, five, six mouths to feed, often wouldn't have the resources to address basic needs — let alone the cost of educating them. As a consequence, education was more accessible for the social elite.
In O’Malley’s eyes, free secondary education was a human right. And so, in the face of prospective backlash from his own party, he stood before the nation and made a promise to the people.
A Country in the Grips of Change
The happenings of that otherwise unremarkable day by the sea in Dun Laoghaire had a ripple effect across Ireland. For example, radio host Joe Duffy was in his final year of primary school when the announcement was made.
He remembers: “The secondary school we aspired to go to was St John’s College De La Salle in Ballyfermot. There was a big wall around it. The only way in without paying fees was to do the scholarship exam.”
“Then, out of the blue, came Donogh O’Malley’s announcement. Fees were abolished. Suddenly, the wall came down. It was utterly transformative.”
The declaration was a catalyst for radical change. The Free Education Act would be fully implemented the following year, in 1967. Free school transport was introduced, new schools were built to accommodate the rush of new of students, additional teachers were trained and many new opportunities in education were introduced. Investing in education was to invest in Ireland as a whole.
This quality of education dramatically altered Ireland’s image in the eyes of our more prosperous neighbours. It enabled the country to join the EEC in 1973 and benefit economically from Europe as a whole. Ireland now offered an educated new workforce, their minds sharpened and ripe for employment.
Thousands of better paid jobs were created, planting the seed for industries like science and tech. O’Malley narrowed the gap between class divides, laid the foundations for economic prosperity, and ushered in immense cultural change.
At present, nine out of ten Irish students will go on to sit the Leaving Cert4. In comparison with our European equivalents, Ireland has above-average completion rates at second level4.
O’Malley’s insight serves as a reminder that schools ought to be sites of safety and sanctuary for children nationwide. To this day, Allianz operate with this vision in mind, by insuring over ninety percent of primary and over fifty percent of secondary schools across the island of Ireland*.
*Learn more here.
A Sombre Farewell
O’Malley made a name for himself as a man who operated with the country’s best interests at heart. As Dr. Paddy Hillery put it, “His impulse was that this was the right thing to do, so he went with it.”
Less than two years after O’Malley’s act of courage, on March 10, 1968, O’Malley passed away. He suffered a heart attack while on the campaign trail, his last recorded words ones of rally and inspiration.
The eve before his burial, his coffin was swathed in the green, white, and orange of the tricolour. Taoiseach Jack Lynch and seven of his fellow government ministers bore his weight on their solemn march from St. John’s Hospital to Limerick Cathedral.
Donogh O’Malley’s courage didn’t pass unnoticed. On the day of his funeral, 30,000 people gathered in mournful procession. Throughout the crowds, clusters of children could be seen.
They had lined up to bid farewell and pay silent tribute to the man who sent them to school, and thus opened up their lives to untold opportunity.