After Seamus Heaney’s death, the Irish Times sought contributions from its online readers about what Heaney meant to them. One reader recounted meeting him at a reading at Harvard:
After the reading, I joined the throng that inched its way toward him bearing my copy of Opened Ground. When I finally reached him, to my surprise he looked me over and asked, “Ah, now. what do you do.” Flabbergasted, I told him I was a Boston Public School teacher. His response: “Ah, now, that’s a real job.” He scrawled the words, “Keep going” in my book.
Heaney himself, of course, was a teacher. He trained as a teacher at St Joseph’s Teacher Training College in Belfast, and taught at a secondary intermediate, St Thomas’s, in Ballymurphy, West Belfast. He then trained other teachers at St Joseph’s, and when he moved south, got a job teaching trainees at Carysfort College. His wife was a teacher too, as were his sister and brother.
By becoming a teacher, Heaney was taking advantage of possibilities created by the 1947 Education Act in Northern Ireland. In his superb book of interviews, Stepping Stones, Heaney recognised that neither he nor his brothers and sisters would have gone to university were it not “thanks to the system put in place by that Labour government in Britain.”
This isn’t strictly true: the 1947 Education Act, though introduced in Northern Ireland under a Labour government in Britain, was modelled on the 1944 Education Act in England, brought in by R. A. Butler under a Conservative government. However, it’s certainly true that prospects for disadvantaged young people in Northern Ireland in the 1950s were shaped for the better by the building of the Welfare State that occurred under the Attlee government elected by landslide in 1945, so the gratitude isn’t misplaced.
Nonetheless, Stepping Stones reveals Heaney’s unease at the inequalities that the new system imposed: between those who went on to a grammar school education and those who didn’t. In recalling his time spent teaching at St Thomas’s, a school for the supposedly “non-academic”, he saw how “instead of a school where equal attention was paid to all abilities, there was this favoured upper stream and then the great non-academic flow-through. My job, for the year I was in the school, was to teach English at first-year and fourth-year levels, to two of the exam-oriented classes. And I had a PE class with a group of really low-ability first years, 1G, for God’s sake, in a ranking that began with 1A.”
He said the “school was attempting to inculcate a regime of respectability and conformity, a kind of middle-class boarding-school style, but the home culture and the street culture of working-class Belfast was very different”, and recognised “disadvantaged homes and impoverished conditions generally as a barrier to growth and self-realization”.
For all its drawbacks and inequalities, the education system in the North of Ireland for working class children, sustained by gains won by the labour movement in Britain, compared favourably to what was available south of the border.
It wasn’t until 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, that free secondary education was formally introduced in the Republic. But despite its constitutional claim to be a democratic state, the Irish State continues to fund teaching at exclusive private schools. In Enough is Enough, Fintan O’Toole highlights the fact that a fifth of all university students had paid fees at second level in 2008, and that 43% of students at UCD came from either fee-paying or grind schools. The attitude of the current government to education in line with democratic principles can be glimpsed in the fact that the 2012 Finance Bill allowed high earners to write off private school fees of up to €5,000.
In any case, ‘free education’ in the Republic of Ireland is a myth. Parents are forced to pay exorbitant amounts for textbooks. Supposedly ‘voluntary’ contributions are sought from parents to maintain basic facilities. The Department of Education sees nothing wrong with such contributions, provided it is made clear that they are not compulsory and of the parents’ “own volition”. Thus a parent can decide not to contribute to the basic upkeep of her child’s school, if she so chooses. The Minister of Education describes the relation between the State and the patron bodies of schools as a “a public private partnership arrangement”.
What all this means is that universality has no place in Ireland’s education system: the State sees to it that children whose parents lack access to economic resources, or who do not have a third level education themselves, are placed at a disadvantage, and wider society is under no particular obligation to contribute towards the education of other people’s children.
Last week in the Irish parliament, a special session – An Appreciation of the Life and Work of Seamus Heaney- was held. Sincere and mostly thoughtful statements were made by various politicians. The Minister for Education, Labour Party TD Ruairi Quinn, read Heaney’s poem From The Republic of Conscience, in full.
In the current context, in which the welfare state that characterised the post-war settlement in Europe is being dismantled and the Irish government is doing its utmost to conform to Troika demands, the sense of rich educational possibility, in which Seamus Heaney and others flourished, is under confiscation. Education budgets are being slashed and teachers’ unions made to bow to draconian legislation, for the purposes of the wealthy. These brute facts tinge the effusive tributes from Ireland’s political establishment, their acclaim for Seamus Heaney as Ireland’s national poet, with more than a hint of gall.