There was a time in Ireland when the cost of secondary school fees meant that every year, some 17,000 Irish children did not progress beyond their primary school course. Donogh O’Malley was the man that changed all that, writes Sinéad Brennan


This September, thousands of school children across Ireland benefited from a new initiative by the Department of Education. Under the Free Primary School Book Scheme, more than 500,000 pupils in 3,230 schools nationwide will receive free textbooks, workbooks and copybooks.

A sum in the region of 54 million euro has been ring fenced by the government to fund the programme.
The scheme, announced by Minister for Education Norma Foley as part of Budget 2023, has been praised for easing financial pressures on families, and there are calls for the scheme to be extended to secondary schools going forward.

This recent development offers a good opportunity to look back on another landmark moment in Irish education, namely the introduction of free secondary education in 1966, some fifty-seven years ago.
On that occasion, the Minister for Education was Donogh O’Malley, the Limerick-born Fianna Fáil TD whose short political career left an indelible mark on Irish society for generations to come.

In a speech to the National Union of Journalists at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire on 10th September, 1966, O’Malley caught everyone, including his fellow cabinet ministers, completely off-guard when he announced his plan to roll out free secondary school education to all Irish children up to the age of 18, the following year.
It was a startling revelation and a seismic moment. In the weeks that followed, the scheme was widely welcomed with great enthusiasm, but also brewed up somewhat of a political sensation in the process!

Born in Riverview, Corbally, Co. Limerick, in January, 1921, Donogh was the youngest of eight children born to Joseph and Mary O’Malley (née Tooher).

He was educated at Crescent College Limerick and Clongowes Wood, Co. Kildare. Then it was on to University College, Galway, where he followed in his father’s footsteps by qualifying as a civil engineer. A gifted sportsman, he excelled on the soccer and rugby field.

His interest in politics began during his university days and in 1954 he contested the General Election on behalf of Fianna Fáil in the Limerick East constituency.

Charismatic, outgoing, and energetic, he was hugely popular in his native county, where the O’Malley name was already strong in political circles. He topped the poll and continued to do so in three consecutive elections.
In 1961, he became Mayor of Limerick City – remarkably, the third of the O’Malley brothers to hold the office.
In 1965, he was given a seat at the cabinet table when he was appointed Minister for Health by Taoiseach Sean Lemass.

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