This year the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation celebrates its 150th anniversary. Founded in 1868, it is one of the oldest nationwide teachers’ unions in the world. One of Ireland’s largest and most influential unions, it came from small beginnings and faced many challenges to its survival over the year from powerful outside forces and occasionally from internal disagreements, writes Niamh Puirséil.
During the 1800s, primary teachers in Ireland worked under the national school system that had been established by the British chief secretary, Lord Stanley, in 1831. They often worked in appalling conditions in cold, dirty school houses with clay floors and were paid desperately low salaries.
Unlike civil servants, teachers had no pension scheme and their salaries were so small that it was almost impossible to save to put some money aside for retirement.
They had no security of tenure and could be fired without warning for no reason, without a right to appeal or compensation. Teachers were paid by the state but were directly employed by their school managers, usually the local parish priest or minister, so they worked for two bosses.
They were answerable to their managers and also National School Commissioners and the Board of Education in Dublin, which ran the Irish national schools, whose rules included an instruction that teachers avoid fairs, markets and meetings, and above all political meetings of any kind and to abstain from controversy.
That made it difficult for teachers to represent themselves. Teachers who complained about their pay in public could be threatened with dismissal, while there were times when teachers meetings were broken up by inspectors.
Nevertheless, in 1868 a group of teachers began laying the foundations for a new nationwide organisation. As part of this they established a monthly paper which encouraged teachers to come together in local groups which would then unite in a national organisation. But the teachers who wrote and edited it were careful not to use their own names in case they were dismissed.