For over a century many children, particularly from poorer families, in cities and country areas, and indeed a good number of indigenous children, got a sound basic education in schools established throughout Australia by the Irish orders. As well, students in these schools were exposed to the principles and practice of social justice, typically through an Irish lens. I believe this inculcation of social justice values may not otherwise have happened for those students.
Back in 2005 the Sydney Aisling society, an organisation dedicated to promoting in Australia the Irish culture of learning, ideas, the arts and justice, published a volume of presentations made to the society from 1955 to 2005, Passing the Torch.
Contributors included two High Court judges, historians Patrick O’Farrell, Oliver MacDonagh, Jeff Kildea and Ed Campion, actor Maeliosa Stafford, national policy makers and an indigenous leader, Pat Dodson. These Australians mainly acquired their sense of Irish culture from their school education delivered by the Irish teaching orders, the nuns, brothers, and priests.
Now that the era these orders populated has ended perhaps it is time to recognise their contributions.
The crimes that were the subject of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have been documented. Some perpetrators have been brought to justice, compensation is planned and all responsible in any way face community condemnation. No one would try to diminish the horror of these events. But other things happened in Catholic schools from the late 19th century until the 1960s and 70s.
For over a century many children, particularly from poorer families, in cities and country areas, and a good number of indigenous children, got a sound basic education in schools established throughout Australia by the Irish orders. Students in these schools were exposed to the principles and practice of social justice, typically through an Irish lens. This may not otherwise have happened for those students.
Girls, whose education was neglected badly up until the later 20th century by all social classes and denominations, got an unlikely boost from the nuns. Despite the many eccentricities and limitations of a convent education in Australia through most of the 20th century, we did somehow get the sense that women could exercise authority, master academic challenges, had voices and could use them.
Social justice values were a dominant element. I will illustrate from memory. Some time in February 1950, a primary class crowded into an airless hot room is advised that “privileged as we were”, it was incumbent upon us to find coins to contribute for the poor children in the Pacific islands. Most girls came from modest homes where coins for any purpose were hard to find. The concept of privilege was not one we were familiar with. But the point was made and taken. There is always someone worse off than you, and your obligation is to assist them, regardless of their race, religion or class, or where they were living.
That straightforward responsibility to others has been a useful foundation for my own working life and my politics, as it has been for so many who went through this system. It explains the dominance of Catholics as teachers in poorer schools, medical and nursing staff in public hospitals, in those parts of the law dedicated to improving fairness, and in welfare organisations. It accounts for the work of nuns who advocate for justice for asylum seekers and refugees, and to rescue young women exploited by sex slavery and trafficking.
Back in the 50s we were also instructed about the wickedness of King Henry the eighth, his abandonment of the One True Faith, and how his successors persecuted Catholics, invaded Ireland, stole the land and caused shocking poverty. Royals had no hope of ever entering the kingdom of God. Fancy pictures of their christenings and wedding celebrations were not allowed at our school nor was God save the King, or later Queen, ever sung.
We learned about the British colonial administrators. From the beginning of the settlement in Sydney they forbad the use of the Irish language, the only language of many convicts, and the practice of the Catholic religion. No priest was allowed formally in the colony for the first thirty years. These stories helped create a sense of a shared history with the First Nations peoples of destruction of culture, language, religious or spiritual belief, and loss of land.
Beyond accounts of colonial oppression and the regular reminder in The Catholic Weekly of the murder of Irish priests and nuns by the Communists in Red China, we learnt Irish songs and hymns to St Brigid and St Patrick. Our English curriculum later covered the plays of JM Synge and Sean O’Casey.
At this time about one fifth of Australian children went to Catholic schools. Before state aid was provided, virtually all the teachers were nuns or brothers. The outcomes in terms of performance were good. Jobs for 15-year-old girls and boys were to be had in the state public service (Catholic departments), in department stores, especially Mark Foys, and in the countless factories and workshops around south eastern Sydney. That was how our society worked in the 1950s and through the 60s.
At beginning of the 70s, the condition of Catholic parish schools was unsustainable. Classes numbered up to 90 in some fast-growing areas. The schools were used by low income families so the fees, when in fact paid, were very low, just a minimal contribution to the task of keeping the system going. Post-war immigration from Catholic countries and the post-war baby boom accounted for this dramatic growth. The authority of the Church was starting to decline. The teachers keeping this rackety giant system afloat were nuns and brothers, the majority from the Irish orders like the Mercies, the Brigidines and the Christian brothers. They provided unpaid labour.
Speaking for the nuns I knew, very few of them had any post-school education. They lived lives of isolation and difficulty, were rarely allowed contact with their families, and were allowed to leave the convent only to visit the dentist or for some school-related mission. It is nothing short of amazing that these circumstances produced successful education, with students from these schools having similar opportunities to any others to succeed.
But the system was on the verge of collapse. Into this world strode the colossus, Gough Whitlam. Well advised by Archbishop James Carroll and Mick Young, then national secretary of the ALP, Whitlam had overturned the Labor Party’s long ban on state aid and offered, just in time for the 1972 election, a policy of funding schools outside the public system according to need.
After Whitlam was elected, public funding flowed. The schools and systems were saved but were changed. Affected by the by the international liberation movements of the 60s and 70s and the second Vatican Council, Catholic orders saw a dramatic drop off in religious vocations. Trained teachers had to be hired, payed properly and given the same conditions as other teachers. The new but necessary payrolls absorbed much of the public funding.
The range and quality of Catholic schooling improved. These days, a Catholic parish school, in terms of teacher quality, class sizes and facilities is much the same as an equivalent state school. Topics such as the wickedness of Henry 8th or the murder of priests by communists have been replaced by computing, industrial design, media studies or economics. Pictures of royal babies and weddings are apparently tolerated as manifestations of the ubiquitous celebrity culture. Catholic schools, now virtually nun and brother free zones, continue to educate with success large numbers, still about one in five Australian students.
It seems Catholic schools no longer tethered to Irishness do maintain social justice values. But in relation to the traditions of Irish culture in all its depth , richness and eccentricity, a question remains. Could a successor volume to Passing the Torch 1955-2005 meaningfully repeat the dedication, taken by editor Peter Gray from John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural address : …let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation?
Susan Ryan AO attended the Brigidine school at Maroubra, St Aidan’s, 1947-1959. She was Minister for Education in the Hawke Government 1983-87 and recently served as Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner.
This is an edited version of an address to the Aisling Society, 21 July 2018