SUSAN RYAN. The Irish teaching orders in Australia.

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


Susan Ryan was Minister for Education in the Hawke Cabinet and Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission 2011-2016. 

This entry was posted in Education, Religion and Faith. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to SUSAN RYAN. The Irish teaching orders in Australia.

  1. Ed Cory says:

    Margaret Jean Ely says:
    “The myth of the Goulburn strike persists, but the Catholic children who enrolled in the public schools of Goulburn in the early 1960s were loath to return to their sectarian schools.”

    Not this one. None that I know of.

    We were loath to return to our single sex schools after the frisson of sitting with persons of the opposite sex, something that compensated for the lost momentum of our interrupted studies, but that is about as far as it went.

    I am not sure what definition Ms Ely uses, but my experience was ‘differences’, not ‘sectarianism’.

  2. Gary Bakker says:

    Some people had an awful personal experience of Catholic schools in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Some had a terrific one. I don’t think we should judge the Catholic system by the accumulation of anecdotes.
    Catholic schools did a good job of educating children from poor families because most Catholic families were poor, and the Church didn’t want them to stay that way.
    Whitlam supported the system because he wanted even poor people to get a good education. He had no truck with their iron age myths and social conservativism. But the only two options available were to subsidize, or to let starve. And starving would have moved poor Catholics into an overcrowded state system, while other religious ‘independent schools’ would have survived well, exacerbating the class divide and socioeconomic inequality.
    In an ideal Australia there would be only state schools (the Scandinavian model), so that even our politicians’ children would attend there, and funding would then be adequate and equitable. This would have been Whitlam’s preference clearly.
    PS I attended a Catholic primary school staffed by nuns in the 60s and a Christian Brothers’ school in the 70s. I had a great education, with no abuse or molestation, by devoted staff. But I still think we shouldn’t now have almost half our children going to exclusive, superstition-fueled, myth-based, privately-run, barely-accountable, but publicly-funded schools.

  3. H. Wyndham , the NSW Director General of Education was greatly saddened by the fact that, at a crucial point in our history when we could have bought all our children together in public schools, the provision of State Aid to the Catholic – and private sector – drove them further apart.

    The myth of the Goulburn strike persists, but the Catholic children who enrolled in the public schools of Goulburn in the early 1960s were loath to return to their sectarian schools.

    In the 1960s, we managed to divide our children into disadvantaged and advantaged silos rather than sectarian ones. And the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged have widened and widened …and widened. As was predicted by the DOGS in 1969.

    Susan Ryan, as Minister for Education, presided over this as much as Howard did. The disparity between funding of private and public schools through Commonwealth aid gained momentum in the 1980s, and the dissenting reports of the AEU and parents representatives in 1984 put an end to the Schools Commission – which was meant to hose down and make funding disparities as acceptable and obtuse as possible.

    These days, the Catholic vote is trying to flex its rather puny political muscles and the Lib-Labs feel able to ignore public school parents and teacher representatives – they are not even consulted these days, let alone placed on committees.

    They were so easy to compromise- until 1984 -. Now they are just ignored.

    For how long I wonder?

    I have some memory of Susan Ryan being a public school parent representative at some point. Or is this my imagination? Where, as Minister for Education did her allegiances lie ?

    The Scandinavian countries and Germany have not been so stupid as to fund schools that discriminate against children on the basis of parental income , religion, values, call it what you will.

    But we seem unable to learn, even from our own history. Our current educational funding policies are – socially divisive, inefficient, uneconomic, and – stupid.

    Jean Ely

  4. Derk Swieringa says:

    I do not know much about Ms Ryan’s school but it was nothing like my Catholic Schools in Wollongong where tables, grammar and the faith were inculcated with the cane and the strap from Good Samaritan nuns and Christian brothers.
    At high school we spent an hour every day learning about our superstitious faith with little reference to social justice. The teacher’s main preoccupation was to stop us from indulging in ‘self abuse’.
    Looking back, my greatest regret is that my parents did not send me to a public school where maybe I would have learnt how to think rather than what to think.

  5. Bill Burke says:

    I’m sure Gough the Colossus would approve a nod and a wink to a lesser member of the pantheon – R G Menzies when recounting the history of Government funding to Catholic schools. It may have been prompted by his electoral near death experience of 1961 and the “Goulburn Strike” of 1962, but Ming mutated into Ming the Merciful , dispatching bundles of dollars for the construction of science laboratories, libraries and other special purpose teaching facilities as the 60’s marched on.
    This life line kept Catholic secondary schools afloat until Gough and the Carmel report transformed ad hoc grants into a continuing system of funding.

  6. Steve Jordan says:

    The nuns on the west of the Great Divide in the eastern states had a hard life when they were teaching the many convent schools. In areas where the temperature passed 100 degrees F, the nuns wore a habit of black serge; no wonder they were sometimes short tempered, as manifested by the crack across the knuckles of erring fingers on the piano keyboard.
    Still, as well as the more academic teaching, they also developed the choirs and the plays. They even prepared the children for the school ball, in my experience. We learnt the Pride of Erin and the progressive barn dance under their tuition.
    Fortunately, the women of the parish provided the nuns with friendship and moral support. However, the strictures of the rules of the order prevented the nuns in those days even having a meal with other people.
    So not only do we owe them a debt of gratitude for their tuition, but also for the privations they suffered in those days in their religious life because they lived in outback Australia.

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Do you know – I still have mini-nightmares remembering the insane black habits worn in all weathers by nuns – yards of skirt and rosary beads, heavy crucifix in a leather belt, starched linen wimples: in fact it’s surprising they did not all expire from heatstroke or run amok – maddened by the conditions imposed on them by their work/vocations.
      So: why did they never challenge these fearsome ways-of-being? Because they had taken vows of obedience. And why are ‘vocations’ falling? ended? Same reason. There’s a fundamental principle at stake here.

  7. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    ‘Though I was as much in thrall to the Kennedy glamour, not least because he was a naval war hero, as the next girl, I feel that we mis-represent the past when we fail to point-out that he was a ‘womaniser’ and a risk-taker of titanic ego. Even so: I am not above quoting his wonderful speeches when aroused: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’ – and even the unforgettable “I am a donut speech’ in Berlin.
    It should be said, however, that the findings of the Royal Commission just-passed are far from exhaustive. The rear-guard re-interpretation of the story of the RCC in Australia which comes in the wake of the Royal Commission should be read with a grain or a tonne of salt. There was mental, psychological and physical abuse of pupils throughout the RCC school-system, and within parishes all over Australia. To draw attention to the good that the RCC has done – and, after all, is that only its job here on Earth?, is to write apologetics for a culture of indefensible unkindness, sometimes outright cruelty. Better be silent for a time – out of respect for those who have suffered. The lot of them.

Comments are closed.