Schools have become a symbol of our island’s changes

Schools have become a symbol of our island’s changes A teacher converses with a pupil.

Every so often I am made more acutely aware of how I live in a very changing Ireland. Our country is increasingly viewed across the world as a modern progressive republic which has shaken off the destructive influence and interference of institutional religion, particularly the Catholic Church.

Sometimes this change happens in very public ways as a result of national debates and referendum campaigns leading to constitutional change. Sometimes the change happens in more discreet and subtle ways which nevertheless can have a significant impact on the lives of individuals and communities. An example of this change has occurred recently in my local community.


Like many small towns we have a vocational secondary school which serves students from about five surrounding parishes. Originally known as the tech it evolved into a vocational school and later a college. Ironically it was named for one of our local saints.

Many vocational schools in Ireland also bear the name of a saint or some other religious figure. While not being specifically Catholic or other denomination in ethos these schools reflected the predominant culture of the local community including religious affiliation. Local clergy from different denominations were members of the boards of management.

The governing bodies of the vocational schools were the local VEC (Vocational Education Committee) which in recent years has become ETB (Educational Training Board).

I’m not sure if the change from VEC to ETB has been the catalyst for the subtle change in ethos but let me outline what has happened in my local ETB vocational school. Before Covid 19 I celebrated an opening of the year Mass with first year students and their parents.

In November on the Feast of the Patron Saint of the school the entire school community came to our parish church for a Mass. At Christmas the school community gathered in the local Church of Ireland church for a carol service.

At the end of the school year there was a Mass and graduation ceremony for Leaving Cert students and their families. In May every year the school supported an initiative to send students as helpers on our diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes.

I’m not sure what part Covid 19 played if any, but since school life returned to ‘normal’ after the pandemic none of the above liturgical celebrations have taken place. Another significant change is that religious education lessons are no longer provided in the school for at least four of the years the students spend in the school.


In a sense, things came to head in recent months when the school authorities informed the diocese that it would no longer be appropriate to support the sending of students to Lourdes on the pilgrimage as it would be seen as favouring a particular religious denomination in the school. (This decision was later altered, and some students did travel on the pilgrimage)

The development regarding the school’s participation in the pilgrimage prompted me to write to the board of management to ask what exactly the current situation regarding the ethos of the school is and whether it is now multi denominational or non-denominational in character.

I also asked why the various liturgical celebrations mentioned earlier and the religious education lessons are no longer part of the school. I asked if parents had been informed of these changes. I suggested that perhaps it was time to consider changing the name of the school as it seems a little disingenuous or at least misleading to continue calling a school after a saint when the religious ethos and practice of the school does not reflect the name on the door.

Almost four months on I have received no written response from the board of management. I was invited by the principal to meet him, and we had a very cordial discussion about the matters I raised in the letter.

However, he confirmed to me that the changes regarding the religious rituals and religious education classes were in line with current ETB policy on ethos. He also told me that the board of management has no role in deciding the ethos of the school. This is determined by ETB alone.

I raise this issue here because I don’t believe that removing religious ritual and education from our vocational schools actually reflects the views of the vast majority of families who send their children to such schools. These changes are happening without any consultation with the parents or indeed the students.


In the past the Catholic hierarchy was perceived to have too much say and control over key areas of our lives particularly when it came to education and healthcare. There may well have been some truth in that, but most objective analysts will also acknowledge the immense positive contribution Church personnel made in these areas as our country developed.

I cannot help but think that in our modern Ireland there are secular forces and ‘hierarchies’ intent on destroying and denying us the positive role that a religious faith can and does play in all our lives.