Everywhere you go in Ireland, you will find a genuine and deep-seated love of learning. Today, almost 1 million people (almost a quarter of our population) are in full-time education. And according to the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2011, Ireland is a leader in higher education achievement.
But that’s nothing new. As far back as 500 AD, Ireland, and its monks and monasteries, were at the centre of learning in Europe, earning Ireland the title Land of Saints and Scholars.
As Christianity took hold, our monastic schools became centres of excellence for people from all over Europe. Among the Irish monks that set out to spread their learning in foreign lands were Saint Columba, who founded a famous monastery on the Scottish island of Iona, and Saint Columbanus, who founded monasteries in France, Germany and Italy.
Spectacular and intricate works of art were created, including the Book of Kells, in a new and unique style that was later to inspire the Gothic and Romanesque movements in Western Europe. A great Irish philosopher of the time, Johannes Scotus Eriugena, was to become one of the founders of scholasticism. And as much of Europe entered the Dark Ages with the collapse of the Roman Empire, Ireland remained a beacon of culture, preserving the classical languages and providing sanctuary to many of the continent’s great scholars and theologians.
As the medieval era moved on, Ireland’s first university was authorised by Pope Clement V in 1311, founded in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Meanwhile, Trinity College received its charter and university status from the English Crown in 1592 and was to be at the heart of Irish scientific discovery and academic achievement in the centuries that followed.
After a series of doomed rebellions, by the 18th century, Ireland was firmly under English control. To consolidate power, a series of harsh and repressive Penal Laws were enacted, which, among other things, prevented Irish Catholics from voting or holding office, from purchasing land and from receiving a Catholic education. But learning still continued in what were known as hedge schools – where instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, and in some cases, even Latin and Greek, took place in the shadow of a hedge, among a ruins or in a dry stone barn.
As the century progressed, the Penal Laws were relaxed, and religious orders emerged with a mission to offer excellence in education to even the poorest of the Irish poor. Edmund Rice founded the Christian Brothers, and Nano Nagle founded the Presentation order. A century on, their aspirations became official policy when the Irish Education Act of 1892 made education free and mandatory for students between the ages of six and 14.
In the early twentieth century, things were coming full circle as the best and brightest of Ireland’s religious orders did what our monks over a thousand years earlier had done, taking up the mantle to spread knowledge overseas. As in Ireland, they became deeply assimilated in local societies and offered education, as well as healthcare and humanitarian aid, to the poor. Many of those who built new democracies out of former colonies across Africa and Asia received their education from twentieth-century Irish missionaries.
At the same time, between the 1790s and 1850s, Ireland’s third level sector was developing. What today is Maynooth University was established in 1795; the genesis for today’s universities in Cork and Galway came in 1845, and what was eventually to become University College Dublin followed in 1854. Known then as the Catholic University of Ireland , the first rector, John Henry Newman, was the author of the seminal text The Idea of a University. Meanwhile, the first Irish female professor (before any in the UK) was Mary Ryan, Professor of Romance Languages, appointed at Cork in 1910.
In the 1960s, the concept of Institutes of Technology (ITs) was born as flexible and dynamic response to the needs of industry and business. Ireland’s first such colleges opened in 1970, and, Ireland’s newest IT, the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown, opened in 2000.
Today, there is still a deep appreciation of education in Ireland. Our total investment in knowledge, including higher education, increased by an average annual rate of over 10% in the past decade – compared with EU and OECD averages of around 3%. Furthermore, our educational attainment levels are among the highest in the world, with over 40% of people aged between 25 and 36 having benefited from third level education.