Opinion: Conor and Jock were exactly the boys Cork's early educationalists sought to teach, train and assist to get employment

As we leave Conor and Jock behind at the end of their second series, the Young Offenders appear to have found love, happiness and contentment in their personal relationships. However, they were struggling to come to terms with working life, finding the right career path and earning a fair wage without any formal qualifications. The boys found themselves in this predicament after being expelled in a monumental showdown with Barry Walsh, the principal of St. Finan's.

But Conor and Jock were exactly the boys that Cork's early educationalists sought to teach, train and assist to get employment. When Nano Nagle first established her schools in the laneways of Leeside in the 1750s, she admitted that she was frightened of her new pupils. Streetwise and wily, these children were a common sight in the city streets. Like Conor’s 21st century mum, Mairead, many of the parents of these children had little choice but to leave them at home when they went to work in the commercial industries of the  Georgian port of Cork. Here, Mairead skills as a fishmonger would have been much sought after in the city’s bustling produce markets.

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How to address the issues surrounding the vulnerability of these children had concerned the city's charitable societies for generations. The answer materialised in Nagle’s educational vision and her collaboration with a young priest, Francis Moylan. When Moylan became the Catholic bishop of Cork, he remained dedicated to the survival, continuation and expansion of Nano’s vision and founded the Cork Charitable Society, who established, funded and maintained several poor schools. 

Yet, there was a level of uncertainty in transferring Nagle's blueprint from girls to boys. She struggled when considering the male pupils confessing to a friend that "I did not take boys, but my sister in law made it a point and said she would not permit any of the family to contribute unless I do so." Nagle relied on the agreement of her family to access her inheritance which she used to fund her various social projects. She took in 40 boys and employed a schoolmaster to teach them basic literacy, numeracy and organise apprenticeships.

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When Nagle died in 1784, Moylan knew that he had to hold to her promise to ensure the continued financial backing of her family. One of his first actions as chairperson of the Committee of Roman Catholic Poor Schools, the precursor to the Cork Charitable Society, was to write to Nano’s relatives to establish why the agreed funding was not forthcoming. He followed this up with a visit to Bath, the English spa town the Nagle family had relocated to in the 1760s. Crucially, the third executor of Nagle's will, Fr. Laurence Callanan, OMF, was his travelling companion. Officially, Moylan was in town to take the waters but, with Nano’s brothers, Joseph and David the other two executors of her will, a negotiation around the Nagle endowment was certainly underway. 

The main consideration when securing funding was finding suitable teachers to educate boys. As custodian of the city's poor schools, the Cork Charitable Society was responsible for the recruitment of lay teachers and the provision of their salaries. To offset the costs, the Society turned to a pioneering English educationalist, Joseph Lancaster, who developed a system of peer tutoring or monitoring, where a student was rewarded for successfully passing on their learning younger pupils. The use of monitors was prompted partly by a need to control teaching costs.

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Lancaster visited Cork in 1811. Inspired by his public lecture and the groundswell of popular support for his ideas, the Society collaborated with other charitable institutions in the city and formed the Lancastrian Committee to establish a Lancastrian school in Cork. Yet, despite extensive efforts and the talents of those involved, the Lancastrian School was besieged by problems. Overspending and the aspiration for the school to be non-denominational plagued its success. 

Interestingly, the Charitable Society had bought the land near Hammond’s Marsh to the west of the city that the Lancastrian School was built on and therefore collected the head rent. When the Lancastrian Committee ran into arrears, the Charitable Society pragmatically offered to purchase the school and reveal them of their debt. It took ownership of the newly built Lancastrian School in 1814 and moved almost immediately to confirm the services of Edmund Rice's newly formed Presentation Brothers.

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This swift response may have been because Rice’s teaching congregation appeared to be the answer to Moylan’s prayers. Moylan had visited Rice and his school, Mount Sion, in Waterford in 1809, to broker a deal which included an arrangement for two postulants to be sent from Cork to be trained and professed. This gave Moylan teachers for his new school, but crucially kept costs to the minimum.

Rice, a retired merchant with a substantial fortune, self-funded his teaching project. With the Brothers associated with the school, it is reasonable to assume that Rice was contributing to its running costs allaying the burden of teaching salaries on the Charitable Society. With Rice’s funding and Moylan’s patronage, the Presentation Brothers went on to educate generations of Cork city’s sons, the famous and the infamous: writers, politicians, entrepreneurs, soccer players, rugby Internationals, two Tánaistí and a Peaky Blinder. In the company of these Cork young offenders and defenders, Conor and Jock would certainly have been at top of the class! 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ