Irish Education-Part 1: Where your choice is Catholic, Catholic or Catholic.

So, 2014 will be the year when my daughter first climbs the steps onto the school-bus. If she’s anything like her father this process will involve extricating her from beneath the kitchen table, sprinting down the driveway with child and backpack across my shoulder before half shoving, half tossing her through the bus’ doors and yelling, “DRIVE!” Now every parent goes through the same universal worries that come around when we first unleash our spawn send our little angels off for the first time. Will she like her teacher? Will she like the other kids? Will she get picked on? Will she deal with the bully ‘properly’, as opposed to using the foot-stamp, elbow-to-head maneuver Daddy showed her when Mommy wasn’t looking? There are just so many things to put a parent on edge. Here in Ireland, there is an additional consideration for those of us who have decided not to marinate our future adults in religiosity during their formative years.

Religion is everywhere throughout the Irish education system.  Our National Schools, which children usually attend from ages 4 to 12, are predominantly run by religious denominations.  The Irish government pays the salaries of all the teachers, but the ownership and upkeep of schools are the remit of their patrons. Currently the Catholic Church is patron to 92% of all such schools. An additional 4% is owned by other denominations and religions, while the remaining 4 percent is secular/non-denominational.  The odds of finding a school that will not insist on teaching your child the religious doctrines of the patron church are pretty much zero for people living outside of large urban areas. Also, schools are allowed to actively discriminate what child they will accept based on religion.

In our case, once we took things such as bus routes, after-school care and distance from home into account, we were left with two options. A Catholic school, or a really, REALLY Catholic school. The latter’s website was replete with invocations, gospel references and reassurances that a child sent there would be no more than two steps from beatification by the time they went to high-school. The second was a little more laid back, more of a “Yeah, Jesus is cool, now look at our sports program!” However, the fact remained that should the school find enough children of nominally catholic parents then my child would be out of luck. I say nominally catholic parents because it is an unavoidable fact that many do not actually practice the religion on anything like a regular basis. Many have also chosen, as many advised I should have chosen, to baptise their children regardless as it would increase their chances of getting into decent schools later.

I chose not to, for several reasons. Firstly, it is dishonest. I am not a Catholic and I am not going to pretend otherwise to try and elbow my way to the front of the queue. Secondly, it is insulting. While I believe that many of the Catholic church’s teachings fly in the face of demonstrable fact, I am not going to insult the people who take these matters on faith by paying lip service to them. Being open about my disagreement is far more respectful to the believers, if not the beliefs. Thirdly, I don’t want to be part of the problem. The people who are currently playing the part of the good Catholic in order to garner some social traction bolster the numbers of the Catholic church and make it seem more influential than it actually is. This gives the church more leverage than it deserves when it lobbies the government on behalf of people who, truth be told, don’t actually agree with their position.

I will be keeping a very close eye on my daughter’s curriculum when she starts school in September and am considering getting a drop on the Religious Education component by crafting my own comparative religion course. Basically this would involve selecting PG versions of stories from various religious myths (Christian, Hebrew, Greek, etc.) to include during reading time. I intend on presenting them with no more emphasis than the stories she currently enjoys such as Brave and The Gruffalo. I would really appreciate any suggestions you might have, specifically for folk-tales or religious myths outside the usual Judeo-Christian sphere.