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Unlikely Radicals: Irish Post-Primary Teachers and the ASTI, 1909-2009
Unlikely Radicals:  Irish Post-Primary Teachers and the ASTI, 1909-2009

Our Price:39.00
Authors: John Cunningham
Affiliation: Department of History NUI Galway
Publication Year: Hardback 2010
Pages: 300
Size: 234 x 156mm

ISBN: 9781859184608


In 2009, the ASTI celebrates the 100th Anniversary of its foundation. Founding members included such national figures as Eamon de Valera and Thomas MacDonagh, both of who served as second-level teachers. The ASTI has rich history in representing the teaching profession and in promoting second-level education and has been a dynamic force in the education sector in Ireland. The ASTI is the largest second-level teachers' union in Ireland with 17,500 members teaching in over 75% of second-level schools.

Unlikely Radicals provides a social and historical account of the ASTI's role in the development of second-level education and the teaching profession in Ireland. It demonstrates the remarkable contribution which second-level education has made to the lives of millions of young people and to social, political and economic progress in Ireland. It details the development of a trade union which has had a significant impact on social and education policy and which has continued to represent the values of Irish teachers and their aspirations for those they teach.


The secondary teacher's life, c.1909

Foundation and early years of the ASTI

The ASTI in the Burke era, c.1920-1937

The association in the 1940s and 1950s

Secondary teachers, educational change, and Irish society in the 1960s

Teacher militancy, c.1961-71

The ASTI expansion and development, c.1970-c.1990

Teachers' unity and resistance to cutbacks in the 1980s

Equality and women's issues, c.1970-1995

Secondary teachers in the Celtic Tiger era

The pay battle of the new millennium.

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5 of 5 Unlikely Radicals chronicles the Irish teachers u January 10, 2011
Reviewer: Adrian Skerritt Australian Journal of Irish Studi from Republic of Ireland  
Unlikely Radicals chronicles the Irish teachers  union s difficult  transition from a professional association to an organisation that fought  for industrial rights. This history of the Association of Secondary  Teachers Ireland  ASTI  artfully combines an outline of structural  changes within the union alongside a portrait of teachers  lives during  episodes of workplace stress and industrial conflict. John Cunningham  also carefully shows how debates about teacher unions in Ireland were  conditioned by the formation of the Republic  nationalism and the needs  of the economy.  At the turn of last century women secondary teachers endured some  the most precarious and difficult working conditions in Ireland. They  were on contract but their employment could be terminated at any time.  Though not nuns  they lived in the convent and were essentially on duty  for all their waking hours and received no pay during holidays. Their  male counterparts fared little better and were forced to take on labouring  outside of school. Cunningham writes empathetically about teachers   lives during these difficult times when dedication alone could not give  them job security.  The formation of ASTI in the summer of 1909 was a bold initiative  to give teachers a collective voice. In the early chapters Cunningham  demonstrates how the fledgling union developed during great social  turmoil when many ASTI members were active participants in the  uprising against British occupation and the War of Independence. The  poet Thomas MacDonagh  who was executed after the 1916 Rising   helped Padraic Pearse establish Scoil  anna in 1908 while Eamon de  Valera was an early provincial leader of ASTI. Affiliation with the Irish  Labour Party and Trade Union Congress made ASTI a part of a union  movement radicalised by powerful strikes  and influenced by socialist  activists like James Larkin and James Connolly. In the lead up to the  first ASTI strike in 1920 teachers began to use the language of class  struggle. They argued that they should not accept a wage freeze when  teaching the children of farmers who had benefited from rising wartime  food prices.  By 1926 however  ASTI s relationship with the Labour Party had  soured. Many in the leadership felt that affiliation with Labour was an  obstacle to recruitment especially following the rise of Fianna F il. By  the end of the decade ASTI had no formal connection with either the  Labour Party or the Union Congress. This was clearly a watershed in  the ASTI s history but does not receive a very convincing analysis from  Cunningham other than a brief discussion about the dual character of  the union: some members saw the union as a professional association   others an industrial organisation.  The method of writing history from below serves Cunningham well  when analysing the disappointment many young teachers felt towards  ASTI s direction from the 1960s. He takes the reader into meetings and  brings to life the serious debating culture of the branches. This  methodology is the main strength of the book. Cunningham  acknowledges that an institutional labour history will necessarily spend  time looking at the machinations  at headquarters level . However he  writes that  the approach and effectiveness of headquarters will  ultimately be determined by the activism of its members . This is an  excellent principle to animate a union history.  The latter chapters of the book will be very familiar to those who  have participated in debates about education in Australia over the last  fifteen years. The key policy shift during the Celtic Tiger era was to  treat education as a commodity  an approach in keeping with the global  rise of neo liberalism. Unlikely Radicals draws on the research of David  Harvey and Naomi Klein to describe the way neo liberalism  with its  rampaging hostility towards the public sector  threatened both public  education and ASTI. Results from high stakes standardised testing then  became the key benchmark in discussions about funding. During the  Celtic Tiger assault  ASTI consistently fought for a reduction of class  sizes. They also rejected the idea that market forces be allowed to  dominate education.  Even in the boom times teachers were confronted with the ideology  of the market in the context of uneven economic gains. Young teachers  were unable to buy a home and conditions worsened for many Irish  workers. During the 2000 teachers  strike Jean Rogers  a teacher  wrote  a letter in The Irish Times criticising the new trend of benchmarking  that aimed to measure educational success only in terms of numbers.  She expressed an opinion shared by most teacher unionist in Australia  today:  I saw these underpaid teachers take time out to help  students  working from an ethos that is as much about  inclusion as it is about performance  . It is not possible to  benchmark interventions so important in making a school  day run smoothly. It is not possible to benchmark  motivation  compassion  interest and care.  The fact that Irish teachers moved from the wretched circumstances  they endured 100 years ago to a situation where they can bargain  collectively  receive more than subsistence pay  can access maternity  leave  play a key role in curriculum planning and are able campaign in  the workplace for improved conditions  owes everything to their union.  Thousands fought tirelessly  often anonymously and often at  tremendous personal cost to build the union. Cunningham names these  many of these heroes like P.F. Condon who was sacked for being a  unionist. The union journal described him as   one who never paraded  what he was doing  but was content to labour in spite of  misrepresentation and opposition . Such people are the pride and  strength of teachers unions and it is to Cunningham s great credit that  he gives them a prominent place in this fine union history.

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5 of 5 Ostensibly an official history John Cunningham s March 26, 2010
Reviewer: IrislLeftReview .org from Republic of Ireland  
Ostensibly an official history  John Cunningham s study of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland  ASTI   and its relationship with the education system  also touches on four key elements of Irish society over the past 100 years: religion  class  politics and economics. It looks at the changes in Ireland since the foundation of the association in 1909  the role of the various Churches in education  the expansion of the secondary school system in the late 1960s  the growth of militancy among school teachers in the 1970s and 1980s regarding wages and women s issues  and the move from the 1980s onwards towards the commodification of students and results. It also brings into focus the uneven relationship between economic and social class  with secondary school teachers finding themselves for much of the 20th century with a middle class status  but a working class wage.       In 1919 a government report into the conditions and service of intermediate school teachers stated that it was not possible  for men and women of culture  to live on the salaries offered by schools  nor was it possible for them to teach in circumstances where they were  perpetually harassed by financial embarrassment.  Three years previously  Padraig Pearse wrote in The Murder Machine that  many an able and cultured man is working in Irish secondary schools at a salary less then that of the viceroy s chauffeur.  Wages were not standardized  with externs paid an hourly rate. The Irish feminist and agitator  Hannah Sheehy Skeffington  wrote that female interns who worked for a fixed sum in Catholic schools kept convent hours and were as shut off from the outside world  as if she were herself a cloistered nun . Frequently  she instructs the nuns  and  having equipped them in certain subjects  she finds her place filled by her pupils.      Secondary school employment was overwhelmingly temporary and casual for non religious staff.  No degree of efficiency  wrote one teacher   no amount of devotion to his work  no conduct  however satisfactory  guarantees him security of tenure.  It meant that teachers were constantly moving around  going where the jobs were  and living out of digs and lodging houses. John Cunningham describes the experiences of Eileen Gould  the wife of the writer Sean O Faolain  in a small midland town:      Her digs were a lodging house  which was otherwise patronised by male bank clerks  members of another peripatetic profession  and she did not feel at ease beside the small parlour fireplace  so each evening after tea  she withdrew to her room to spend cold lonely hours by herself.    The economic reality of secondary school teaching at this time was in contrast to the social background of the teachers  as well as the social pretensions they felt they had to maintain as members of the professional classes. Not that these teaching troubadours were treated with equal respect by the small town elites. Again  Cunningham:      The well attested poverty of teachers was relative  though no less severely felt for that. They were generally well educated  with about 40 per cent of them being drawn from the small cohort of university graduates  and they had expectations of professional status. Many had the title of  professor  and felt obliged  not least to the institutions that employed them  to keep up middle class appearances. But the signifiers of middle class status   respectable dress  an acceptable address  support for local causes  maintaining a servant   were not easily afforded on salaries that were totally at the discretion of the employer and that  while varying considerably  averaged  48 a year for women and  82 for men in the early twentieth century. In the circumstances  according to an ASTI founder  it was inevitable that rosy expectations yielded to an  ignominious acceptance of one s self as the outcast pedagogue  who had no social rating among the solid citizens of the town.     By way of contrast  housekeepers and cooks earned around  40 a year  while a Dublin building tradesman in regular employment earned around  100 a year.     One of the reasons why lay teachers were paid so low was due to their work environment and conditions. Secondary schools were precariously funded  with a mixture of public and private funds influencing wage levels. Also  the secondary school system was small and denominational  with a strong division between Protestant and Catholic schools. In 1900 there were about 2 000 second level teachers  of which 824 were Protestant  382 were Catholic lay  and 722 were Catholic religious.      In Protestant run schools  generally there were opportunities for advancement  but this was rarely the case in Catholic schools where all senior posts were held by diocesan clergy or members of religious orders. With religious in most of the ordinary teaching positions also  lay teachers had little leverage  which was why conditions became so unattractive and staff turnover was so high. The observation of one chairman of the Intermediate Board that  no lay man wilfully takes up teaching as a permanent career  is supported by impressionistic evidence  and there are indications that a high proportion of those working as secondary teachers were doing so either because they were disqualified from  or not yet qualified for  other professions. Miche l Breatnach s colleagues in one academy  according to his memoir  were a Trinity theology graduate who had last minute qualms about taking orders  a former civil servant sacked for drunkenness  and a man who failed his medical exams.     It was within such an environment that the first stirrings of organisation began to take place.    The forerunner of the ASTI was the Association of Intermediate and University Teachers  AIUT   which was formed in 1897. It core demands were for the registration of teachers  adequate salaries  security of tenure  and good service pensions. These goals would also become the mainstay of the ASTI.  If one of the noblest of professions was to attract the necessary numbers  argued the AIUT   the rewards had to be adequate.  As one of the founders of the ASTI  P.J. Kennedy  put it in 1910   a system of education which ignores the teacher is radically unsound.   There could be no satisfactory education without professional conditions for teachers  the ASTI argued   because able individuals would seek their livelihoods elsewhere until there were reasonable career expectations in teaching.  The fact that there was a large pool of low wage and compliant secondary teachers in the Religious orders  working in schools essentially governed by the Catholic church  helped to create a bulwark for decades against the goals of the organised teachers associations.    Cunningham focuses in on the experiences of women  who made up more than 40 per cent of non clerical secondary teachers. Not only that  in pre partition Ireland  over 80 per cent of lay women in the profession were Protestant  whereas the majority of lay men were Catholic.  In 1911 the decision was taken to establish a women s section within the ASTI  which was named the Women Teachers Association  WTA . The divisions on the island were reflected in the ASTI and in 1919 large sections of the association in Ulster broke away and formed the Ulster National Teachers  Union after the ASTI registered as a union and affiliated to the left leaning and decidedly Republican Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress.     At the same time  the rise in post war industrial militancy  which saw gains not only for tradesmen and labourers but white collar workers as well  did not leave the ASTI untouched and the first strike by Irish teachers was undertaken on 3 May 1920.  To the argument of [the Religious] employers that they were constrained by the low level of fees in their schools  writes Cunningham   the teachers asked whether they were expected  through their low salaries  to continue subsidising the education of the children of those such as comfortable farmers who had made enormous profits from the increased food prices of wartime.      The strike was a relative success for the ASTI  and a milestone in its history. It had taken on the Catholic religious employers  had won concessions  and had done so through the backing and solidarity of the Irish trade union movement  of which it was for now a full and active member. The cross class alignment of white collar and tradesman  coupled with the upheavals of the post war period  was enough to make the Catholic religious file a tactical retreat. With the formation of the Free State  however  the dynamic changes somewhat  with cabinet and crozier singing from the same  Catholic  hymn sheet.    Possibly the most influential individual on the southern state s education policy was the  phantom  minister for education  Rev. Timothy Corcoran  the Jesuit professor of education at UCD. Cunningham explains that      Corcoran  was a pedagogical traditionalist  favouring classical over modern languages  and critical of liberal and child centred educationalists like Montessori  Froebel  and Pestalozzi for failing to take into account the  effect of original sin  on human nature  and thereby  perverting the whole professional mentality and action of teachers.  He was a prolific polemicist  a founder of the periodical Studies  and a contributor to the Catholic Bulletin and the Irish Monthly. His articles in these publications conveyed his general outlook  but on occasion  they could be quite specific in their critique of proposals  and unambiguously directive in their tone. They were read  and were intended to be read  by senior public servants and political leaders. According to E. Brian Titley  Corcoran acted as a  watchdog  for the bishops in educational affairs  and his comments precisely reflected their attitude in every respect. for Seosamh   N ill  secretary of the Department of Education  his influence was unparalleled:  In the reconstruction of the Irish state  he was from the beginning the master builder in Education.     In 1926 only 34 per cent of of the 1 461 registered secondary teachers in the Free State were lay teachers  an average of two in each of the country s 283 schools. The loss of the six counties meant that the ASTI s catchment area was far more reliant on the relatively small pool of Catholic lay teachers than might have otherwise been the case. This weakened the power base of the ASTI within the educational system  a situation which the union overcame by drawing on personal connections with leading figures. Although by the late 1930s the ASTI had won concessions on pay  pensions and  finally in 1937  a limited form of security of tenure  Cunningham argues that      the agreement of 1936 37 marked an acceptance by the ASTI of the particular character of the new state and of the strength of Catholic authority. In the Association s early years  British governments  for their own reasons  had been prepared to press for the extension of the role of the state in secondary education  and were prepared to use financial incentives to win concessions from the Catholic bishops. But even though they had ex ASTI members in influential positions  neither Cumann na nGaedhael nor Fianna F il governments wished to quarrel with the Catholic Church regarding the limits of its authority in secondary education. Moreover  as one of its leading spokesmen on education indicated  the Catholic Church would accept no such limits in any case:  On issues of Catholic education   insisted Rev. Corcoran   there is no appeal to the civil state  least of all here in Ireland  where our schools have by all historic tradition  their title to existence from the Catholic Church alone  and not from any civil power.  Irish self government  in other words  did not change anything.    This is not to say that the ASTI and its members were exactly out of step with the conservative  Catholic nature of the Free State. In 1927 the association disaffiliated from the Labour Party and Congress. Cunningham highlights the minutes of the Dublin branch meeting in April 1926  where one member  Mr. Keane  objected to the organisation s association with Labour in part because  we were educators of middle classes  and as such  our connection should be with that class.  The fact that the ASTI was able to achieve modest gains for its members through its personal and political connections with the Free State s power structures was no coincidence. There were significant tensions between the ASTI and the other teachers  unions  with the former holding a somewhat snooty attitude of the latter. Secondary school teachers were well aware that they came from the middle class and that they taught the middle class: they just weren t paid very well for their troubles.    The shake up in Irish education in the 1960s also changed the dynamic within the ASTI in terms of its membership  as well as upsetting the relationship between the organisation  the employers  and the state. In 1963 the organisation voted to re register as a trade union  and in January 1969 it re joined Congress. By this time Donogh O Malley had ushered in free secondary education for all  while throughout the 1960s secondary teachers watched as workers in other industries improved their pay and work conditions through militant action. As with the 1918 22 period  the lesson was not lost on them  and once again secondary school teachers were working to rule and going on strike   but this time with limited success. Moreover       in the period between the exam boycott of 1964 and the abortive strike of 1971  the ASTI became a really vibrant organisation. Teachers were drawn to meetings in unprecedented numbers to learn about the issues  to express opinions about them  and to vote upon them in increasingly frequent national ballots. Those of them who held strong views competed with one another for delegateships to annual convention and to the many special conventions. The vitality of the debate and the ever present danger of strike ensured that enlistment in the ASTI became almost automatic for many entrants to the profession. With the concurrent decline in the proportion of teaching religious  it became more difficult to dispute the Association s claim to speak for the body of Irish secondary teachers.     The loosening of the Catholic church s hold on education in the Republic affected not only teachers  but parents and pupils as well. In the 1980s  parents were becoming more organised and more independent  and consequently it was desirable to establish good relations with their representatives.      The assault on education in the 1980s met fierce resistance from teachers  unions  culminating in a rare show of solidarity and strength in December 1985 when  an estimated 20 000 men and women  drawn from the ASTI  the TUI and INTO [travelled] on a cold winter s day to Croke Park by car  coach and special train from all corners of the country to protest against the cutbacks. The theme of inter union relationships dominates the final chapters of Unlikely Radicals  particularly the extremely bitter and divisive pay disputes of 2000 2002.     The ASTI s criticisms of Partnership carry a certain poignancy today  as we look back on the period with a much more sober view of the Celtic Tiger  miracle  and its fantastic promises of constant  eternal  economic growth. Indeed  the commodification of results  such as the Irish Times league tables and grind school sweatshops  is singled out for particular criticism. Whereas in the 1930s the Irish secondary school system was run with the production of priests in mind  today the production of business and marketing souls is the new mantra  one that is just as narrow as the clerical collar of former years. Since 2004 the role of the ASTI  and indeed the other teachers  unions  has been largely defensive  as the chimera of  modernisation  and  productivity  takes up the column pages once occupied with equal force and absolute certainty by the words  miracle    tiger  and  Celtic . Teachers are in danger of being side lined once again  as they were in the early decades of the 20th century. The gains which were achieved through years of struggle and persistence  one fears  will only be held through resistance and organisation.     Unlikely Radicals is a timely book  well written and informative. It provides a clear and concise account of the organisational history of the ASTI  as well as placing that history within the social  cultural and economic development of the Irish Free State and Republic. Finally  in its own subtle way  it manages to show aspects of the power and dynamic of class in Irish society  and for such insights alone it is well worth the effort.

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5 of 5 Teachers may grumble now but things were much w February 25, 2010
Reviewer: Irish Independent from Republic of Ireland  
Teachers may grumble now    but things were much worse  A new book says that 100 years ago  they used to earn less than chauffeurs      In the early part of the last century  the writer Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was moved to remark that female second level teachers were  the most harassed and exploited class in the whole country .    The position of their male counterparts was not that much better.    Their jobs were insecure  they had little or no opportunity for promotion in schools that were dominated by the clergy  and their pay was meagre.    Padraig Pearse was fiercely critical of the education system of his time:  We are all alive to the truth that a teacher ought to be paid better than a policeman  and to the scandal of the fact that many an able and cultured man is working in Irish secondary schools at a salary less than that of the viceroy s chauffeur.      The dramatic improvement of pay and conditions of teachers over the past century is chronicled in a new book Unlikely Radicals: Irish Post Primary Teachers and the ASTI  1909 2009. Written by historian Dr John Cunningham of NUI Galway  the book provides a social and historical account of the ASTI s role in the development of second level education and the teaching profession in Ireland.    During the present difficult period for teachers  the book may offer some kind of consolation. Over the past century  with effective union leadership  their relative status  pay and conditions have improved dramatically.    By the end of the last century  Irish teachers with 15 years  service were the third highest paid in developed countries.    Teachers and others involved in education frequently complain about the pressures of the points race and the concentration on rote learning. But there is nothing new in this.    At the time of ASTI s foundation in 1909  the focus on exams was if anything more intense. Schools were funded and teachers paid according to results. Padraig Pearse described the highly competitive education system of his time as a  murder machine  .    With their poor pay  teachers of the early Twentieth Century struggled to keep up appearances  according to John Cunningham s account.    The signifiers of middle class status    respectable dress  a decent address and keeping a servant    were not easily afforded on salaries that were at the discretion of employers.    Cash strapped teachers who are struggling to get by in our current recession after two pay cuts may care to copy the example of Joe O Connor  a Kerry teacher who struggled to get by on his salary of  100 per year in the early years of the last century.    He supplemented his income by selling cups and medals won at village sports  designed shop fronts for draper stores  and drew illustrations for magazine stories.    At the time of ASTI s foundation  teachers seemed to fall into the profession because they did not fit in elsewhere. In a memoir of the time  teacher Micheal Breathnach said his colleagues in one school included a theology graduate who had last minute qualms about becoming a priest; a man who had failed his medical exams; and a former civil servant  sacked for drunkenness.    Although conditions gradually improved following the ASTI s foundation  lay second level teachers were largely left out of the loop when it came to managing their schools and influencing government policy.    The most dramatic changes at second level came in the 1960s and 1970s when the Government introduced universal free second level education and the Catholic church began to relinquish some of its control over schools.    The recent public sector strikes which affected schools were small beer when compared to some of the disputes that broke out in earlier decades.    In February 1969  teachers in every second level school in the country  except St Columba s College in Rathfarnham  went on strike for three weeks. Over 600 pupils marched on the streets of Dublin in support of them.    While pay for teachers had improved dramatically by the Celtic Tiger era  there was still a feeling that the profession was being left behind by those in the private sector. Now that so many of the perceived benefits of the Celtic Tiger era have proved temporary  and in some respects illusory  young people are again likely to view teaching as an attractive option.    Despite the pay cuts  John White  ASTI s general secretary  argues in the book that  teaching remains a worthwhile profession  one with a moral dimension  one that provides job satisfaction  one in which the working conditions are generally good .     Unlikely Radicals  Irish Teachers and the ASTI  1909 2009  by John Cunningham is published by Cork University Press   39.

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