International Literacy Day

UNESCO designates 8th September every year as International Literacy Day. It promotes the importance of literacy as a human right. Who among us doesn’t love getting caught up in a great novel? In this modern world, very few activities still require your full attention, we’re always on our phones or something, but reading is still an exclusive action for me. It transports you to another world. To mark this important day and highlight it, I took a look at the literacy level of one of my great-great grandmothers.

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Many records that we use for genealogy can tell us about a person’s literacy. The census of 1901 & 1911 specifically asked people if they could read and write. Records of birth, marriage and death showed an X if a person was illiterate. Literacy is not simply about access to education. 

In the 18th century, formal schools in Ireland were generally run by Protestant organisations with state support. Catholics were allowed to attend them, but parents were reluctant to permit their children to go for fear of proselytism. Penal laws enacted in the 17th century forbade formal Catholic education and did not allow parents to send their children aboard, though the latter would have had limited application. Middle and upper-class girls were usually educated at home by governesses. Despite the obstacles to Catholics, there was still a desire to educate and hedge schools, open to both sexes, arose all over the country. Purpose-built locations were not available and teachers, usually male, made use of whatever building or outdoor space was possible, which gave rise to the name. These were fee-paying establishments. However, where people were unable to afford fees, bartered produce was accepted. Parents had a say in the curriculum, which usually consisted of reading and writing, arithmetic, English, Latin and Greek. Science, history, geography and classic literature were sometimes offered. The subject matter was teacher-led, whose abilities ‘ranged from bare literacy to inflated pedantry to genuine scholarly achievement’.* Most people were still Irish-speakers at this stage.

By the 1820s, it was clear that a national system of formal education was required. An 1821 report showed that just 32% of those aged five to fifteen were in school.  A subsequent investigation found that hedge schools were of limited value, though later historiography has established that the inquiry was prejudiced. Ultimately, the results of this inquiry led to the establishment of the national school system in 1831, free and open to everyone. Though there was universal support for education – by 1870, almost one million children were enrolled – a struggle to control it raged between the churches. Schools were intended to be non-denominational, with religious instruction taking place separately. Practically, this did not work. By the mid-19th century, schools were mostly segregated by religion, the majority of which were Catholic. However, universal compulsory attendance was not required until the 1890s. There can be no doubt that Irish literacy was greatly improved by the new system. By 1911, the rate of illiteracy was just over 8%.

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The curriculum at both primary and second level was different for boys and girls. This gendering of subject matter was considered important to prepare the sexes for their future roles in life. Boys studied agriculture and sciences. Girls’ subjects were focused on the domestic sphere. Next to reading and writing, needlework ranked third in importance. Middle-class girls were not expected to have a career or work outside the home. As the 19th century progressed, girls began to stay longer at school and were less likely to be truant. Boys were needed to help with farm labour and could not be spared indefinitely. Catholic convent schools were highly sought after as there was a perception that nuns could achieve better results in the domestic sphere, kept the children segregated by social class, and aided with potential job placements. However, convent schools initially lagged behind Protestant equivalents by not teaching Latin and only basic maths.

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There is no birth record for my ancestor Mary-Anne Ure. She was born in the mid-1850s in Dublin. Her family were Presbyterians and her father was a clerk in different businesses over the years. On the face of that description, you would expect Mary-Anne to be able to read. She certainly went to school. I found her in the records of a Quaker Sunday school in 1862.

Mary-Anne’s marriage in 1874 also does not indicate that she can’t read.


However, the births of her children tell a different story. On some of the registrations, Mary is shown with an X mark on Frederick, Lizzie and Mary Anne’s births in the 1880s.

On the censuses of 1901 and 1911, Mary Anne said she could read and write. What’s more, she’s actually on the electoral register too, though of course, being on the register doesn’t necessarily mean she actually voted.

So what’s going on here? It seems possible that she learned the rudiments of reading and writing at school, but perhaps was not very confident at it. Mary Anne’s husband died young at 41 and most of their children were still not old enough to work. I don’t know exactly how the family survived but they did at least temporarily move in with her father, Alexander. Mary Anne almost certainly had to work and maybe this forced her to improve her literacy. Yet, in 1893, she registered the birth of her nephew with an X mark.

This brief exploration of one ancestor, who looks middle-class, reminds me how I take the ability to read for granted nowadays. However, there are still elements of Irish society that struggle with this basic human right. The National Adult Literacy Association supports people with this and I’ve made a donation to them to remember my many other ancestors who could not read including Mary Anne’s mother, Anne Johnson.

* Antonia McManus, ‘The Irish hedge school and social change’ in Raftery, Deirdre and Fischer, Karin, (eds.), Educating Ireland: schooling and social change, 1700-2000 (Sallins, 2014), p. 8.

If you have any interesting evidence of your ancestors’ literacy, please let me know in the comments!

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