A Thorough Examination of the INTO – Book Review in the Irish Examiner

‘Kindling the Flame’ was reviewed by Niall Murray in the Irish Examiner on 7 April 2018.

Kindling the Flame: 150 Years of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation
Niamh Puirséil
Gill Books, €24.99

As delegates to its annual congress ended three days of debate earlier this week, it seems fitting that celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) coincide with the centenary of the extension of partial enfranchisement to women. For a profession whose membership is predominantly female, Niamh Puirséil’s new history of the union for the country’s primary teachers shows how its actions
sometimes failed to reflect that dominance.

For decades after the establishment of the Free State, their gender meant that 60% of INTO members worked on an unlevel playing field.

The current campaign around equal pay for equal work is far from a new one for the organisation. And those efforts were not made solely after independence was achieved, as successive groups of activists resisted the linking of teachers’ pay to school size and pupil performance around the turn of the 20th century.

The proposed introduction in 1932 of a ban on married women joining or continuing in the profession prompted INTO opposition focused on economic, educational and ethical grounds. But, Puirséil reports, industrial action was never considered, and the only concession secured was a two-year delay on its introduction to allow those already in training avoid the ban’s effects.

Resistance to swingeing pay cuts and increased pension contributions had dominated industrial relations in education in the years immediately after political independence — just as it has since economic independence from the Troika was restored not too long ago.

For the first half-century after a group of teachers met in a Dublin room in August 1868, Puirséil relies heavily on the work of past INTO historian Thomas J O’Connell, and on contemporary accounts and opinions in the profession’s own publications. The fact that O’Connell served from 1916 to 1949 as INTO’s general secretary requires some of his accounts to be treated with caution, but the author is not slow to critically analyse many of
the union’s actions and inactions.

The absence of full records of the union executive’s deliberations for around the first half of its 150 years makes impossible a completely forensic analysis. But Kindling the Flame documents well, nonetheless, the earlier decades dominated by disputes about the employment and dismissal powers of local school managers, usually the Catholic parish priest.

Ironically, it was an intervention by Catholic Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid that helped the INTO leadership convince members to end a seven-month strike in 1946. Despite more than 1,200 Dublin teachers striking from March to October, supported by salary deductions from members outside the capital, the union failed to progress the claim for pay increases.

The outcome left many Dublin members disheartened and, Puirséil suggests, contributed to an almost 20% fall in membership to 8,600 between 1945 and 1947. But the strike also afforded prominent roles for two future women presidents, including 1916 Rising veteran Margaret Skinnider, herself the subject of a forthcoming biography by Mary McAuliffe.

The controversial marriage ban for teachers was ended by education minister Jack Lynch two years after Skinnider’s 1956 term as president. It was not until the dawn of the 1970s that one of the union’s longest-held ambitions was achieved. Its members were only given that pay parity with their second-level and vocational teaching counterparts after a bitter campaign of opposition by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland.

These are just some of the tribulations dealt with concisely but thoroughly — a tough task over such a long timeline — by an author whose family ties to past leadership of the INTO are not evident in an objective, and sometimes stinging, critique of its work.