14 Aug 2022

Trip Through Time: The Dundalk Ragged School

Looking back at Dundalk's past, with former Democrat editor Peter Kavanagh

Trip Through Time: The Dundalk Ragged School

Have you ever seen a 'Raggamuffin'?

This term came back to me when I was discussing with a friend the origins of the 'Ragged School' in Dundalk of the 19th Century which is featured in one the answers to my Question Time this week.

I must confess at the start, however, that I had never heard of this old school for destitute children in Dundalk until relatively recently - but I had heard of a Raggamuffin!

In fact, it was a name used quite frequently in Dundalk of my youth to describe an unwanted and neglected child - regrettable for the Dundalk people of my generation, it was generally used in relation to orphans and not in an affectionate way!

I recall that it was usually only referred to boys who got into trouble but my memory could be faulty in that respect.

Strangely, it was often used by some mothers, with a certain degree of humour, when referring to a mischievous or troublesome child about whom they had some concern as to their future!

I can assure readers, however, that it was never pleasant to be described as a 'Ragamuffin', so, perhaps, you can understand it was not a subject that was discussed often in polite society of the last century.

Etymologists, those who study of the origins of words, seem to be divided about the exact meaning of this name which has been used in English for centuries.

The majority view is that that it comes from the name of a demon called 'Ragamoffyn' mentioned in a Middle English poem called 'Piers Ploughman' about life in rural England of the 14th Century.

In this context the word 'ragge' is a rag which described how this particular demon was dressed. Which might explain why some would be afraid of such a person.

Others, however, claim that it comes from Middle German in which a 'muffe' was a small cake - which was about all the poor could expect to get, by the way of luxury.

From this meaning the name of the pastry called 'muffins' is derived.

Free education was provided for the poor in London by a man called Thomas Cranfield in the late 18th century but his work was limited and it was not until 1844 that the mass movement to set up Ragged Schools was commenced.

The teaching was done by local volunteers who also provided meals.

The man given credit for starting the movement was a crippled shoemaker called John Pounds who sat on the footpath in front of his shop to teach children to read and write.

This must have been something not unlike the 'hedge schools' operating in Ireland of the period.

By 1870, when the first Education Act was passed there were 350 Ragged Schools throughout Britain and Ireland. The first one in Dublin was established in 1849 and it must have been soon afterwards that the Dundalk School was started.

There are no records, that I know of, about the number of teachers involved but I have read that one man was in charge and there was at least one lady teacher.

There were separate classes for boys and girls and, I think, dormitory accommodation was provided in the upstairs part of the building.

I have no idea how many children were being taught at any one time but I gather that there were quite a few homeless children wandering the streets of the Town in the period.

Discipline was harsh but I do not think it was any worse than in any other schools of the time. Certainly it seems to have helped many to escape their impoverished conditions!

The Ragged Schools declined after the 1870 Eduction Act, which saw the opening of many primary schools in Ireland, as you can spot in the dates over the entrance doors.

The Ragged Schools were finally closed in 1902 when the next Education Act was passed but I think the Dundalk School must have closed long before that date.

Education in Ireland was long carried out by religious orders and there were 500 pupils attending the Sisters of Mercy primary school at Mill Street not long after it first opened in 1850, The Dominican Fathers also pioneered primary eduction in Dundalk, even before the Catholic Emancipation Act passed in 1829.

The reason that the Ragged School in Dundalk may have been forgotten about was of the poor reputation in Ireland of industrial schools, where children were often sent as a punishment when they appeared before courts.

The Dundalk Ragged School may not have been an ideal educational institution but it must certainly would have been much better than the Workhouse to which many children were assigned through no fault of their own.

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