Donogh O’Malley’s 1966 Announcement of Free Education: The Hidden History

Donogh O’Malley caused consternation in government when he announced his free education scheme in September 1966 without having brought the matter to Cabinet.  The enthusiasm of the public response forced the government’s hand.  Whether or not Lemass had prior knowledge has been the subject of heated debate among historians.  Lemass denied it, but five members of the cabinet told Brian Farrell, while writing Chairman or Chief?, of their belief that not only had he seen the text in advance but he had actually amended it.

The journalist John Healy was a great friend of O’Malley’s.  Later in life he told Michael O’Regan, who is now the Irish Times parliamentary correspondent, that the paper trail had been designed as a smokescreen  and could not be relied upon.  Healy published his recollections in Magill magazine in March 1988, on the 20th anniversary of O’Malley’s death. At  the behest of Michael O’Regan, I’ve dug it out.  The hidden history is here.

9 replies on “Donogh O’Malley’s 1966 Announcement of Free Education: The Hidden History”

Ten years of age, being hoisted by my late mother and strangers on to the stone perimeter wall of the St. Josephs Hospital, Mulgrave Street Limerick so that I could see the great man’s cortege go by.

I often think of that day every time I see O’ Keeffe, I loathe to call him “minister” and his cheap clap-trap politics. He will be remembered too but not for anything proud, but rather, for his relentless attacks and efforts to dismantle primary and third level education in this country.

If Ireland is to emerge from this economic mess, it will have to stop the
O’ Keeffe’s the people that would kill education and try to pass it off as, just another cut, type of politics.

Without education we would not be able to see corruption, mismanagement cronyism etc. Are we better off? The Prussians made schooling compulsory as it aided their economic and military machine. Banking grew big on lending for wars. Be careful what you wish for, as the education being arranged these days is not to question history or propaganda, but to accept it and memorise it. Reproduce it faithfully and you will be guanteed a job………

We need to get O’Malley in perspective: it’s not as if there was some new dawn in 1968 which replaced utter darkness.

The first thing to remember is that post-primary education was heavily subsidised prior to 1968: I don’t have the numbers to hand, but my guess is that between teachers’ incremental salaries (and public sector pensions) and capitation grants to schools, somewhere between 75% and 85% of the costs were being met by the Exchequer.

Second: participation at second level was on a fairly strong upward trend prior to 1968: some years later Dale Tussing had an article in the ESR which estimated the effect of fee abolition on enrolment. His conclusion was that much of the increase would have happened independently of policy changes.

Third, there were initiatives prior to 1968 which in retrospect were important in preparing the way: most notable of these was the Comprehensive Schools initiative, for which Paddy Hillary should take credit.

Finally, the post-1968, there was a failure to adjust school capitation grants in line with the very high inflation of the 1970s. This lead to increasing reliance on “voluntary contributions”. Not the first (nor I fear the last) example of the Irish State making commitments which it was either unable or unwilling to finance properly.

I haven’t read the Tussing paper recently but Colm Harmon & I use this reform as a quasi-experiment in estimating returns to education (its a Geary & a UCD Economics wp). I think the evidence is pretty clear that it had a significant effect, even allowing for trends. The point is that it is not the average enrollment that is changed but the distribution. Rich kids were not affected – they were going to go anyway but kids who’s fathers were manual workers benefited big-time by about 2 or 3 years extra schooling.

Ask any parent how much secondary ed. costs these days. Fees and “voluntary” donations have eroded O’Malley’s promise for years (and even more so in the case of “free fees” at third level, where “registration fees” appeared almost immediately).

@Frank Barry

Noel Browne in ‘Against the Tide, 1986, pp 222-226’ notes, during his ‘brief’ flirtation within Fianna Fail (1953-4?), his involvement in submitting a memorandum on ‘education’ which led to a ‘committee of enquiry’ [inc Haughey, B Lenihan, Eoin Ryan] & chaired by Michael Yeats …’recommendations will be implemented when financial considerations permit’ … and essentially blocked by De Valera (& more probably the little man really in charge of the peeple!) …….. and according to Browne ‘I understand that they formed the basis of the later valuable improvements made by the Fianna Fail Minister for Education, Donough O’Malley, under Lemass as Taoiseach, in the 1960s’ (p. 226)

Anyone got a ‘lead’ on Browne’s memorandum? Who’s minding the FF Archive these days? I would like to ‘see’ this memorandum …

Lemass certainly understood the distinction between ‘tactics’ & ‘strategy’ – well lost by the time of the bowel_bertie et al and other leetle-men in charge of the money and the peeple ….

That said, O’Malley had balls, as did Lemass.


Irish education remains ‘class based’ and its funding remains highly ‘regressive’, and it remains highly ‘regulatory captured’ by the professional and landed insider-classes.

@ David O’Donnell,
Fianna Fáil archives are held at UCD ( but I believe they are far from comprehensive. They are open to the public but you need to make an appointment.

TCD historian John Walsh’s recent book on “The Politics of Expansion: the transformation of educational policy in the RoI 1957-72” references Browne a number of times. Another source might be John Horgan’s “Noel Browne: Passionate Outsider”. If his book on Lemass is anything to go by, it will be meticiously researched.

Well done, I found the same Article, Im writing about O’Malley’s involvement with the RTCs. If you dug anything else out It would be useful to me. I’ve read the Wild one in magill 1988 already. However I didn’t know John Healy was a friend of O Malleys which is good news.

Did you know that a child of a manual worked was 68 times less likely to go to University in Ireland, than a child of the professional classes, in the 1960s!

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