Education and Gratitude

E2020One of the main things I’ve been grateful for in my life has been the gift of education. At a time when not all girls or young women were given the opportunity to complete a secondary education, I was lucky enough to be given that at a good school with strong social justice values. Not only that I became part of the generation that, to the best of my knowledge, was the first in my family/families to be able to attend university. Considering that I came from a working class family this was indeed a gift as was the opportunity to obtain a government scholarship.


The gift of education becomes more apparent when compared with the opportunities, or the lack thereof, for my ancestors.

My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors. Maya Angelou, American Poet.

The Irish

Anyone with Irish ancestors is all too familiar with that X in lieu of a signature, or an immigration document that states an ancestor could neither read nor write. This was especially the case for those immigrants who arrived up to the 1860s or who were born up to the 1840s or 1850s. Among these were my Mary O’Brien (Co Clare), Denis Gavin (Kildare and Dublin) and his wife Eleanor Murphy (Wicklow and Dublin). In some instances, these adults became semi-literate over the years, perhaps learning over the children’s schoolwork, as evidenced by Mary’s sister Bridget O’Brien Widdup who could sign her name at least in later years.

It’s also interesting to compare Mary and Bridget’s literacy with their siblings who remained in Ireland. Their sister of a similar age, Honora, is reported on the 1901 census as illiterate and only speaking English, whereas in 1911 the census enumerates her as literate and speaking both Irish and English. My working theory is that the older children may have had some very basic education and spoke both English and Irish.

In 1824 there was a hedge school in their townland of Ballykelly, run by Patrick Ryan. It is described as “a wretched hovel, badly thatched and would cost 10/- or 15/- to build one”. Over the preceding three months, 50 children had attended[i]. Whether it was still in operation when Mary, Bridget and Honora were of school age is unknown. Of course, these siblings were also of school age during the Famine years when education was a luxury or simply not available. However, their younger siblings, Margaret McNamara and Thomas O’Brien, were both literate and spoke no Irish[ii].

1901 census Thomas O'Brien Ballykelly
1901 Census Ballykelly townland, Parish Kilseily, Co Clare. National Library of Ireland.

Generations of my Callaghan family from Courtown were not literate and it seems likely they went to sea fishing from an early age. There’s no real way of knowing today whether their lack of education arose from lack of opportunity or the need for additional income. The 1901 census form is signed with an X against David Callaghan’s name. Because my McSherry/McSharry/Sherry ancestors arrived in the 1880s it’s not clear whether James McSharry and wife Bridget Furlong could read or write. In Bridget McSharry nee Furlong’s case it seems unlikely, but perhaps not, as the 1901 census shows her brother Martin born about 1852 could read and write but his wife could not.

Language is so important to the Irish, almost regardless of education. Jessie Buckley, Irish musician.

Were my Scottish ancestors educated?

grandmas school cert
My grandmother’s merit certificate from Mt Florida school, Glasgow, that she brought to Australia with her.

Unfortunately the Scottish census records for the timeframe I need does not include literacy so there is no way of knowing if my 2xgreat grandparents, James McCorkindale and Isabella Morrison  could read or write. It’s possible that Isabella may have had some education: there was certainly a school nearby in her home parish and as a tenant farmer and miller her father could likely have afforded to send her to school.[iii]

Given that there was a teacher in the old school at nearby Cairndow[iv], it’s highly likely that their son, Duncan McCorkindale, was literate as was his second wife, Annie Sim.

The English

My Kent ancestors from Sandon in Hertfordshire were literate based on immigration data. My great-grandmother Hannah Kent’s husband, William Partridge, stated he could read only and yet later, as a carpenter, one might have thought he’d at least be numerate. Growing up William lived in the town of Coleford so it seems odd that he would not have had the opportunity of more education

My Bavarian Ancestor

George Kunkel was indeed fortunate that formal education had been instituted around the 1830s and there was a school in his village, Dorfprozelten. By the time George came to Australia he also seemed to have some level of English as, when questioned as a witness in a court case, he did not need an interpreter. This must have been helpful to the family but to what extent this enabled him to write as an intermediary with his wife’s family back in Ireland is unknown. It certainly seems to have given him confidence in dealing with civic matters as his signature is regularly found on early petitions to the government.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. Martin Luther King, Jr., American Leader.

The Australian Generations

Kunkel children Logan school
Logan Village School Admission Register 188901890. Queensland State Archives Item 611423

Despite the educational disadvantages with which many of my ancestors arrived in Australia (or perhaps because), they tried to ensure that their children would learn to read and write. School enrolment records held at the Queensland State Archives show the children’s attendance as soon as they were eligible or the school was opened. For others, their parents’ occupation may have worked against the child if there was no school within riding or walking distance, or they moved too regularly to have a truly consistent education. I suspect my Kunkel grandfather fell into this latter category. Irrespective of their formal education, they did not necessarily cease to learn throughout their lives, cultivating habits of learning poetry or reading extensively. As I mentioned in an earlier post, parents could be found on school committees either after the formation of the school or appealing to the government for a provisional school in a newly developed area.

I am very grateful for all they did to progress their education and that of their children. From them I inherited the gift of my own education and an appreciation of its value.

What importance did education have in your families’ lives?


Quotes from

[i] County Clare Hedge School Teachers named in the Irish Education Enquiry, 1824 indexed on Clare Library site at

[ii] Data recorded in the 1901 census enumerations.

[iii] 1845 Statistical Account of Scotland 1845, page 107 and the 1792 Statistical Account page 569

[iv] Information based on the 1841 census.

6 thoughts on “Education and Gratitude

  1. My maternal grandfather was always firm on the benefits of education. He had to leave Europe after the war and came to Australia with very little but his skills and knowledge. For other emigrants in my family tree I have also seen the benefit of having an education when having to start over.


    1. Education truly is a cornerstone for life. Sadly not all of our ancestors had the chance of a formal education but were often wise in other ways.


  2. My parents both left school at 15 although they had the opportunity to continue. Circumstances meant staying at school for them was not a happy choice. My widowed mother encouraged me to complete high school and attend teachers college, which was a way for the not so well off to get a tertiary education. That gave me an opportunity to continue at University later on. With a history of women in the family who had to survive in the world without men, my mother and grandmother could see the value of education.


  3. Excellent post. I also went to a “state school” as we call them in the U.S. (versus private) as it was less expensive. My further back ancestors had only basic education — and not all could read/write. But my maternal grandmother and my mom were both teachers — so they encouraged me to do well unschool from an early age.


    1. hi Molly, my husband’s family has teachers throughout and the women in particular could drive the process of furthering their children’s education, as did yours and mine. My grandchildren aren’t entirely sure that having mum available to teach them during the current crisis (including holidays) is an entirely good thing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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