Getting Back to Irish Roots: Catholic Classical School Launches
New endeavor gets boost from upcoming ‘Saints and Scholars’ pilgrimage.
CORK, Ireland — St. Patrick’s Ireland, the “Land of Saints and Scholars,” preserved the learning of Greece and Rome and spread the Catholic faith that helped bring Europe out of its Dark Ages following the chaotic collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
This July, a new “Saints and Scholars” pilgrimage is empowering Catholics to support St. Patrick’s modern-day successors, as a new movement aims to restore Catholic faith and education in Ireland and eventually Europe, with the creation of the country’s first-ever independent Catholic classical education schools.
“We’ve gone through a heck of a time as a Church, and as a society, in this country over the last 25 years,” Padraig Cantillon-Murphy, founder of Mater Dei Academy in Cork city, told the Register. “For the first time, I see people have dusted themselves off, they’re ready to get up again, and start to fight. And this is part of that fight.”
Independent Catholic classical education schools are spread throughout the United States, but Mater Dei Academy is the first of its kind in Ireland — and so is its classical Catholic curriculum for home schooling.
“This is completely unique in Ireland as an education system,” Cantillon-Murphy told the Register. “We’re essentially leading the students to the truth, and that essentially is Jesus Christ.”
For a century, Irish have attended for free government-backed Catholic schools that succeeded the British educational system. But many Irish Catholics have been dismayed that Irish society rapidly secularized and rejected the Catholic faith starting in the early ’90s, a process created by new economic prosperity and abuse scandals that left the Church’s authority in tatters. Irish society voted overwhelmingly in two referenda, in 2015 and 2018, to legalize same-sex “marriage” and abortion respectively in the Irish Constitution. But observers within the Church pointed out the role of the Church’s educational system in the catastrophe: Nearly everyone who voted came out of Ireland’s Catholic schools.
At the same time, Cantillon-Murphy noted, Ireland’s educational standards shifted focus away from educating the whole person and toward vocational skills training. Cantillon-Murphy, who comes from a family of educators, said he and his wife, Grace, noticed on their return to Ireland after 10 years abroad that in Ireland “the educational standards had dropped, and so had the Catholic identity.”
“And we found there were lots of other parents concerned, as well,” he said.
Eventually, the Cantillon-Murphys and other Irish-Catholic parents decided to organize and start Mater Dei Academy in Cork. Cantillon-Murphy said they studied the successes of the Catholic classical-education movement in the U.S., particularly the Chesterton Academies and St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, and aimed to develop an Irish version that would educate children for life in Christ. Additionally, they started Mater Dei Education for home-schooling families in the same mold.
“This has been a fabulously enriching undertaking,” Cantillon-Murphy said, “because unlike in other places, we’re blessed with this extraordinary Catholic heritage and history, this language and culture and music, that was simply waiting to be rediscovered and reinvigorated as part of an education system.”
Mater Dei Academy’s six-year program in the classical tradition immerses students in the liberal arts tradition, built on the pillars of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Students learn Irish (Gaeilge), English and Latin, along with mathematics, philosophy, theology, art, music, science, history and physical education.
The school day begins with morning prayer and ends with afternoon prayer from the Divine Office of the Liturgy of the Hours, the public prayer of the Church. Students attend Mass as a group once a week and have regular opportunities for the sacrament of confession.
One of the unique features is how Mater Dei teaches the indigenous language of Irish (Gaeilge). Cantillon-Murphy said Mater Dei Academy’s approach to Irish seeks to “instill a love of the language in the students from the beginning” and sees the restoration of Irish as key to restoring the faith on the Emerald Isle. Cantillon-Murphy explained Ireland’s indigenous language contains a vivid and rich Catholic landscape. The Irish hello, “Dia dhuit,” literally means “God be with you,” and the response “Dia is Muire duit” literally means “God and Mary be with you.”
An additional strength of the school’s Irish Catholic classical-education model is that students will learn the grammar of both English and Irish. Cantillon-Murphy said today’s Irish educational system fails to teach the grammatical rules of either language, putting Irish students at a disadvantage in achieving fluency in their own language and in competing for English-speaking jobs.
With the blessing of the local bishop, and the support of the Cork Dominicans as their landlords, Mater Dei Academy launched in 2020 with 12 families. Today, the academy has 22 students, and Cantillon-Murphy said the number is set to double in the coming academic year.
The Saints and Scholars Foundation is playing an important role in generating support for Mater Dei Academy, as the school is funded not by tuition, but by donations.
“It is to allow Catholic education be available to families who believe that it’s important and not simply to families who believe they can pay for it,” Cantillon-Murphy explained. In fact, this principle is as old as the Irish monks who spread the Catholic faith and Catholic education to Europe.
But since Mater Dei Academy and other Catholic schools do not receive funding from the Irish government, they are relying on contributions from those who believe in its vision. The Saints and Scholars Foundation, based in Virginia, is spearheading the raising of funds for Mater Dei Academy, especially since more Irish Catholic classical-education schools will follow in the wake of Mater Dei Academy’s success. The foundation has already provided a grant to send a devout Catholic teacher to teach English grammar at Mater Dei Academy.
“Mater Dei Academy is the best news that I’ve heard out of Ireland in my life,” Connaught Marshner, president of The Saints and Scholars Foundation, told the Register. “It is positive, it is hopeful, and it’s revolutionary in the best sense of the term: It’s starting something new.”
Renewing Ireland, Renewing Europe … Again
The Saints and Scholars Foundation has organized a nine-day pilgrimage, from July 14 to 22, that will not only support Mater Dei Academy but take Catholics on a pilgrimage to Ireland’s ancient monasteries, the Penal Rocks where outlawed Masses were held, the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, and a visit to see the ancient Book of Kells. The pilgrimage will also involve a visit to Cork, where pilgrims will see Mater Dei Academy; and, throughout the trip, pilgrims will hear from the men and women working to revive the Catholic faith in Ireland and set it back on the foundation St. Patrick built.
“They have the pulse of the real Ireland and of the Church in Ireland,” Marshner said. “There will be tremendous insights that you won’t get anywhere else.”
Dominican Father Maurice Colgan, a veteran teacher of religion and philosophy who is guiding the “Saints and Scholars” pilgrimage, told the Register that teaching at Mater Dei Academy was a joy for him because the parents are dedicated to the school’s vision and encourage the teachers to carry out the school’s mission.
Father Maurice said the “Saints and Scholars” pilgrimage will be a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, because instead of focusing on typical tourist sites, pilgrims will get to explore more than 1,500 years of Catholic heritage in Ireland and discover how the Irish brought faith and restored learning lost to Europe that the monks had preserved. Father Maurice said the influence continued well into the Middle Ages.
“An Irishman [Peter of Ireland] taught Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and that’s much later in the 13th century,” he said.
Cantillon-Murphy said he is looking forward to the “Saints and Scholars” pilgrimage and sharing with pilgrims how faithful Irish Catholics are working to rebuild their society and the Church through renewed Catholic education.
“Because if we don’t have young people who understand what truth is, what beauty is, what goodness is, and have young people who are able to articulate that to a world that has forgotten about God, that has forgotten about what is right and wrong, that’s forgotten about the dignity of life, then our society has a very dark future,” he said. “But I believe that what we’re doing here is really important and sowing seeds for the future. And, thankfully, many people share that vision.”
Learn more about Mater Dei Academy and Mater Dei Education in Ireland, visit MaterDeiAcademy.ie.
To learn more about The Saints and Scholars Foundation and “Saints and Scholars” pilgrimage, visit SaintsandScholars.us.
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