Nora J Murray & the Ardclough Sedition Case 1917

Ardclough National School roll book form 1900

Ardclough National School roll book form 1900

The Ardclough Sedition Case was a complaint and threat of prosecution leveled against Nora J Murray (1888-1955), an Irish poetess and school teacher, in October-November 1917. The case was regarded as a turning point in the battle between the colonial authorities and the Irish National Teachers Organisation and school managers for freedom of expression in the Irish classrooms at a time when teachers were instructed to force children to recite poems such as “a happy English child.”

Nora J Murray (1888-1955) was the first lady teacher in an Irish national school to make her name as a poet. Prior to the publication of “The Wind Upon the Heath” by William Butler Yeats’ publisher Maunsel & Co in July 1918 to favourable critical reaction her poetry appeared in the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent during the revolutionary period. She also had short stories published. Some poetry relating to her native County Leitrim was published post-humously.

Ardclough National School, constructed 1839

Ardclough National School, constructed 1839

The daughter of Timothy Murray from Carrick on Shannon, she was a scholarship student at the local Marist Convent and noted musician. After graduation she taught at Ardclough National School in Co Kildare. She married Alfred Whyte on September 6 1919.

Ms Murray’s teaching of history in Ardclough National School was the subject of a complaint from local Unionist landlord Bertram Hugh Barton (1858-1927) in the aftermath of the 1916 rebellion.

Late in 1917 these allegations reappeared in the form of a complaint about “seditious teaching” filed to the National School commissioners in the name of Mrs Bourke, who said that her child had been discriminated against because he was the son of a British soldier.

Mrs Bourke informed the Commissioners  that Ms Murray taught children the nationalist poetry written by Emily Lawless (1845–1913) who had been born in nearby Lyons was a granddaughter of United Irish leader Valentine Lawless 2nd baron Cloncurry (1773–1853), and had allowed songs composed by Thomas Davis and Peadar Kearney to be sung in class. Influences of all three writers can be found in Murray’s own poetry. She also claimed that the teacher “instructs the children always to hate the British and tells them when they grow up she hopes they will fight and die for an Irish Republic,” phrases uncannily similar to the complaints used by Bertram Barton.

Nora Murray's Wind Upon the Heath

Nora Murray’s Wind Upon the Heath

In October 1917 the Commissioners notified the manager of the school, John Donovan that the complaint had been received. He responded that, contrary to Mrs Bourke’s accusations, that there had been no instances of seditious teaching in the history class, which had focused mainly on the Norman period, that the charge of victimisation of Bourke’s child was “absolutely false” and that the numbers attending the school had not, as alleged, fallen as a consequence of a loss of confidence in Miss Murray.

Fr Donovan referred to “the celebrated tongue” Mrs Bourke had in the neighbourhood.” He claimed that the teacher was both efficient and popular, and that any songs that may have been sung in class were so widely known that “no-one attaches any significance to them.”

A sworn enquiry organised by Commissioners was postponed, pending a prosecution for sedition by the Dublin Castle administration in Ireland. A defence fund was organised by local people and after considerable publicity no sedition proceedings were initiated.

The only demand on Miss Murray from the Commissioners was that she was required in future to submit all songs to be sung in class for prior approval. Mrs Bourke’s children moved to a protestant school run under the patronage of Barton in Straffan demesne. Ironically, Bertram Barton’s son Derrick was to become an active participant in post-independence Irish politics.

Further reading:

  • Records of the Commissioners of National Education, National Archives, ED9/2758o. Letter from Mrs Bourke to the Commissioners, C.O.30329-I7
  • Eoghan Corry and Jim Tancred: Annals of Ardclough (2004)
  • Gabriel Doherty: National Identity and the Study of Irish History in “The English Historical Review,” Vol. 111, No. 441 (April 1996), pp. 332-3 (Oxford University Press).
  • John Rooney: The poetry of Nora J Murray in Carrick on Shannon remembered p 57. (1996)
  • Nora J Murray: A Wind Upon the Heath (1918)
  • Nora J Murray: Leitrim of The Lakes
  • Nora J Murray: A Ridge of the West
  • Freeman’s Journal November 29 1917.
  • Leinster Leader December 1 1917, March 30 1918, August 18 1918, August 31 1918, November 30 1918.
  • Leitrim Observer December 1st 1917
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