The national system of elementary education was established in Ireland in 1831, nearly 40 years before there was a similar system in England. Prior to its introduction, there were already numerous schools throughout Ireland, though many were in poor condition and were badly conducted. The province of Ulster, for example, had 3,449 schools in 1821, of which over 1,000 were to be found in Cos Antrim and Down. No county, in fact, had a better ratio of schools to population than Down.
Among these pre-1831 schools were those managed by the Kildare Place Society, schools sponsored by the London Hibernian Society and hedge or ‘pay’ schools which generally served the Catholic community. The schools sponsored by the London Hibernian Society were avoided by Roman Catholics because of their proselytising character.
The aim of the new national system was to provide schools that would serve the whole community rather than particular religious groups. Secular instruction was to be given on week days and on Saturdays clergy of the main denominations provided religious instruction for their children.
Over 2,500 national schools were established in Ulster in the period 1831-1870. The records that are available for these schools provide illuminating detail for the local and family historian as well as for the historian of education.