Irish mother of six Monica O’Connor, 47, spent three hours in jail Wednesday as punishment for home-schooling her two youngest children in violation of new Irish regulations. The controversial case isn’t over by a long shot, however. The child protection agency TUSLA could go after her again next year, and her husband Edward O’Neill, 49, must still serve time for the same offence.
“We don’t intend to take it to a higher court. We think that’s what they want,” O’Connor told LifeSiteNews. But neither will the couple back down. “We clearly have the right to home school under the Constitution,” she added. But unlike Canada and the United States, Irish law does not allow a constitutional defence in the lower courts.
O’Connor, a home birth facilitator, and O’Neill, a teacher, home-schooled four older children to adulthood, and all have done fine since: the youngest has just been admitted to university to study classical music.
What’s changed, Jane Donegan of the Irish Home Education Network told LifeSiteNews, is that Ireland has a relatively new law governing home-schoolers, and a very new agency, called TUSLA, to enforce it. Home-schooling parents are now treated as if their children are truants until they apply for permission to home-school and get assessed for their suitability.
Before passage of the Education (Welfare) Act in 2000, home-schoolers were required to notify the local police, explaining why their children were not in school. But under the act, they now must apply to TUSL for an assessment by staff of each child. If they pass, they can register. If they do not follow the process, they must register with their local school, and their children must attend there.
“We think the government is making Edward O’Neill and Monica O’Connor scapegoats in order to get all us homeschoolers to register,” said Donegan. She estimates a quarter of the country’s 800 home-schoolers have not registered nor been assessed.
O’Connor isn’t worried about passing the assessment; she has already been assessed by child welfare services to raise and home-school several of the 22 foster children she has cared for. “I applied for the assessment for them because the State was finally responsible for them.” As for the O’Neill-O’Connor children, “I shouldn’t have to apply, given my Constitutional right.”
Because the couple have not registered with the local school, they were fined 2,000 Euros in June 2013 and another 1,300 Euros in December 2013. When they failed to pay, they were assessed 10 days’ jail time each. Happily, after serving only three hours, Monica O’Connor was given a “temporary release,” on good behavior, which includes, she admitted wryly, “I have to stay sober and I have to stay out of pubs.”
While home-schoolers worldwide have rallied behind the couple via their Facebook page, public opinion in Ireland has taken a dim view. Probably typifying the majority is Irish Independent columnist Sinead Ryan. In a Thursday column she concedes that some parents do a better job at teaching some children than do schools. But O’Connor is teaching her children a bad lesson in civics “by her ignoring the tenets of a peaceful and functioning society.”
Ryan goes on to invent a bad parent named “Mrs. Murphy” who lets her children “spend their days lolling in front of Spongebob Square pants.” But the use of an imaginary bad parent merely points out how no actual cases of neglectful home-schoolers have emerged in the current debate. “That’s because there are no cases,” O’Connor told LifeSiteNews. “Homeschoolers love their children.”
The telling lack of actual cases of home-school abuse forced another Independent columnist, Victoria White, to go to absurd lengths to make her point, actually invoking the horrific Ariel Castro case, which involved a sexual predator in Cleveland, Ohio, kidnapping and repeatedly raping young girls over a decade-long captivity before his arrest in 2013.
Despite the fact that Castro was neither Irish, a parent, nor a home-schooler, White darkly warns, “There is no reason for confidence that another Ariel Castro isn't lurking somewhere out there in suburban Ireland.”
However White does explode Ryan’s main argument about unlawfulness, noting, “If the wholly well-intentioned Eddie O'Connor and Monica O'Neill [sic] end up in the Supreme Court vindicating their Constitutional rights they are sure to win.” Their constitutional right to home-school, in other words, trumps the recent legislation requiring home-schoolers to register and be assessed.
Nonetheless, concludes White, the home-schooling couple would be wrong to press their case because “they also risk setting back the cause of home education for decades.”
O’Connor believes White’s point is that she and her husband are giving all home-schoolers a bad reputation as law breakers.
“The Irish have a funny attitude to the law,” said O’Connor, one that is far too submissive in her view. “But my attitude is that there have always been bad laws, like the law that said women couldn’t vote. The way to change bad laws is to stand up to them, not to tug your forelock and obey them. You should stand up to bullies even when the bully is the law.”
But why home-school in the first place? What does she have against the public schools?
“Nothing at all,” O’Connor told LifeSiteNews. “I just didn’t want to miss the joy of being with my children while they are learning. They are learning in the womb and learning before they are old enough to go to school. If you love being with your children, why stop?”