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Randal MacDonnell (1830–1877)

by Rupert Goodman

This article was published:

Randal MacDonnell (1830-1877), educationist, was born in Dublin, son of Thomas MacDonnell, army officer, and his wife Frances, née Corry. Trained in Dublin at the National Model School, he arrived at Sydney in the Telegraph on 22 September 1853. For some months he taught in the National schools of Sydney but in 1854 established his own non-sectarian private high school in Paddington. He moved to Queensland in 1860 and was appointed by the Board of National Education as inspector of National schools on 26 June; after the Education Act was passed he became general inspector of primary schools in December. In 1870 his tasks were increased by the added duties as secretary of the Board of General Education after Robert Bourne died. He held both these offices until the State Education Act was passed in 1875. He was then appointed the first general inspector of the new Department of Public Instruction. In that year he made a tour of educational institutions in the southern colonies but little came of it because of disagreement about his duties with (Sir) Samuel Griffith, the first secretary of the department.

MacDonnell resigned on 30 March 1876. As a justice of the peace, he was said to have been courteous, gentle and highly respected but always involved in controversy. Although a sincere Roman Catholic, he was noted for his anti-clericalism and clashed openly on religious and educational issues with Archbishop Polding and Bishop Quinn. In the turbulent early years of Queensland MacDonnell was prominent in the conflict between the denominations and the state over aid to non-vested schools and the place of religious teaching in education. He advocated the separation of religious and secular education, and never wavered from his stand that the Irish National system was the best compromise. Because of his Irish background and Catholic beliefs he was subject to bitter attacks by the Anglican bishop, E. W. Tufnell. He was also unfortunately identified with another Randal MacDonnell who published the pro-Quinn North Australian.

MacDonnell had served under three administrations as chief inspector and played a major role in the expansion of primary education from 4 schools and 493 pupils in 1860 to 263 schools and 36,271 pupils in 1876. Among other contributions were his development of teacher training, the commencement of the pupil-teacher system and establishment of the Normal School. In 1861 at Brisbane he had married Mary Sheehan of Brisbane; they had four sons and a daughter who died young. Aged 47 he died of consumption on 22 June 1877 and after a service at St Stephen's Cathedral was buried in the Brisbane general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • T. L. Suttor, Hierarchy and Democracy in Australia, 1788-1870 (Melb, 1965)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1861, 730, 1875, 2, 145, Board of General Education reports, 1861-76
  • Brisbane Courier, 23 June 1877
  • Board of General Education, Letterbooks 1860-63, vols 1 & 2 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Board of National Education, Applications, 1852-57 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Education Dept, In-letter register, 1875-76 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Rupert Goodman, 'MacDonnell, Randal (1830–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


22 June, 1877 (aged ~ 47)
Milton, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


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