Synge, John Henry

John Henry Synge (1788-1845) was born in Dublin in1788 as a member of a Protestant ascendancy family. He was destined to devote in essence his entire adult life, and most of the family’s fortune, to the advancement of the pioneering practice for elementary education devised by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1742-1827). John was brought up on the Roundwood and Glanmore family estates in the idyllic County Wicklow before entering Trinity College in 1805. He finished his education in Magdalen College, Oxford, very much a well-trodden route that finished with the ‘Grand-Tour’. He set off, in 1812, eventually ending up in Switzerland via a two-year sojourn ‘to watch the war’ in Portugal as an accomplished practical man, an artist and skilled Hebraist.

He rather by chance visited Pestalozzi in his institute in Yverdon in the wake of Catherine the Great and others of international fame who came there to learn about the greatest educational experiment of its day. His life was transformed here, as he stayed for three months intending originally to spend just a few hours. This was to be a centre that led to the reform of education in Germany, inspired Froebel and arguably Montessori. This new educational practice was of course directly inspired by Rousseau and was based on ‘Anschuung’ meaning ‘intuition’ or ‘sense-impression’ in which knowledge develops through observation, experience and environmental study. The famous nineteenth century preoccupation with ‘Object lessons’ comes with this replacement of traditional ‘Words and Things’ in formal elementary education by the new Pestalozzian methodology using ‘Objects’.

Synge returned to Ireland in1815 to become Pestalozzi’s most devoted disciple and his work to promote the system became immediately of international significance. Firstly, he became the translator into English of all Pestalozzi’s works, making him immediately of importance in every English-speaking country across the globe and naturally the Empire. This role of translator led immediately to Synge writing his ground-breaking book A Biographical Sketch of the Struggles of Pestalozzi to establish his system, Compiled and Translated Chiefly from his own Works, by an Irish Traveller (Dublin, 1815). He established a revolutionary school in Glanmore, County Wicklow, where he conducted years of educational research, set up Roundwood Press to publish numerous books of both Pestalozzi’s but also of his disciples, in what Clive William called ‘Pestalozzianism leavened by evangelical Christianity’.

Synge from 1811 had been a member of the ‘Darbyites’, founded by Abraham Nelson Darby, and very much part of the contemporary enthusiasm at the time for religious reform. His friends Lord de Vesci and Charles Orpen established the Abbeyleix Institute and the Claremount Institute in Glasnevin specifically to apply these principles for the first time in the English speaking world to physically-handicapped children. These Pestalozzian ideas with the various educational materials were taken up by the ‘Society for promoting the education of the poor in Ireland’.

The Catholic Bishops in Ireland however, firmly opposed the Kildare Society and indeed all other evangelical movements and thus paradoxically Synge’s contribution did not leave much tangible evidence in his own country as in the remainder of these islands. From Greaves and Mayo the Pestalozzian movement spread rapidly to numerous industrial cities, towns and villages all over the United Kingdom to become embedded in the United Kingdom’s elementary schools system.


Williams, C. (2000) Pestalozzi and John Synge in Prometheus’s fire, eds. N.D. McMillan and D.G.E. McMillan, IVEA, Dublin, pp.350-366.

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