The Hedge schools owed their origin to the suppression of all the ordinary legitimate means of education, first during the Cromwellian regime and then under the Penal Code introduced in the reign of William 111 and operating from that time till within twenty years from the opening of the nineteenth century.
The primary purpose of these penal laws, relating to education, was the eradication of “popery” in Ireland. The penal laws were established in 1695 to lessen Irish Catholic power, dismantle their culture, and anglicize or “civilize” Ireland. The Penal Laws were not all created in 1695. New Penal Laws were added throughout the 1690’s and the early 18th century.
Under the Penal Laws, Catholics could not hold a commission in the army, enter a profession or own a horse worth more than five pounds. Catholics could not possess weaponry and arms, could not study law or medicine, and could not speak or read Gaelic or play Irish music.
Image credit: Dry Cave on the road leading from Waterfoot to the Red Arch which was used as a school during the Penal Law period. @ Causeway Costal Route
The First Irish Hedge Schools
From about 1650 onwards, there is documented evidence of teachers carrying on instruction in crude shelters answering to the description of “hedge schools” as a native Irish response to Cromwellian denial of the basic human right of Catholics to manage their own educational affairs. To survive as a cultural and religious entity, the Catholic population was forced “underground,” for the purposes of education and worship. Following the introduction of the Penal Laws, the number of hedge schools increased throughout the country. These hedge schools were, “clearly a peasant institution. They were maintained by the people who wanted their children educated and they were taught by men who came from the people and who often believed that teaching was their mission in life.
Therein lay the strength of the Hedge Schools.”
These unlicensed schools were illegal under the Penal Laws, and they remained so until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1828;
“While the penal laws were enforced, Catholic schoolmasters taught as members of a quiet but widespread conspiracy. Their fellow conspirators were the students who formed their classes and the peasant parents who sheltered them and paid their fees.”
In 1930. Teacher, Mícheál Ó Braonáin at Coolavin School in Sligo described a hedge school for his students below. For the full version see here
End of the Penal Laws in Ireland
Fortunately, the penal laws regarding education were not seen to be working towards the end of the 18th century and were repealed in 1782. These laws were being less stringently enforced then and as a result the teachers were able to set up their schools in more permanent structures than heretofore. The schoolmaster usually held school in his own house or taught in the local chapel. This latter practice became common throughout the country.
The commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry of 1825 were critical of the hedge school teachers and claimed that they were immoral men, that their capacities and attainments were very poor and that the books used were of a debasing and demoralizing character. The reality of the situation at the height of the hedge school era was that most of these schools, other than those recognized as “Classical Schools” were staffed by personnel with no legitimate claim to academic training.
J. E. Jordan, of the London Hibernian Society, who would not be sympathetic to the Hedge School system stated,
“It would be difficult to imagine anything more wretched than those receptacles of rages and penury in which a semi-barbarous peasantry acquired the rudiments of reading, writing, Irish history and high treason.”
There is little information available regarding the curriculum in hedge schools. The Parochial Returns for the Second Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, 1826, state only if the scriptures were read. Consensus indicates that nationally speaking, essential numeracy, basic literacy in the vernacular, depending on whether the linguistic allegiance of a district was to Irish or English, plus some unavoidable indoctrination in patriotism, religious and cultural outlook. Practical subjects, apart from mathematics – related studies, were not included on hedge school programmes.
Childrens Book from a hedge school @Aantonia McManus
Some schools became especially famous for their classical learning and became seminaries for the priesthood. Dowling states that “Classics were at the very least as well taught in the hedge schools as in any other school in Ireland.” According to tradition there were two famous classical schools in the Loughrea area of county Galway. A Mr. Stafford taught a school at Kilchreest which attracted boys from far afield. He had studied for the priesthood himself at one time and he exhibited a wide and deep knowledge of the classics. The other famous classical school was at Gortnagown on the Aughty Hills in the parish of Kilthomas. Here Laurence Duffy of Gardenblake, Peterswell held his famous school. Three of his sons, John, Michael, and James became priests. This would help prove Dowling’s point concerning the teaching of the classics in hedge schools.
Education in Ireland in early 19th Century
It is the Second Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, 1826, that tells us so much about education in Ireland at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is a very comprehensive summary of all the education establishments in Ireland. Forms of Returns consisting of fifteen queries about schools in their parish were filled in by the Catholic and Protestant clergy. These Returns formed the basis of the Report.
According to the 1826 report on Irish Education the conditions in general under which Hedge Schoolmasters worked were hardly likely to be conducive to good teaching except by the extremely dedicated teachers. Squalor and destitution were the order of the day. Conditions were better in the schools held in Catholic chapels. There seems to have been a close relationship between the Catholic Church and the hedge school teachers. Catholic schools held in chapels would possess a decided advantage in respect of space over the excessively crowded small rooms in common use for the schools.
The town of Loughrea, Galway, for example, had at least sixteen hedge schools in 1826.
The town provides so many examples of squalor and destitution in its schools that it must have been as bad a situation as existed in any town and a teacher's nightmare. Consider for example the following reports from the Parochial Reports. John Rafter taught at Brook’s Lane in a ‘wretched room,’ in which he taught 60 pupils according to the Protestant Returns or 52 according to the Catholic Returns. Patrick Clarke taught at Bride Street in a ‘wretched room’ containing 65 pupils. Murty Hogan taught 50 pupils according to Protestant Returns and 40 according to Roman Catholic Returns in a ‘miserable hovel’ in Brogue Maker’s Lane. According to Catholic Returns, Thomas Tannian taught 99 pupils in a ‘very bad cabin’ at Galway Road. Kitty Hare taught in a ‘wretched hovel’ in Brogue Maker’s Lane, while Michael Kirke taught in a ‘miserable place.’
The income of the teachers was in keeping with their impoverished buildings, especially in rural areas. However, money was not the only income some teachers received. Dowling stated that for some teachers, ‘The position in country districts was not so bad, as the teachers were often partly paid in kind: turf, butter, eggs and home cured meat were to be obtained where money was not forthcoming.’ A teacher’s pay varied from about £5 to £50. The average yearly salary was about £9.
Pay varied from school to school. The salary was determined by several factors. It might appear that the salary thus secured to the teacher was for those days a comparatively good one, but it depended on three variables; the number of pupils in the school, their attendance through the winter months and the actual payment of fees. In relation to attendance, many children were kept at home during the winter months when the weather was bad and to avoid the unhealthy conditions of the schoolhouse itself, which was often cold and damp. This made the teachers’ income both varied and irregular.
Regarding the curriculum and teaching methods used in Hedge Schools, we do not have much to gather from official records. Evidence of teaching methods ‘is somewhat invalidated by the hostility of official observers at the beginning of the nineteenth century.’ Another factor that limits our information on the curriculum and teaching methods is that the Parochial Returns for the 1826 Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, state only if the scriptures were read and gives no information on the subjects taught.
There seems to have been great emphasis on “rehearsing,” which really was a method of learning “by heart.” “Rehearsing” had its value in the hedge schools. Where books and writing materials were too expensive for the children to purchase, learning by heart was an economy as well as an obvious aid to retaining information. In those days overcrowding was quite common. William Winter taught twenty- eight pupils in a room twenty feet square at Cross Street, Loughrea. In these circumstances another value of rehearsing is obvious; "It kept the school occupied as a whole and helped to maintain a show of discipline and industry in the classroom.”
Rathvilly Hedge School
The intellectual attainments of the teachers ranged from the possession of bare literacy to inflated pedantry to genuine scholarly achievement. Most teachers were products of the hedge school system. In a book by Brennan, “Schools of Kildare and Leighlin,” there is an account of a teacher from Loughrea, John Feighery, who opened a school in Nira in the parish of Ros an Allais in the year 1824. He was thirty-one years old at the time and had got his education at a hedge school in Loughrea. It is obvious therefore that there was some worthwhile education for Catholics in the town of Loughrea about 1800.
There are many diverse opinions on the value of Hedge Schools. The Hedge Schools were the most vital force for popular education in Ireland during the eighteenth century. They emerged in the nineteenth century more vigorous still, outnumbering all other schools and so profoundly national as to hasten the introduction of a state system of education in 1831. With the introduction of the National School system of education, following Lord Stanley’s Education Bill in 1831, there was a rapid decline in the number of hedge schools throughout the country. Nearly every parish in the country had a national school built by the early 1840s, and practically all hedge school pupils converted to the new system.
- Dowling, P. J. The Hedge Schools of Ireland. p 1.
- Akenson, D. H. The Irish Education Experiment. P 45
This piece has been kindly written by Michael Fahy, a founding director of the Ireland Reaching Out programme. Michael is an established local historian and retired teacher.