Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

Hedge Schools of Ireland
By Maura Ciarrocchi
A tribute to a people who valued learning

The Hedge Schools of Ireland

A tribute to a people who valued learning

By Maura Ciarrocchi, ICSSA Newsletter, Oct 1999

Teaching, an ancient and honorable profession, was once a dangerous 
calling in Ireland.  Ruled from England for two centuries, the Irish 
were denied access to both justice and education.
	The early 18 century parents who were illiterate through no 
fault of their own, and men who had somehow learned teaching skills 
despite the law, took matters into their own hands. Determination 
was their answer to frustration, and out of this the Irish hedge 
schools were born.
	Anyone who sheltered or housed a schoolteacher was 
penalized if the se­cret was discovered. The familes house would be 
burned, its crops destroyed. The Irish, however, have always been 
masters of resourcefulness. To avoid involving families in risking 
their homes and property, the hedge-school teacher took his 
students out-of-doors. He would select a remote corner, the hidden 
side of a hedge or a mossy bank that protected his pupils from 
being spotted by passing strangers, and class was underway.

A secret system

An aura of excitement abounded in those schools. Perhaps doing some­thing forbidden" made the teaming juices flow. A different student was selected each dayy to serve as a lockout and would give the signal if a stranger was approaching. The few books and pieces of paper were quickly hidden, and teacher and students scattered in haste until the danger passed. There is also strong evidence that the involvement of parents, who paid something - however small - directly to the teacher, played a major part in the success of the hedge schools. Denied an education themselves, they wanted something better for their children. From this background the brightest or the most ambitious students found their way into the army, the Church, Foreign Service, and the legal and medical professions by way of European universities. It is significant that from the 16th century through the middle of the 17th century, about 20 colleges for Irish Catholic students were established on the continent. Salamanca, Lisbon, Douai, Antwerp, Toulouse, Paris and Prague each boasted an Irish university. In Rome, there were at least four foundations. Some of the Irish who attended the European universities received their early education in foreign schools, but it is also on record that many had their early training at home - where only the hedge schools had been open to them. This clearly speaks to the academic standards of the open-air schools. Elementary reading, writing and mathematics were the first lessons, later followed by Latin, Greek, higher mathematics, history, geography, bookkeeping, surveying and navigation. Travelers to Ireland at the time wrote in their journals of the high standard of classical learning among the ragged peasantry. They did not conceal their surprise in references to "tattered copies of (the works of) Ovid or Virgil found in the hands of common laborers, or of conversing with farm hands in the classical languages. Classes ceased during the winter, at least during the earliest years of the hedge schools. During this period, the poor teacher often found work as a farmhand or, if he dared, taught a family secretly in a home. But with the first sign of winters end, at an ap­pointed time and place, the learning continued. Students, both boys and girls, sat on smooth stones, sometimes learning without the benefit of books, often writing with sticks in the dirt. The itinerant hedge-school teachers are credited with preserving the Irish language and much of the poetry and legends of Ireland. It is said, too, that there was hardly a poet of the 18th century who had not been a teacher at some time in his life. Some of these dedicated teachers copied complete books by hand and then loaned them to their students. As government restrictions on education eased, rough mud huts or cabins were put together for the teacher. In the long winter months, each child carried a few pieces of turf to school as a contribution to the fire that kept the room warm. Since a small hole in the roof was the only outlet for the smoke, both teacher and students had red eyes and sore lungs at the end of the day. The poor scholar was another prod­uct of the hedge school. He was the boy of superior learning ability who moved from school to school in search of more advanced knowledge. Like the teacher, he was completely dependent on the local people for shelter, food and clothing, and like the teacher, he was also highly respected. He would eventually gather his own students around him unless he was fortunate enough to find a sponsor to pay his way to one of the European colleges. Ireland's Daniel O'Connell. 'The Great Liberator." learned his alphabet in a hedge school in four hours, it is said. Years later he supported a gifted poor scholar sending him to a university in Dublin to complete his so education. Matthew Tiemey, a 19th century physician who served England's King George IV, is one of the best-known graduates of Ireland's hedge schools.

Parents made decisions

With no superintendent of schools, no board of education, which selected the teachers who simply drifted from place to place? Parents, uneducated themselves, made the important selection. Word was passed around that a teacher was needed and somehow a teacher would appear. If two or more candidates materialized, a regular contest of intellects took place. (It wasn't always the best teacher, but the best showman, who got the job.) "Sacking" was the battle of wits which one teacher tried to outdo the other in subject range and wit. A teacher who came up with a specialty that his opponent lacked would use this as his trump card. The winner usually accepted by the parents despite the fact that few of them were capable of understanding this battle of the minds. The ousted teacher would then go on to sack another hedge­schoolteacher. No social gathering was complete without the le hedge­school teacher. He was the village scribe and the parish clerk, titles carrying no salary but making up but making up for it in prestige. As restrictions were lifted, the results of the twice-yearly school examinations were printed in the local newspapers for all to see-a method; perhaps that urged students on to success. The hedge-school teachers instilled in young minds a love of poetry and learning, and a need for knowledge. These unique schools were a link in a chain of learning that continued until the coming of the national school system in 1832. The hedge schools have been described as guerilla warfare on the British government's attempts to restrict education of the Irish. No doubt, the poor Irish parents won the battle. Today, Ireland has the world's highest rate of literacy - 99 percent a lasting legacy to the outlaw hedge schools and the urgently needed, quality education they provided.