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
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.