Educational History: The Hedge Schools of Ireland

The Hedge Schools came about as a direct result of the suppression of schooling in Ireland. This history speaks of the innate need of humans to share and learn, and how central a part of social fabric it is. This history also speaks of the dark side of dominating powers to withhold knowledge and the means of mutually improvement from whole populations to deliberately undermine people and their chances to live rich full lives.



The period of the hedge schools follows the disappearance of the ancient professional schools of Ireland known as the Bardic Schools. These lasted until the ‘Beginnings of the Trouble’ in 1641 and were closed down when the people were made landless, homeless and exiles. [Preface to the Clanrickarde Memoirs, O’Curry, London, 1722].


The Bardic Schools had existed as secular institutions instructing in the native tongue the Irish language, literature, history and Brehon Law. They were highly developed and scholarly institutions providing what amounted to a university education up until the middle of the seventeenth century. This long tradition had produced an abundance of poets, historians and Brehon’s – skills and knowledge which was often found overlapping in individuals.


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The rise of the Hedge Schools came when the first Cromwellian regime was imposed on the Irish people and then under the Penal Code which was introduced during the reign of William III. It was in these times when all the ordinary legitimate means of education were made illegal in an attempt to manacle the minds and intellects of a people. The Penal Code was introduced in increasing measure until 1782.


There are accounts from varying sides, some stating that the laws against education were ‘never put rigorously into force’, however there is much evidence to the contrary. Schoolmasters were imprisoned and fined; considerable rewards were offered and given to those who played a part in convicting those educators who taught in the Hedge Schools. Schoolmaster, householder, and friendly magistrate were equally good game for the informer.


“Magistrates were empowered to examine on oath any person over the age of sixteen, and anyone who was suspected of knowing that schools were being taught in the neighbourhood, or that young people had been send abroad for their education was therefore, obliged to tell what he knew. “


The Protestant historian Lecky wrote “The Legislation on the subject of Catholic education may be briefly described, for it amounted simply to universal, unqualified, and unlimited proscription”. Protestant schoolmasters were forbidden to employ Catholics as assistant teachers and magistrates were warned to attend strictly to the letter and to the spirit of the law.


Hedge Schools

In 1740, Sir Richard Cox in his charge to the Grand Jury of Cork, urged upon the jurors, the actual administrators of justice, to take upon themselves the role of prosecutors of the law in order to hasten the conviction of offending schoolmasters: “You are not to wait for regular Information; if the Offenders are within your knowledge, you may and ought to present them.”


As late as December 1760, the authorities were still viewing foreign education with extreme disfavour. The act of William III, ‘An Act to Restrain Foreign Education’, was intended to put an end to Catholic education. Edmund Burke wrote of this act:


“While this restraint upon foreign and domestic education was part of a horrible and impious system of servitude, the members were well fitted to the body. To render men patient under a deprivation of all the rights of human nature, everything which could give them a knowledge or feeling of these rights was rationally forbidden. To render humanity to be insulted, it was fit that it should be degraded.”


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Relief came with the Act of 1782 which admitted the undue severity of the laws against education and their failure in the objective for which they were intended. This was not a sudden freedom to teach but the creation of conditions under which teaching could be done.


The schoolmasters had to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown and could not teach any Protestant children. Still held in the act of 1782 was that no ‘popish university or college’ could be erected or endowed, and that no school could be endowed. This kind of obstructionism to the conditions of teaching was regarded as a new penal law against education.


Before a teacher could set up their school they were required to obtain a license to each from the Protestant bishop of the diocese or his representative, who were empowered to grant and withdraw a license at will. There was a progression of the law in the Act of 1792 which declared that a licence to teach was no longer necessary, providing that the person conformed to all other aspects of the Act of 1782.


Although the law was progressed, the practice remained the same – it seems – for a considerable time afterwards. There is evidence showing that licences were applied for and granted even in 1819 according to the research of P. J. Dowling. By the same note, Dowling suggests that it is extremely doubtful if Hedge Schoolmasters, or indeed, if any except a few lay teachers sought licences to teach.


The safety of the schoolmaster was in their obscurity. There was no certainty that the best qualified applicant would obtain a licence, and there was no guarantee that having obtained it they would be allowed to continue to hold it. So it was, that the Hedge Schools, often described by contemporary writers as ‘unlicensed schools’, were illegal schools until the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829.


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It was during the 17th century that we can find the ‘Popish Schoole Masrs’ mentioned in the Cromwellian Records who taught ‘the Irish youth, trayning them up in Supersticion, Idolatry, and the Evil Customs of the Nacion’ [Printed in Corcoran : State Policy p.76]. This is were Dowling places the likely first Hedge Schoolmasters.


Rathvilly Hedge Schools
Rathvilly Hedge Schools

It was in the early part of the 18th century that the Hedge Schools proliferated due to the continued rigorous enforcement of the laws against education and created teaching as a dangerous calling. It was during this time when the term ‘Hedge School’ first came to be used.


Through the forbidding of teaching the teacher was driven then to teach in secret. As those who had a house were similarly penalised for offering space as a host to such activities, opportunity would dictate much of where this teaching would take place. Thus when weather permitted the teaching would be done outdoors in some select remote spot, away from prying eyes and booted foot, on the sunny side of a hedge or bank that afforded cover.


In these quiet places the teacher and their pupils would make camp and sit amongst the grass to run through lessons, often with one pupil placed at a high vantage point so that they could give warning when strangers were approaching.


If the approaching people were thought to potentially be law officers or informers, the class would then be quickly disbanded for the day, to meet again the following day in the same – or a similar – place which offered the required privacy and shelter.


During winter the teachers would move from place to place living through the hospitality of the people, sometimes earning a little by putting their hand to farm work or discretely teaching the children of their host.


Later when the laws against education were less strictly enforced, school was taught in cabins, barns, or any usable building which lent itself to the purpose. The name of Hedge School still got used though. Many contemporary writers have referred to them as poor huts or cabbins.


Glens Hedge School
Glens Hedge School

Dowling tells us of a Frenchman called Latocnaye who walked through Ireland in 1797 carrying an umbrella and a pair of dancing pumps. Latocnaye reports that the people are too poor to build a decent school house for their children, they can only afford to put up a wretch building, without windows, the roof of which is only about five feet high, extremely uncomfortable for both teachers and pupils.


But when the weather permits the classes are held outside under a tree, or in the shelter of a hedge. This writer appreciates the advantages of an open air school: “It appears to me quite as good to give or receive a lesson in the open air as in a stuffy school” [Promenade dans l’Irlande. p. 107].


Pat Frayne’s schoolhouse in the townland of Skelgy, County Tyrone, was an equally primitive structure, we can read. According to Carleton, who was one of the pupils: “A schoolhouse was built for him – a sod house scooped out of the bank on the roadside – and in the course of a month it was filled with upwards of a hundred scholars, most of them males, but a good number of them females”.


Unlike most schools of its kind which were closed during the winder owing to the cold and damp, this one remained open: “Every winter’s day each (scholar) brought two sods of turf for the fire, which was kept burning in the centre of the school: there was a hole in the roof that discharged the functions of a chimney. Around this fire, especially during cold and severe weather, the boys were entitled to sit in a circle by turns… The seats about the fire were round stones.” [William Carleton’s Autobiography pp 19-20].


However mean the school building, and however great the discomfort of both teacher and scholars, the atmosphere of the Hedge Schools seemed to have been naturally lively and good humoured. We can gather as much from Carleton’s account of his rather depressing experience when he first took charge of a Hedge School. He relates:


Hedge school

“I got a promise of about a dozen or two wretched boys and girls, and the gift of an uninhabited hut – one of the worst that ever covered a human head. In due time the establishment was opened, and I William Carleton, became the master of a hedge school. Yes, a hedge school – so it must be called, for so it was. But when I bethought me of the Hedge Schools in which I had myself been educated, of the multitude assembled, of the din arising from the voices of the comic crew around, I felt like a hermit in the wilderness” [William Carleton’s Autobiography pp 186-7].


The schoolmaster had to take what he could get; any shelter was better than none, and what he obtained was usually better than none, and what he obtained was usually given to him freely. The people wanted education for their children and very often paid more for it than they could afford.


Writing in 1808 of his Irish-speaking tenants in County Sligo, Lord Palmerston said: “The thirst for education is so great that there are now three or four schools upon the estate. The people join in engaging some itinerant master; they run him up a miserable mud hut on the road side, and the boys pay him half-a-crown, or some five shillings a quarter. They are taught reading, writing and arithmetic, and what, from the appearance of the establishment, no one would imagine, Latin and even Greek” [Quoted by Alice Stopford Green in Irish National Tradition, P.10].


The same strong desire for education was observed by independent witnesses in other parts of the country; in fact, one writer said that it did more to encourage the efforts to he schoolmaster than anything else. In his ‘Statistical Survey of Kildare,’ published in 1807. Rawson stated:

hedge school


“All over the country are numbers of schools, where the lower orders have their children instructed in writing, arithmetic and reading; scarcely a peasant who can muster a crown after tithe and priest’s dues, but is emulous to expend it on his little boy’s education. No Sunday schools; no encouragement of the neighbouring gentry; no furthering of the benevolent plans of Lancaster.”


Yet in spite of lack of all endowment and of patronage, education was widespread: “The people of Ireland are, I may almost say, universally educated:…. I do not know any part of Ireland so wild, that its inhabitants are not anxious, nay, eagerly anxious for the education of their children.” [Wakefield, Account of Ireland, Vol. II P 307].


The willingness of the people to make sacrifices for the education of their children, and their co-operation with the schoolmaster were undoubtedly two of the factors that helped the Hedge School to become a vital force in Irish Education.


The Hedge School, such as it was, certainly rendered possible, during the first half of the 18th century, the conduct of a kind of guerilla warfare in education. In the Report on the ‘State of Popery in Ireland in 1731’ we find the Bishop of Derry writing to the Lords Committees appointed to enquire into ‘ye present state of Popery’:


“There are not any Popish schools; sometimes a straggling schoolmaster sets up in some of ye mountainous parts of some parishes, but upon being threatened, as they constantly are, with a warrant, or a presentment by ye Churchwardens, they generally think proper to withdraw.” [Printed in Archivium Hibernicum. Vol. I. P.17]


A note marked ‘N.B.’ in the returns of the Bishop of Clonfert even better describes the state of affairs: “By a return made to me at my last visitation there appear’d to be a much greater number of Popish schools than are here return’d. But one of them being taken & convict’d, the rest disappear’d. Many of them have not yet ventur’d to return: And of those who did, some have again absconded upon the first notice of the order of the Lords Committees.” [Archivium Hibernicum III. p. 133]


Hedge school hut

Thus it happened that education was often found to flourish in remote and mountainous districts. The reputation of the Munster schools and particularly of the schools of Kerry is ample testimony of this. The classical tradition of the schools of Kerry was evidently of long standing when Dr. Smith wrote in 1756:


“It is well known that classical learning extends itself, event to a fault, among the lower and poorer kind in this country; many of whom, to the taking them off more useful works, have greater knowledge in this way, than some of the better sort, in other places. I have in my survey met with some good Latin scholars who did not understand the English tongue; particularly one Peter Kelly, who lived in a very uncultivated part of the country…


Greek is also taught in some of the mountainous parts, generally by persons who pick it up, as mendicant scholars, at some english school. Neither is the genius of the commonalty confined to this kind of learning alone, for I saw a poor man near Blackstones, who had a tolerable notion of calculating the epacts, golden number, dominical letter, the moon’s phases, and even eclipses, altho’ he had never been taught to read english” [History of Kerry pp 67 and 418].


The south of Ireland, generally, appears to have had a great number of schools in which Latin was taught. Sir James Caldwell wrote in 1764: “…with the Courts of France and Spain, but there is not a Family in the Island that had not a relation in the Church, in the Army, or in Trade in those Countries, and in order to qualify the children for foreign service, they are all taught Latin in Schools kept in poor huts, in many places in the southern part of the kingdom.” [A Brief Examination. 2nd Ed. p.27]


There is an anonymous writer in 1776 relating that the poor, ragged boy who held his horse was ‘well acquainted with the best Latin poets” [A Description of Killarney, p. 8]. And Holmes in 1797 bears further witness to the continuity of classical learning in Kerry: “Amongst the uncultivated part of the Country, many may be met with who are all good Latin scholars, yet do not speak a word of English. Greek is also taught in the mountainous parts by some itinerant teachers” [Sketches of the Southern Counties of Ireland. P 151]


Glens Hedge School Entrance
Glens Hedge School Entrance

There seem to be a multitude of accounts of encounters with the scholarliness of the general population despite being poor. Though skepticism hailed from some quarters, evidence colludes to show this disbelief of the common abilities of those worse off.


An Englishman, Dr Milner, had no difficulty in finding classical scholars, and he actually ‘conversed for a considerable time in Latin’ with two of them, ‘both being indigent schoolmasters’. In a letter written in Latin by one of them to him, he begs permission to address him in Latin – the language of Cicero.


He states that, though born of poor parents, he was instructed in Latin and Greek; and that he has known men in the humblest occupations, broom-sellers, coachmen, day-labourers, able to speak Latin well. He says that in order to support his family he keeps a school of forty boys, sons of the peasantry, but youth, very many of them, of great ability and promise. He ends up with a quotation from Juvenal, and wishing good health and long life to Dr. Milner, signs himself: ‘Jacobus Egan’ [Steven, R., (1817), ‘An inquiry into the abuses of the chartered schools in Ireland: With remarks upon the education of the lower classes in that country’. London, 2nd Ed, p. 332, cited in Dowling, P. J. (1997). The hedge schools of Ireland. Dublin: Mercier Press, Page 51].


The Rev Alexander Ross writing from Dungiven in 1814 tells us: “Even in the wildest districts, it is not unusual to meet with good classical scholars; and there are several young mountaineers of the writer’s acquaintance, whose knowledge and taste in the Latin poets might put to the blush many who have all the advantages of established schools and regular instruction.” [Mason: Parochial Survey. Vol 1. p 314 cited in Dowling, P. J. (1997). The hedge schools of Ireland. Dublin: Mercier Press, page 68].


The real credit must be given to the people themselves, who were determined to have their children instructed. Mr John Leslie Foster wrote in a letter to the Secretary of the Board of Education in 1811: “The strong passion for education which… mark(s) the lower classes of our people… assures us, that if we do not assist them, instructed nevertheless they will be.” [P.P. 1813 – 4 V p. 342 cited in Dowling, P. J. (1997). The hedge schools of Ireland. Dublin: Mercier Press, Page 52].


In 1850, Sir Thomas Wyse, stated in a letter to Dr Doyle, bishop of Kildare and Leighlin,: “…the lower class in Ireland proportionally to their position, are better educated than the middle and upper. It is the contrary on the continent” [Wyse, Sir., T. ‘On Kildare Place Society, 41 ; on education of “ lower class ” in Ireland, 53, Memoirs, p16 cited in Dowling, P. J. (1997). The hedge schools of Ireland. Dublin: Mercier Press, Page 53].


The very least that was taught in the Hedge Schools included reading, writing, and arithmetic. Other subjects which found their way into the curriculum included history, geography, book keeping, surveying, and navigation. Latin and mathematics were commonly taught; sometimes Greek; and in Irish speaking districts instruction in all these subjects was given in the vernacular. At the beginning of the 19th century, however, English as a medium of instruction was rapidly replacing Irish.


In her book ‘The Irish Hedge School and Its Books 1695 – 1831, she writes that the end of the era of Hedge Schools came when their previous allies of the Catholic hierarchy agreed with the official view of them as incompetent.  This was at a time when the church was seeking state aid for Catholic education.  The school masters of the Hedge Schools remained deep in the affections of the Irish people as they played parts in many social roles of day to day life.


The Hedge School masters continued living as local scribes, historians, poets, defenders of religion, land surveyor, lawyer, clerk, revolutionary and activist.


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The article is drawn together from the work of P. J. Dowling’s ‘The Hedge Schools of Ireland’ – a very good source book to read on the subject full of historical sources.  Another book to which a debt of understanding is owed is Antonia McManus’s ‘The Irish Hedge School and Its Books 1695 – 1831’, which provides an archive of important historical sources for the studies of the Hedge School.  The intention here is to give an insight into the rich history better represented in other places such as these texts.

[Dowling, P. J. (1997). The hedge schools of Ireland. Dublin: Mercier Press]


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The Teaching of Book-Keeping in the Hedge Schools of Ireland by Peter Clarke