The hedge-schools of Ireland emerged in the 18th century as a popular response to the prohibition of Catholic education in the country and the failure of the government - English and Protestant - to provide schools of any sort for the Catholic majority. During that century, isolated attempts have been made by Protestant clergymen such as Dr. John Stearne, Archbishop of Dublin, or members of Evangelical organisations, such as the Hibernian Bible Society, to open schools in towns and villages but the method of religious instruction involved effectively excluded the children of Catholic parents unless they gave up their religion - something which they were generally unwilling to do since to do so could only bring shame and dishonour on the family as well as ostracism within their own communities at a time when to change religion, or turn your coat, was considered a form of betrayal and an attempt to gain advantage over your Catholic neighbours.
Education in Ireland had received a major impetus with the foundation of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1593 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First - taking the formerly Catholic monastery of All Hallows in the city as its campus. In 1538, Kilkenny Grammar School had already been established by the Butler family (Earls of Ormonde) and some lesser Protestant schools came into existence about the same time. In the 18th century there was a large increase in the number of schools attached to cathedrals and churches while Anglo-Irish landlords attached to the Patriot Parliament of 1782 often built schoolhouses on their estates or in the adjacent town where their wives and daughters likewise played a beneficent, sometimes turning into educationalists in the process as Maria Edgeworth did. Similarly, some members of the Society of Friends (or Quakers) such as the Leadbeater and the Shackleton families of Co. Meath kept schools but these, in spite of their non-sectarian principles, inevitably involved a conception of social and intellectual life remote from the ideas of Catholic priests and bishops of Ireland.
By 1824 position was so dire that a Commission was established by the government to see what should be done. This development was largely in tandem with the move towards general public education which played so large a part in the re-shaping of contemporary England during the years of the Reform Bills. Five years would pass before Catholic Emancipation was passed in Parliament and, in its absence, there was no legal mechanism for establishing Catholic schools in Ireland. Nevertheless, as a result of the Commissions work, a National School system was created in Ireland which would soon bifurcate into Protestant National Schools and Catholic National Schools. Ironically, the introduction of national schools under Government control was strongly resisted by the Catholic Bishops and, as a result, the system became divided between Catholic and Protestant schools, each with their own system of management. (The universities were likewise divided for many decades after and only in the latest times have the schools and universities of Ireland begun to look non-sectarian - or post-Christian, from an alternative standpoint.)
The following facts about contemporary schooling in Ireland were recorded by the Commissioners of the Board of Education in 1824 - according to the account given by P. J. Dowling in his classic work on Irelands Hedge Schools, first published in 1935:
[I]t was found that the number of schools financed, in whole or part, by the various societies was 1,727, ot of a total number of 11,823. There were 9,352 pay-schools which received no assistance of any kind [other than from their paying clients]; and of these the Hedge Schools formed the majority. Thus the societies schools, though in possession of substantial means and supported by the Parliament, the public press and the landed gentry had not succeeded in establishing themselves as a popular system of education. The Commission of the Board of Education of 1824 plainly showed their lack of confidence in them by recommending, and eventually securing the establishment of a National Board of Education to be responsible for the administration of primary education in Ireland. (Dowling, The Hedge Schools of Ireland, 1935; rep. 1968, p.33.)
It is clear, then, that the Catholics of Ireland had not merely refused to attend Protestant schools; they had set up a rival school system for children of their own faith using a highly informal, but effective, method of finance and management. The stories of William Carleton are replete with information about the day-to-day operations of this system, not least because he himself was a graduate of several and later a teacher in one of them. In one story in particular he paid homage to the hedge-schools - incidentally explaining their curious name - and in others he returned to view the question from various sides.
There never was a more unfounded calumny, than that which would impute to the Irish peasantry an indifference to education. I may, on the contrary, fearlessly assert, that the lower orders of no country ever manifested such a positive inclination for literary acquirements, and that, too, under circumstances strongly calculated to produce carelessness and apathy on this particular subject. Nay, I do maintain, that he who is intimately acquainted with the character of our countrymen, must acknowledge, that their zeal for book learning, not only is strong and ardent, when opportunities of scholastic education occur, but that it increases in proportion as these opportunities are rare and unattainable.
The very name and nature of Hedge Schools are proof of this: for what stronger point could be made out, in illustration of my position, than the fact, that, despite of obstacles, whose very idea would crush ordinary enterprise - when not even a shed could be obtained in which to assemble the children of an Irish village, the worthy pedagogue selected the first green spot on the sunny side of a quickset-thorn hedge, which he conceived adapted for his purpose, and there, under the scorching rays of a summer sun, and in defiance of spies and statutes, carried on the work of instruction.
From this circumstance the name of Hedge School originated, and, however it may be associated with the ludicrous, I maintain, that it is highly honourable to the character of the people, and an encouragement to those who wish to see them receive pure and correct educational knowledge. A Hedge School, however, in its original sense, was but a temporary establishment, being only adopted until such a school-house could be erected, as was in those days deemed sufficient to hold as many children as were expected, at all hazards, to attend it.
(“The Hedge School” in Traits & Stories, 1830; rep. 1843, p.271.)
The importance of the hedge school and the hedge-school master for Irish literature does not stop with William Carleton since Brian Friel, the great Irish dramatist who died recently, moved the schools to a central position in modern Irish cultural discourse with his play Translations (1972) which is set in just such a school at a moment when the British authorities - embodied by a contingent of the Army Engineers - takes on the task of formally renaming all Irish localities according to standardised British phonetics and spelling. By setting the play in a hedge school where the school-teacher, his family and his pupils can debate the question of cultural migration from an Irish to an English world while remaining in the same place, Friel opens the window on the experience of cultural colonialism and the countervailing forces of Irish culture with its deep traditional adherence to Gaelic and classical forms of knowledge. As the drunken school-master Hugh Mor ODonnell tells us, it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact (Selected Plays, p.419).
Friels school-master is an example of the type which Carleton wrote about: erudite in classics - he enters the stage spouting the first book of Virgils Aeneid - and rich in oddly-assorted information, he is clearly equipt for a much bigger job than the education of abecedarians in an Irish country village. It was an acknowledged irony of Irish education that the Catholic students, excluded by law from any official employment, were better scholars than their Protestant counterparts - at least, better Latinists at any rate. This is largely because Latin was required for any prospective seminarian and taught as the standard of communication in the seminaries of the continent where so many Irish students travelled to further their education. Deep into the 19th century, English travellers such as William Makepeace Thackeray were constantly remarking that even the boys in the street could recite Latin tags and displayed a general erudition far beyond their counterparts in the English lower orders. Indeed, a peculiar taste for erudition long continued to mark Irish literature - as can readily be seen in the works of James Joyce and Flann OBrien among the 20th century writers, often with comic effect as in William Carletons hilarious itineraries of those informal academies of Ireland known as the hedge schools.
[ In the following pages I have reproduced several chapters from P. J. Dowlings book throwing essential light on the subject of the hedge schools. [See Hedge Schools of Ireland - attached. ]