‘Inciting the lawless and profligate adventure’—the hedge schools of Ireland

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2016), Volume 24

By Tony Lyons

My eyelids red and heavy are
With bending o’er the smould’ring peat
I know the Aeneid now by heart
My Virgil read in cold and heat

Pádraic Colum (1882–1972)

State intervention in primary education in Ireland began during Tudor times in 1537. This legislative measure ultimately failed, as did the later attempt in 1570 to instigate some type of legal framework for second-level schooling. Penal legislation initiated by the Irish parliament was to have catastrophic consequences for the social, economic and political fabric of all dissenting religious groups in the country. In 1695 proscription of educational practices of the two main dissenting groups, Catholics and Presbyterians, was introduced. Despite such stringent laws, a most unusual type of popular education matrix emerged in the early part of the eighteenth century. These popular schools were held near hedges in some instances, hence the name ‘hedge school’. Some were held near rivers, under overhanging rocks, in mud huts, in barns, in chapels, in the homes of people or, in rare instances, in the teacher’s own house.

This was the people’s response to the threat to their culture, a response that gained momentum until the end of the long eighteenth century, when there were an estimated 9,000 such schools throughout the country, attended by 400,000 scholars. These schools were independent of any kind of authority other than market forces and the ire of parents. Many writers have attested to the high quality of the education provided, as well as to the people’s traditional attachment to education. Those who were paying for their children’s education also knew full well that some level of schooling was necessary if their offspring were to make their way in an increasingly commercial world. The teacher relied on the hospitality of the people: he taught their children for his keep; he read leases for them; he measured land; he translated for them; and occasionally he worked on the land with them. In short, his meagre income had to be supplemented. By 1793 the ban on Catholic education had been removed from the statute books, but hedge schools continued to flourish, reaching a peak in the 1820s.

The hedge schoolmaster’s professional status

Some teachers had a wide range of accomplishments; some were polymaths; and many travelled long distances to learn their craft under the tutelage of an established teacher. Even with a wide variety of standards and attainments, most seem to have taught at the very least the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic—with perhaps a smattering of other subjects, such as history and geography. Latin and mathematics were commonly taught, and sometimes Greek. In Irish-speaking districts, instruction in all these subjects was given in the vernacular. By 1800, however, the Irish language was losing its attraction and usefulness, and English steadily replaced it as the medium of instruction. English was the language of ‘fair and market’; its pragmatic value was realised by the population in general.

Some priests encouraged the establishment of hedge schools, and the majority of these private schoolmasters appear to have included some instruction in religious doctrine in their curriculum. The visitation books of Archbishop Butler of Cashel show that even in the 1750s he took it for granted that the schoolmasters in his diocese would teach the Catholic catechism; teachers who did not do so were summoned to appear before the bishop, reprimanded for their neglect and forced to promise to teach catechism in future.

P.J. Dowling reiterates the part played by the hedge schoolmaster in religious doctrine. The teaching of religion was not left to the master alone, the priest having final responsibility, but both parent and priest entrusted the children’s spiritual welfare to the teacher. The priest either appointed the teacher himself or approved of his appointment. We must not forget, however, that the hedge school was under the direct authority of the teacher, sometimes owned by him and always depending for its existence upon the fees paid by the pupils. The schoolmaster, therefore, was free to a certain extent from direct external control. He had a certain degree of autonomy to teach ‘what, when and where he liked’. Next to the ministry of the priesthood, teaching was regarded as a noble and elevated calling in eighteenth-century Ireland. Consequently, both student teachers, called ‘poor scholars’, and hedge schoolmasters were given pride of place in society.

Claims to elevated pedagogical attributes may seem at the very least excessive, if not entirely pedantic, but the hedge schoolmaster’s whole existence depended upon his ability to attract ‘scholars’ and this was a tremendous incentive to the teachers to become learned and competent. There was no external pressure on pupils to attend; the main motive for school attendance was the attraction and fame of the teacher. If a teacher did not meet expectations, scholars withdrew or the teacher was usurped by an up-and-coming pedagogue, either from the same school or from a school in another parish or further afield. The hedge schoolmaster was judged by the people on his ability to teach, and not on whether he conformed to rules and regulations. Following the introduction of the National Schools in 1831, the people lost all semblance of involvement in their children’s education. From now on the twin bedfellows of church and state made all decisions on who were appointed as teachers and on what was taught.


Public support ensured the existence and continuance of the hedge schools for over 100 years, but equally significant was the Gaelic bardic tradition of scholarship, handed down from generation to generation. Scholar families, such as those of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, Brian Merriman, Peadar Ó Doirnín and Muiris O’Gorman, belonged to a class of poets who turned to teaching to earn a living.

Above: A mural in Belfast depicting a hedge school. (extramuralactivity)

Above: A mural in Belfast depicting a hedge school. (extramuralactivity)

References to rural Latinity could be cited, though, it must be said, some observers from 1800 onwards claimed that the rural erudition was hard to find, and we must allow for the possibility of Hibernian ‘play-acting’. Compare Synge’s example of a counterfeited claim to knowledge of Greek in his ‘Aran Islands’. Visitors were astonished to find an ability among the rustics to speak Latin fluently. Not all the credit for this should be given to the hedge schools, however. It was partly a heritage from the monastic schools of the Middle Ages, and in the early medieval period a highly artistic Hiberno-Latin had evolved, with many differences from standard classical Latin. In the sixteenth century Hiberno-Latin had become a second colloquial language for the native Irish. The attachment to scholarly associations with Latin may well have straddled the gap between the bardic medieval level of learning and the emergence of the hedge school scholarship in the eighteenth century.

Hedge schoolmasters were very versatile and especially so in arithmetic. This becomes noticeable when one examines Peter Galligan’s notes in his manuscript of 1824. As well as arithmetical problems, a wide range of English literary subjects are discussed, and musical items find a place. Galligan was intimately acquainted with mathematics and astronomy. Contracted methods in arithmetic are freely illustrated, and there are rules and formulae connected with the ecclesiastical calendar—Golden Number, Dominical Letter and the Metonic Cycle. There are problems on the equinoxes and the use of the globes, showing a profound knowledge of the principles of mathematical astronomy. The hedge schoolmasters in every part of Ireland paid special attention to this branch of mathematics.

Above (Top): A hedge schoolmaster advertising his prowess in a public location. These schools were independent of any kind of authority other than market forces and the ire of parents. -------------------------------------------------- Above: ‘The Poor Scholar’s Return’, from ‘The Poor Scholar’ in William Carleton’s Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry, Vol. 2 (1854).

Above (Top): A hedge schoolmaster advertising his prowess in a public location. These schools were independent of any kind of authority other than market forces and the ire of parents.
Above: ‘The Poor Scholar’s Return’, from ‘The Poor Scholar’ in William Carleton’s Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry, Vol. 2 (1854).

Official view of the hedge schools

The hedge schoolmaster, although enjoying an elevated popular status, was regarded as a threat to the political and social status quo. The world of officialdom, with the introduction of the National Board of Education in 1831, viewed the schoolmaster in a rather ‘perfunctory’ manner. The teacher had to be kept in his proper place; control became a concern of prime importance in early nineteenth-century education. The teacher’s position was seen by the central authorities as one of social inferiority, not only in Ireland but throughout western Europe and America, teaching being regarded as a humble occupation. It was expected of the teacher that he display desirable traits and abilities. The ideal teacher was seen to be a humble, docile character imbued with a spirit of peace, co-operation and loyalty to the state, and capable of moulding the mind of youth in the desired direction.

The hedge schools were largely judged on the basis of the content of the values that the government wished teachers to transmit. The imperial mind-set of the commentators hardly allows them to view the hedge school in an objective manner. Consequently, the hedge schools, under the supervision of people to whom were attributed nationalistic tendencies, could not, in the eyes of the Establishment, meet the necessary requirements for maintaining a type of social equilibrium. The authorities considered that schoolmasters should carry out the wishes of the government; a certain curriculum had to be set and strictly adhered to. In direct contrast to this philosophy, hedge schoolmasters had no curricula as such, no rules, no regulations, no set timetable and no inspectors. They were accountable only to their pupils and to their ‘calling’; clergy largely supported them. The Ascendancy mind was suspicious of the hedge schools—memories of the 1798 Rebellion were still fresh—and these schools were free from government control.
In spite of the repeal of the most virulent of the Penal Laws over the course of the eighteenth century, the principles of the government’s education policy remained unchanged, and the only state-aided schools were those which, like the Charter Schools, had as their object ‘the instruction of children of the Popish and other natives in the English tongue and in the principles of the Protestant religion’. Government unease at the policy’s lack of success is evidenced by the spate of commissions of inquiry into Irish education, which began in 1791 and continued right through the nineteenth century.

The very existence of these commissions was indicative of the new departure in government policy. Recognising the futility of striving to ensure the loyalty of the dissenting populations by forcing them to conform to the Established Church, it now aimed at doing so by breaching the barriers of mistrust and prejudice between Catholic and Protestant. The need for a loyal colony prompted this aim, and they could hope for the support of both the Catholic hierarchy and gentry, who had for years endeavoured to prove that the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘loyal’ were no longer incompatible.

The government’s interest was in tranquillising the country, and the role of education within this process was well established. With a resurgence of secret political societies such as the Whitefeet, Blackfeet, Rockites and Terryalts, defenders of the political and social status quo found themselves gripped by apprehension. Against this background the issue of control of social forces such as education became one of prime importance in the Ireland of the early nineteenth century.

Above: A hedge school as depicted in a 2014 production of Brian Friel’s Translations by the English Touring Theatre. (Crystal Tiala)

Above: A hedge school as depicted in a 2014 production of Brian Friel’s Translations by the English Touring Theatre. (Crystal Tiala)

1825 Commissioners’ Report

The 1825 Commissioners’ Report highlights this point of view: the hedge schools were not keeping their pupils on the straight and narrow but were instead inculcating sedition, and were involved in the very anti-Puritanical act of moral adventure. The schools ‘were very frequently of an objectionable character’, ‘whence it frequently happens, that instead of being improved by religious and moral instructions, their minds are corrupted … to incite the lawless and profligate adventure, to cherish superstition, or to lead to dissension or disloyalty’. In this avalanche of criticism it was apparent that few aspects of hedge school life remained untouched. Again and again the Commissioners maintained their unrelenting negative attitude towards the popular education being provided in Ireland. Ironically, the emphasis on control, both social and political, bears testimony to the fact that the success of the hedge schools was seen as a threat. The unrelenting criticism of hedge schools was more of an attempt to destroy their tradition than merely to reform it or purge it of irregularities. Once the hedge schools had been discredited, the plan for replacing them with a centralised and properly controlled and supervised system could be easily implemented.


The teachers were of the people: they were supported by the people and lived among them. The teacher had a very high social status because of his learning. The standards of attainment varied enormously: children learned to read from works of adventure, a far cry from the dullness of the readers within the national system from the 1830s onwards—the new schools relied on a utilitarian philosophy. Some of the hedge schoolmasters were given to vanity and slight eccentricity of behaviour. The oddities of the few were foisted on the many. Travelling writers were impressed by the hedge schoolmaster’s enthusiasm and often surprised by the classical scholarship he possessed. The fact that hedge schools continued to flourish well into the nineteenth century, and in a few instances beyond the middle of the century, in the face of much competition from a variety of state-aided schools bears further testimony to their character and to the perseverance and zeal of their education tradition.

Tony Lyons is a former lecturer in Education History at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

P.J. Dowling, The hedge schools of Ireland (Cork, 1968).
T. Lyons, ‘Popular education in rural Ireland 1700–1850’, in C. Gerdenitsch & J. Hopfner (eds), Erziehung und Bildung in landlichen Regionen-Rural Education (Berlin, 2011).
A. McManus, The Irish hedge school and its books, 1695–1831 (Dublin, 2002).


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