Hedge Schools and Classical Education in Ireland

The first Tuesday of the first full week in May is National Teacher Day, so this seems an opportune occasion to recall a courageous, but little-known group of teachers and schoolmasters who sacrificed comfort and security for the sake of truth, goodness, and beauty in seventeenth-century Ireland.

From very early days, classical education was highly valued in Ireland. There is an Irish legend about “the falling of the book satchels.” A few variations exist, but the basic story is this: Longarad was a bishop in the Irish midlands in the late fifth or early sixth century. Longarad was known as a master of law, history, and poetry. The tradition says another great Irish saint, Columbcille, visited Longarad and wanted to borrow some of his books. Longarad refused, so Columbcille cursed Longarad’s books saying, “May that as to which thou hast shown niggardliness be of no profit after thee.” Some say on the night Longarad died, the satchel containing the books where Columbcille was staying fell to the floor. Another version of the legend say that night the satchels containing books of learning fell from their hooks throughout Ireland. Thus, Columbcille knew Longarad had died. Mourning the great man of learning, he said, “Dead is Lon of Cell-garad-great the evil! To Erin with her many homesteads it is ruin of learning and schools. Died hath Lon In Cell Garad-great the evil! It is ruin of the learning and schools of Erin’s island over her border.”

To say that relations between Ireland and England have been strained throughout the centuries is like saying the Earps and Clantons sometimes disagreed. The troubles reached a brutal pitch in 1649, when the Rump Parliament in England sent Cromwell across the Irish Sea into the Western Isle. Cromwell led his New Model Army into Ireland and crushed the rebels along with a very large segment of the civilian population. The Cromwellian war in Ireland lasted from 1649–1653, but it left bitter feelings among the Irish which Seamus MacManus, in The Story of the Irish Race, claims are still felt today throughout the Gaeltacht, or Irish speaking parts of Ireland. During this time, the Anglo-Irish Parliament, controlled by England, passed a code of laws called “Laws in Ireland for the Suppression of Popery,” commonly known as the Penal Code. The Penal Laws struck deep into the political, economic, and religious life of Irish Catholics. The Code had three objectives: to deny the Irish any means of participating in civic life; to deny them access to education; and, to separate them from the land. Like the pernicious Apartheid laws of South Africa, the Penal Code was aimed specifically at a particular group: native Irish Catholics, three-fourths of the population of Ireland at that time.

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By the seventeenth century, there was a well-established commitment to classical education in Ireland dating back to the early medieval era. There are several references to Irish learning in the surviving texts of medieval continental historians. Even the sixteenth century English poet Edmund Spenser, no friend to Ireland, wrote “that it is certain that Ireland hath had the use of letters auntiently is nothing doubtful, for the Saxons of England are said to have their letters and learning, and learned men, from the Irish.” In the early Middle Ages, Ireland was well known for its wide range of learning in history, astronomy, and philosophy. By the seventh or eighth century, Ireland had a fully developed written language with an elaborate grammatical structure. Ireland had also become known as a bastion for learning in Latin and Greek. Some believe these classical languages were brought to Ireland by learned people, mainly monks, fleeing Gaul in the fifth century when barbarism was sweeping the continent. However Latin and Greek came to Ireland, they remained and were taught there for centuries long after these languages had fallen out of favor throughout the rest of Europe. Alongside ecclesiastical works in Ireland, one found works by classical authors as well. Knowledge of Greek among Irish scholars and priests was not uncommon. As with all lands in medieval times, the masses of the Irish people remained mostly uneducated. Yet, if a person desired it, a solid classical education was possible in Ireland. MacManus writes of the tradition of the scolaire bocht, poor scholar, who leaves the comforts of home to find wisdom and knowledge through the study of Irish literature and history and the classical texts.

Greek was known by most school teachers in Ireland. Irish and Latin were the common languages. In The Story of the Irish Race, MacManus writes that “with the Latin language all the Irish scholars of those early days show almost a like familiarity that they do with their own Gaelic. They were experts in Latin literature.” MacManus also writes of a great Irish scholar-king who ruled Munster at the close of the ninth century. His name was Cormac MacCullinan. He was killed in a battle in 903 on the field of Bellach Mughna, but while he lived it was said that under his rule “public schools were established for the purpose of giving instruction in letters, law, and history.” Scholars and teachers were revered and schoolmasters were welcomed into the homes of Irish families. That Ireland’s commitment to classical and religious education was strong is evidenced by the fact that there are so many laws in the Penal Code attempting to quash it. Here are a few examples from the Code:

Those cited acts of parliament which require every incumbent of each parish to keep a school to learn English, and provide that a public Latin free school be constantly maintained within each diocese, (which acts have generally been kept, but have not had the desired effect, by reason of Irish popish schools being too much connived at), and all other statutes now in force concerning schools shall be strictly put in execution. (7 Will III c.4 [1695])

…no person of the popish religion shall publicly teach school or instruct youth, or in private houses teach youth, except only the children of the master or mistress of the private house, upon pain of twenty pounds, and prison for three months for every such offence. (7 Will III c.4 [1695])

Schoolmasters were now treated as criminals. To encourage the “Popish” schoolmaster’s neighbors to turn him in, a reward, extracted from those neighbors, would be given of

10 pounds for each popish schoolmaster, usher or assistant; said reward to be levied on the popish inhabitants of the county where found. (8 Ann c.3 [1709])

Any papist clergy or schoolmaster liable to transportation under these Acts shall within three months be transported to the common gaol of the next seaport town, to remain until transported. (8 Ann c.3 [1709])

Being “transported” had a very different meaning in the Penal Laws than it has in spiritual terms. It meant being shipped off to the West Indies. Any schoolmaster who tried to return to Ireland after being “transported” would be imprisoned indefinitely. Irish parents were also forbidden to send their child out of the country to be educated. This restriction was meant to deplete the number of priests in Ireland, who were generally educated in French seminaries. Irish Catholics were forbidden to teach Irish or Latin.

The Hedge School
Despite all of this, the people of Ireland maintained a quiet rebellion. They were determined to keep classical education and Catholic tradition alive in their land through what was called the hedge school.

A hedge school is what it sounds like. Lessons were sometimes conducted in secret by Irish teachers out in the country side, often behind hedges but sometimes behind large rocks or in barns. The students would take turns keeping watch for the authorities. Seamus MacManus describes it this way:

Throughout those dark days the hunted schoolmaster, with price upon his head, was hidden from house to house. And, in the summer time he gathered his little class, hungering and thirsting for knowledge, behind a hedge in remote mountain glen—where, while in turn each tattered lad kept watch from the hilltop for the British soldiers, he fed to his eager pupils the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.

As a descendant of Irish grandfathers and a teacher myself, this for me is one of the most enduring images in seventeenth-century Irish history. Teachers were hunted like animals, sometimes sleeping on the ground amidst the elements. Half-starved and in danger, these men devoted their lives to the continuation of classical education in Ireland. They kept their own language, literature and religious tradition alive in the minds and hearts of their pupils, along with the classical languages. The pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty could have cost them everything they had. It is because of these courageous teachers that it was often boasted throughout Ireland that in the mountains of Kerry cows were bought and sold in Greek.

The Penal Code, or Punishment Laws, of the seventeenth century were a systematic attempt by the English government to disenfranchise 3/4 of the population of Ireland, simply because they were Irish and Catholic. The Code was rigorously enforced until the latter part of the eighteenth century. MacManus reports in 1775, an English traveler named Twiss passed through Ireland and was saddened to see groups of boys along roadsides learning to write. He was not saddened by the conditions of their “school,” but rather because he thought it was “not judicious to teach the lower orders.” In 1776, a traveler named Arthur Young wrote that he witnessed schools being formed behind hedges all over Ireland. He added, “I might as well say ‘ditch’ for I have seen many a ditch full of scholars.” Yet, throughout these trying times in Ireland, teachers and learners were held in high regard among their people. The scolair bocht was honored and housed free of charge wherever he went. In the introduction to John O’Mahony’s translation of Geoffrey Keating’s History of Ireland, Irish scholar Michael Doheny wrote the following:

As late as 1820, there were in many counties classical schools in which the English tongue was never heard… Literary hospitality continued unimpaired. The ablest masters, classical and scientific, have taught thousands of students who for years were entertained with the most lavish kindness in the houses of the farmers in the districts around the schools, of late a barn or deserted dwelling of mud wall or thatched roof. In Tipperary, Waterford, and Limerick it was usual to have two of these scholars living (free) for four and five consecutive years with a family, and treated with extreme courtesy and tenderness. In the first cycle of this century there was scarcely a farmer of any competency who did not give one son or all of his sons, a classical education, without any reference to intended professions or pursuits.

The Punishment Laws passed by the Anglo-Irish parliament were so harmful to the Irish people that the French philosopher Montesquieu described them as “conceived by demons, written in blood, and registered in Hell.” By the close of the 1700s, more just minds began to influence the English government, yet it wasn’t until 1829, under the Act of Catholic Emancipation, that the Punishment Laws were officially abolished and hedge schools came to an end.

Seamus MacManus presents a stirring image of the courageous Irish teachers refusing to let British prejudice and bigotry snuff out the light of wonder. I’d like to believe some ancestor of mine could be counted among those brave, devoted teachers who let nothing stop them from telling young people the truth.


  • Tom Jay

    Tom Jay is Academy Dean at a charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona. He also teaches Latin I to fifth graders. Prior to his current position, he taught junior high at a parochial school in the Diocese of Phoenix. Tom is a graduate of the University of Dallas and also holds a Master in Humanities with a Concentration in Classical Education from UD.

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