Why Catholics were forced to seek an education in the hedge schools
From The Nationalist
Last Updated Mar 2011
By: Carlow Nationalist
I still crouch ‘neath the sheltering hedge, or stretch on mountain fern, The teacher and his pupils met feloniously to learn THESE words, written by John O’Hagan regarding hedge schools, have a sort of sentimental ring to them, which brings my thoughts to a place where our forefathers risked their very lives in order to keep an education system in our country. There are people in this nation today, including many foreign nationals and some Irish by birth, who have a problem with that system, principally because it is Catholic, and that problem is the inclusion of prayer. Matter of factly, I look at the request a few years ago to remove the crib from the foyer at St James’s Hospital, which was acceded to, the removal of the crucifix from the oratory in a nursing home because the employees did not agree with it or the ongoing attempts to take the Angelus off our radio and TV. Now you can add into the mix the incident in Drumlease, Co Leitrim, where a five-year-old was reciting prayers at home, after his father had been informed that the child would not be taught in the Catholic ethos. Of course, he was also told that the child would not be removed from the classroom, as there was no provision for supervision, unless the parents could arrange this themselves. There is no offence meant here, but when Irish people emigrate, they have to live by the customs of whatever country they go to, and that is reality. It is my belief, for those of us who want to keep our Catholic ethos – and records show that 87.4% of the population are registered – we should be granted the same courtesy in this, our own country. This also applies to our education system, which was heavily influenced by members of the Catholic orders and religious who, for nearly 150 years when legally prohibited from any kind of learning facility, never gave up, despite having to go underground to continue. Now, however, our right to choose what some of us feel is the correct path of education is being questioned by others, even some in the Catholic Church itself, which again is their right, and I have no quarrel with this, but I would request that they do not interfere with what has worked for us since the foundation of the state. Our system has produced good, successful well-educated people for many years and requires little or no fixing, except the provision of better facilities, rather than vermin-infested portacabins and old buildings used as classrooms throughout the country. By all means, protect your own beliefs in faith and education, but not by interfering with ours. This brings me to my story and its headline. We are talking about the Penal Laws, introduced in 1695, which were mostly the work of William of Orange, forbidding any Catholic from being a teacher. Catholic children were not allowed to attend school. With no teachers and no schools, the British hoped the children would be sent to Protestant schools and adopt that religion. Another of those laws meant that Catholics were fined £60 a month for absence from Protestant forms of worship, while four justices of the peace could banish them for life. None were allowed travel more than five miles from their home. No Catholic could hire a Catholic teacher to teach their children, and if the child was sent abroad, the parents were fined £100. Any Catholic priest who came into the country was hanged. Horses and wagons belonging to Catholics were confiscated and used by the militia. These are just some of the laws that were passed, the primary purpose of which was to destroy Catholicism in Ireland. Irish people today are resilient, so were our ancestors, so they set up their education system themselves. These secret learning establishments were called hedge schools, also known as scoilleanna scairte or pay schools. Most of the teachers were male, though there were some women. Most taught reading, writing, arithmetic, Irish and Latin. Hedge schools had just one or two teachers, but pupils ranged in age from as young as five to 18 years. Younger children would be allowed breaks in which they could play, when it was necessary to concentrate on the older pupils. There would also be late classes for children who were required to work on farms in the early part of the day. All this would give the impression that the teacher would make plenty of money, but this was not the case, as most parents were poor and would pay with food or fuel for the fire. However, the teacher would be better off than most. Protestant schools were still available, but Catholics were not interested. And even as late as 1825, the Protestant hierarchy insisted that the best way to convert and civilise the deluded natives was to erect enough schools and force the Catholics to attend a place where they could be educated. Although they were called hedge schools, most were barns, old, uninhabited dwellings or even a room or kitchen in a house. That being said, there were also open air schools, mainly constructed from sods, which would have a hole as a door and window and another in the roof for light. Although some accounts suggest that hedge schools were as much the result of rural poverty as religious oppression, I find it hard to believe this, having studied the Penal Laws. The fact that wealthy religious orders had their schools and properties confiscated was further proof that the setting-up of this form of education was indeed religiously motivated. Edmund Rice, founder of the Irish Christian Brothers, was educated in a hedge school called Moate Lane, one of the few which had a name. Rice defied the laws and set up schools for the poor, as would Nano Nagle, who founded the Presentation Sisters. A commission of inquiry in 1826, six years before their demise, found that of more than half a million pupils enrolled in all schools in Ireland, 403,000 of them were in hedge schools. The Penal Laws were gradually repealed, with the prohibition on teachers being lifted in 1782, but it would be another 50 years before Irish Catholics accepted state schools. An organisation called The Kildare Place Society (named after its address) was formed in 1811 by a group of men in Dublin. Its proper name was the Society for the Education of the Poor in Ireland. It was nondenominational and its purpose was to train teachers, provide support for schools and to publish suitable textbooks. The National Education Board was established in 1831, but 14 years passed before it was granted a charter empowering it to make grants to existing schools to pay teachers and provide equipment, as well as the building of new schools. In 1832, the government decided to set up a system of national schools in an attempt to eliminate the hedge schools. Groups from all religions were appointed to run these learning establishments and, for the first time, there was a general acceptance by Catholics of the system. This also meant that the Kildare Place Schools came totally under the influence of the Church of Ireland. Now we had free education in schools, which were built with the aid of grants provided by the board, which also paid the teachers’ salaries, as well as providing them with rentfree accommodation close to the building. In the early days, schools were heated by an open fire, and it was regular practice in country areas for children to carry small bags of turf to their classrooms in the morning. So that is the history of the beginning of our present primary education system. The National Education Board was disbanded in 1922, and was replaced with the Department of Education.