Throughout the eighteenth century protestant Nonconformists and Catholics found it extremely hard to find an education that was acceptable to their denominations. The most common solution was provided by the hedge schools, which got their name from their basic to non-existent accommodation. Hedge schools met wherever they could find shelter. Their 'terms' were fitted to the agricultural practices of the neighbourhood. As in the bardic schools, repetition was an important part of the pedagogical method. It had the additional merits of impressing passers – by and of convincing parents that they were receiving value for money, for even the small sum involved cut a large hole in the peasant's budget. Teachers were often nomadic, and hedge schools offered an informal education of very varying quality. The authorities ignored hedge schools unless for some reason the schools impinged on them. Towards the end of the century the anti-Catholic fears of the authorities were augmented by anti–Jacobin ones and, to the consternation of the government, many of the schoolmasters were suspected of advocating the teachings of the French Revolution.
The lack of a Poor Law to keep the population within the parish preserved the tradition of the wandering scholar, and a peripatetic school did not appear unusual in a partly mobile society, although it would have appeared unusual to an English visitor. Still, the transient nature of many of these schools and teachers must have presented educational difficulties for the parents. For instance, the Rev. Henry Cooke, who dominated the mid–nineteenth century Presbyterian Church, attended six such establishments before he took the road to Glasgow University.
Apart from those operated under the auspices of the Established Church, church schools were illegal, but there is considerable evidence of their existence although details about them are difficult to find. They were often conducted by the clergy or under clerical supervision. The 1731 Report on the State of Popery lists 373 known Catholic schools and schoolmasters, but unfortunately gives no idea of the numbers attending them or to what extent, if any, they differed from hedge schools. In any case the admission of this figure at the height of the penal era indicates that it can only be regarded as the tip of a very considerable iceberg. Training for the priesthood or Nonconformist ministry often began in these schools.
Following John Knox's dictum of a school beside each church, the Presbyterian kirk sessions took an active interest in the secular as well as spiritual education of the youth of the congregation. Occasionally they operated their own schools financed, like the Anglican charity schools, by private subscriptions and special sermons. Despite their proximity to the authorities, the Dublin congregations of Capel Street and Ussher's Quay established schools in 1725 and 1731 respectively. Where a congregation did not operate its own school, the kirk session invariably supervised the education available in the vicinity. For instance, the kirk session of Aghadowey [Co. Londonderry] recorded in 1706 that 'one Samuel McCulloch keeps a school in Caheny and maintains heretical doctrines, which is of dangerous consequences for fear of seducing the simple and ignorant, [and we] do enjoin Thomas Nickel to desire the people of Caheny to cause him to remove out of town', and 'it is the mind of this session that he be not entertained in any family within the bounds of this congregation.' A few weeks later the session book recorded that Thomas Nickel had carried out their instructions.
Approved schools received from the local kirk session small sums towards the support of 'poor scholars' or for other educational purposes. For example, the kirk session of Templepatrick [Co. Antrim] recorded on 2 July 1693 a payment for 'the two Thomsons' schooling', and Kirkdonald (Dundonald) on 11 October 1698 a donation 'to a poor scholar'. The minimum objective of the kirk session was that the children of the congregation be taught to read and write. Reading was particularly important to enable them to read the scriptures. Sometimes instruction was given on the Bible and the Shorter Catechism, and occasionally even on the Longer Catechism. Those so equipped were considered to be in a better position both to forward their own salvation and to participate fully in the life of the congregation which was, under the Synod, a self-governing body.
The hedge schoolmasters were reputed to be strict disciplinarians: given the student – staff ratio required to make a living, this was essential. Riots were not unknown The clearest description of hedge schools has been given by William Carleton (1794–1869) who attended and, before embarking on his literary career, very briefly taught in such a school. Carleton was a Catholic in the demographically mixed Catholic, Protestant and Presbyterian border area of South Tyrone. Here it was not unusual for protestant and Catholic children to be educated together, and Carleton speaks of such a school in Augher. Carleton, like Maria Edgeworth, was in a position to observe from the inside life in his particular section of Irish society. On one occasion he declared that 'I have written many works on Irish life and the man has never lived who could lay a finger on any passage of my writing and say “That is false".' But perhaps the fact that Carleton, who was writing for an English audience, found it necessary to make this declaration is an indication that the borderline between truth and caricature can be very thin.
The 1812 Report surveyed these schools and concluded that:
Instruction, except in a very few instances, extends no further than reading, writing and the common rules of arithmetic; and the prices paid are on an average ten shillings per annum for Reading, seventeen shillings and four-pence with Writing, and one pound six-shillings where Arithmetic is added: but even this limited instruction the Masters are in general very ill qualified to give, having been themselves taught in Schools of a similar description, and consequently deficient in information, unacquainted with regular plans of Education, and unaccustomed to that discipline, from the steady and temperate enforcement of which some of the best advantages of Education are derived.
John Leslie Foster, one of the Commissioners, pointed out that it is impossible to expect proper qualifications: 'where the whole reward of the annual labour of a master appears to be on average from £30 to £40 per annum, who for this sum is to find a school-house, and maintain his family'.
The teacher, like the Catholic priest and Presbyterian minister, enjoyed great social prestige in the community. Inevitably the vast majority were men, but it is interesting to speculate how many were women. An 1824 study reveals that in one area there were 96 women among 371 teachers. Carleton speaks highly of a Madame Dumont, née Maguire, who when widowed during the French Revolution returned home and set up a peripatetic dame-school in the neighbourhood of Clogher, where, he records: 'the wealthiest Protestant or Presbyterian would respectfully raise his hat to her, whilst priest and parson treated her as if she were the lady of the land. The calibre and attainments of the schoolteacher varied widely, from those who had studied for the priesthood or intended to study for the Presbyterian ministry to those whose sole training had come from other hedge schoolteachers. The available evidence indicates such diversity as to preclude either making a general statement or portraying an average schoolmaster.
It is impossible to calculate the number of children in the hedge schools at any given time. Arthur Young's comment about ‘every child of the poorest family learning to read, write and cast accounts’ is obviously an exaggeration. In 1811 the Commissioners of the Board of Education considered that 200,000’ is obviously less than the reality': this figure was estimated on the returns from 17 of the 22 dioceses. In these there were 3,736 schoolmasters, 1,271 of whom were protestant and 2,462 Catholic, and 162,467 children were said to be attending hedge schools. The Commissioners' conclusion was more than vindicated by a probably overestimated return of 561,000 in 1824. The number of pupils attending each school varied from about 20 to upwards of 100.
Acknowledgements and thanks to the Ulster Historical Foundation, Belfast for this interesting article
Further reading: Educational History - The Hedge Schools of Ireland