Education: Primary Private Education—"Hedge Schools" and Other Schools

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Primary Private Education—"Hedge Schools" and Other Schools

Until the late eighteenth century the availability of primary education reflected the realities of political and religious life in Ireland. Ever since the Reformation, Protestant schools (known variously as "parish," "diocesan," and "royal" schools) had received state support. These schools were English in orientation and catered for the children of the nobility and the middle classes. They complemented concurrent efforts to suppress the native culture and the Catholic religion. As a result of penal laws Catholics were forbidden to establish or endow schools for much of the eighteenth century. Such education as Catholics received was necessarily clandestine, though from the middle of the eighteenth century Catholic teaching orders in the larger towns were openly running schools for the children of those who could afford to pay. In the countryside the clandestine system provided the foundation for the celebrated "hedge schools," an informal system in which itinerant schoolmasters supported by the community taught basic numeracy and literacy. Following the relaxation of the penal laws affecting education in 1782, both the hedge-school system and the schools of the religious teaching orders spread with remarkable speed. This development prompted the foundation of new teaching orders (such as the Christian Brothers) and drew the attention of the political establishment to the dangers posed by the hedge-school system and to the need for state involvement in the education of Catholics.

The only attempt at state involvement in the education of Catholics in the eighteenth century was the establishment of the Charter Schools beginning in 1733. Influenced by Enlightenment rationalism, the founders of the Charter Schools hoped that the schools would serve as a means through which poor Catholic children would be trained to earn their living in trade and industry. The system was never a success and developed a scandalous reputation because of its abuse of resources and the neglect and exploitation of the children in Charter Schools.

The educational initiatives the early nineteenth century were an immediate result of the fears inspired by the events of the 1790s. The spread of revolutionary republicanism was seen as intimately linked to the growth of mass literacy, and it was clear that hedge-school masters had played a key role in disseminating widely the radical ideas that had led to the rebellion. The first two decades of the nineteenth century were therefore a period of great debate on popular education, which increasingly came to be seen as fundamental for future political and social stability and for economic progress. The early nineteenth century was also an age of experimentation in both the public and private spheres. The reformers who were inspired by the ideals of the evangelical revival hoped that education would be the vehicle through which the rising generation of Irish children would be converted to the Protestant faith—a happy outcome, as they saw it, that would ensure loyalty, industrious behavior, and obedience to the law. A variety of voluntary agencies, such as the London Hibernian Society and the Association for Discountenancing Vice, appealed with great success to landlords to support the agencies' educational initiatives. Schools funded by these agencies (often employing the newest educational methodology developed by theorists, such as Heinrich Pestalozzi in Switzerland and Bell and Lancaster in Britain) soon began to appear on the estates of improving landlords concerned with disseminating a Bible-based morality.

Simultaneously, a government commission was established (it sat from 1806 to 1812) and reported on the condition of education at the national level. In its last and most influential report it recommended that government funds be made available to launch a national, nondenominational educational venture. The organization that came closest to meeting these conditions was the Kildare Place Society—the product of a Quaker initiative committed to the provision of nondenominational education for the poor. Formally established in 1811, the Kildare Place schools had spread across the country by the early 1820s and were educating Catholic children in large numbers. A powerful evangelical lobby on the Kildare Place board of trustees, however, led Catholics to suspect that the society was working in tandem with other, more overtly proselytizing bodies like the London Hibernian Society. Strident criticism from the Rev. John MacHale and Daniel O'Connell led to a general attack on the system, and the wholesale withdrawal of Catholic children from Kildare Place schools after 1824 effectively destroyed the society.

The attack on the Kildare Place Society precipitated yet another government commission that sat from 1824 to 1827 and issued as many as nine reports. In the most detailed and exhaustive of these reports, which appeared in 1825, it was revealed that the majority of Catholic children (between 300,000 and 400,000) were continuing to be educated in the hedge-school system. Catholic representatives interviewed by the commissioners also made clear that Catholic clergymen were unlikely ever to agree to the attendance of Catholic children at schools in which the Protestant Bible was used for educational purposes. The immediate outcome of the commission was the recommendation by Chief Secretary Edward Stanley that a National Board of Education be set up to oversee a national system of primary education in which the religious-education requirements of the different denominations would be accommodated.

The National Board, which was duly established in 1831, was to be run by a body of commissioners who would entrust particular schools to a patron; this patron would then appoint a manager who would be responsible for hiring the teaching staff. Although the term undenominational was applied to the system as envisaged by Stanley, in the decades following the setup of the board the denominational interests who participated in the system modified the rules such that religious education was provided in accordance with the wishes of the patron and manager. As the system evolved, the patron was generally the bishop of the diocese and the manager was normally the local priest or clergyman. This meant that national schools in Catholic areas were exclusively Catholic and taught religious doctrine accordingly. The same held true in the Presbyterian areas of the north where the national system was also embraced. Because the rules of the National Board did not satisfy the demands of the Church of Ireland, a separate Church Education Society was founded in 1839 to cater to the more stringently religious demands of Irish Anglican leaders.

The schools of the National Board quickly became institutionalized at all levels of Irish society. By the 1840s they had replaced not only the hedge schools but also the schools of the Kildare Place Society and the evangelical agencies. In many instances these older schools were formally incorporated into the national system and their management and curricula were adjusted accordingly. By 1849 almost half a million children were receiving an education in the schools of the National Board, and provisions were in place for an inspectorate, a system of teacher training, and a curriculum whose materials were so advanced that they were used as models in Britain.

The success of the national system meant that the children of the poor were receiving the education they craved. It also endowed Ireland with a progressive and sophisticated system of primary education at least a generation before most countries in Europe, including Britain. On the debit side, the manner in which the religious and administrative issues were settled meant that the clergy of the different denominations managed and controlled the schools—a result that was the complete antithesis of the original promoters' vision. What evolved was a system rigidly denominational in character and practically akin to a form of religious apartheid among children of school-going age. The foundation was also established for a society in which the clergy, through their role as school managers, would come to wield an extraordinary degree of control in Irish society. On the credit side, the national schools laid the basis for mass literacy in English, which was undoubtedly a major advantage—in terms of skill, confidence, and general awareness—for the millions of Irish who emigrated to find work in English-speaking countries.

SEE ALSO Chapbooks and Popular Literature; Education: Nondenominational Schooling; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Kildare Place Society; Literacy and Popular Culture; Religion: Since 1690; Rice, Edmund; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891


Akenson, D. H. The Irish Education Experiment: The National System of Education in the Nineteenth Century. 1970.

Whelan, Kevin. The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism, and the Construction of Irish Identity, 1760–1830. 1996.

Irene Whelan

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Education: Primary Private Education—"Hedge Schools" and Other Schools

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Education: Primary Private Education—"Hedge Schools" and Other Schools