Hedge schools in class of their own

It is a well-recorded fact that many of West Cork’s small schools have a standard of excellence that frequently belies their size and resources.

In these institutions where two or three teachers do sterling work, much of the teaching is innovative and individual and teachers introduce enlightened teaching methods and projects.

Reenascreena National School is one such institution.

With the guidance of their principal and teacher Jean Dignan, the senior students of Reenascreena recently undertook a study of the old Hedge School System. And during their exploration, the students quickly realised just how fraught with danger and discomfort getting an education was, in bygone times.

After the accession of William and Mary in the 1690s, schools went completely underground when the education of Catholics either at home or abroad was forbidden under the severe penalties of the Penal Laws. Education was left entirely to the lay schoolmaster who was bold enough to risk life and limb in order to teach.

In records of the time, they are recorded as the “Popish Schoole Masrs” who teach “the Irish youth, training them up in Supirsticion, idolatry and the Evil Customs of the Nacion” It was recommended that if taken, the schoolmaster should be put to death or “transported to Barbadoes”

These illegal schools, or Hedge Schools as they became known, were to become the only channels of education for the native Irish until the middle of the nineteenth century. And the poorest and most humble of these schools — often set up in remote mountainous districts where danger of detection was least likely— gave instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic.

But Latin, Greek mathematics, English and Irish grammar were also taught in many of the schools. In 1812, one historian was quoted as saying “ I do not know of any part of Ireland so wild that its inhabitants are not anxious, nay eagerly anxious, for the education of their children.”

And it is authoritatively claimed that cows were bought and sold in Greek in the mountain market places of County Kerry.

It is quite extraordinary that while the Penal Laws prevented the Catholic Irish from voting, holding office, owning, purchasing land or engaging in commerce, education continued.

The income that the Hedge School teacher received was usually very small since it depended entirely on the number of pupils, and in winter attendance fell dramatically — not surprising since we know that the children sat on stones and used a fir-block as a desk.

The Reenascreena children experienced some of these discomforts first-hand during their day as Hedge School students. This is how some of them felt about it.

“The Hedge School was fun but it was nice to come back into our warm comfortable classroom again. If children back then came to our school, they would be in heaven. When someone got their spelling wrong, Miss told me to go out and cut her a stick, and it had better be a good one!” (Brian Collins)

“It was damp, dreary and my limbs ached”(Brian Ronan)

“It was dull, damp and uncomfortable and I was scared that the Red Coats would discover us.”

(Kate O Sullivan)

“It was a hard life for the children. It was so difficult to write on those slates.” (Evan Fitzpatrick)

“These children will never forget the sense of a Hedge School once they re-enacted it using slates and dressed in costumes of the time. For them it was much more enjoyable than just reading about Hedge Schools in books,” Jean Dignan said.

She told me how this study came about.

Jean, how did you decide on the project?

The History Curriculum Ireland, 1999 points out that an important aim of the programme is that children will acquire a balanced understanding of family, local, national and international history.

I teach in a small rural school of 46 pupils with three teachers. And if children are to understand their heritage they must appreciate the devastation caused by events such as the famine and the implementation of the Penal Laws. The majority of pupils come from small farms and the community is still quite close to the land.”

I believe this isn’t the first historical study your students have conducted.

I was fortunate in that when I was teaching The Great Famine, there were lots of local resources to be exploited. Our school is set against the backdrop of Carrigfada Hill, which has the remains of a deserted famine cottage.

The mark of potato beds dug in famine times are still visible here. The only constraint is a teacher’s time to peruse and sort out all these resources.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation introduced a “Heritage in the Schools” initiative, which provides a panel of archaeologists, artists, musicians etc. which it subsidises for school visits. An archaeologist from this scheme came with my class on a visit to a local stone circle. And her in-depth knowledge and creative approach to the subject was far superior to what I had to offer.

She brought us to a nearby beach where she had the pupils construct passage graves from large stones, which they covered over with sand.

Then they had to excavate them, just as a real archaeologist might do. It was very exciting.”

What was your own schooling like?

I believe that planners and teachers must value the arts in education and be of the opinion that children’s intelligence is made up of much more than academic abilities. I went through secondary school here without any arts subjects.

I was considered an “A” student and streamed to take Higher Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

I taught in a London school in the late eighties and I witnessed first-hand how continuity of building on skills and concepts were neglected in Maths and English.

I was a Learning Support Teacher to children with learning difficulties for several years too, and I can well appreciate the value of presenting a topic in forms other than the written or oral form.

I have a clear memory of performing a Russian dance for a concert in primary school. I can still visualise the knee-high boots, the orange pantaloons and the Cossack hat! It was my sense of Russia for years.”


Jean Dignan


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