The Hedge School


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What is a Hedge School?


The 'hedge schools' were simply places of instruction in Ireland outside of the purview of the English during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. They were sometimes in the fields, behind the hedges, but were as often in someone's home or barn.

Irish schools were rural Ireland were this informal for centuries prior. Brehons, story tellers, musicians, and others, often taught Irish children history, tradition, language, math, and other subjects in a variety of settings.

But the term "hedge school" is used to describe the schools formed in reaction to the English penal laws. The laws, among other things, provided that "no person of the popish religion shall publicly or in private houses teach school, or instruct youth in learning".

The English sponsored schools in Ireland, particularly in cities and towns, and the Catholic Irish could be exposed there to mathematics, science, and English language instruction. But many Irish refused to use them. Instruction often included Protestant religious instruction and denigration of Irish history and customs.

Hedge schools sprung up as a result. Some of these were operated by Catholic priests. Others were run by a "hedge master" - a person who, for a fee, would teach a variety of subjects. The Irish also called these scoileanna scairte, or "secret schools".

Although illegal, priests and hedge masters were rarely prosecuted for operating hedge schools. English officials focused more on the established and wealthy Catholic churches and orders, whose property was confiscated. The penal laws also aimed at forcing the Irish middle class and gentry to convert to the Anglican religion.

The penal laws were gradually repealed in the latter half of the 18th Century, and secular state-sponsored school began in the early 19th Century. The result was the end of the hedge schools.

Hedge schools have revived - at least in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. And ClanDonnell is proud to be a hedge master.

The photograph is of a mural in a Belfast neighborhood, depicting a hedge school.

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