To say that relations between Ireland and England have been strained throughout the centuries is like saying the Earps and Clantons didn’t quite get along. The troubles reached a brutal pitch in the middle of the 17th century. A generation after the Nine Years’ War, the Irish organized a large scale rebellion known as the rising of ’41 (1641). This rebellion went on for many years and by 1647, under the auspices of the Irish Catholic Confederation, an Irish Parliament independent of England seemed within reach. The Confederation found an ally in the English Royalists who had recently lost power to the Parliamentarians in the English Civil Wars. This hope, however, was short-lived.
In 1649, the Rump Parliament in England sent Cromwell across the Irish Sea into the Western Isle. Cromwell led his New Model Army into Ireland and crushed the rebels along with an enormous segment of the civilian population. Cromwell set out to kill every Catholic priest he could find. He gave his men complete freedom to loot and burn any Catholic church or monastery that Henry VIII didn’t get to first in his pogrom of the previous century. Cromwell’s soldiers were also given carte blanche to do as they wished with the Irish population at large. The results were barbaric. The Cromwellian war in Ireland lasted from 1649 – 1653, but it left bitter feelings among the Irish that are still felt today throughout the Gaeltacht, Irish speaking parts of Ireland. During this time, England, through the Irish Parliament, passed a code of laws called Laws in Ireland for the Suppression of Popery, commonly known as the Penal Code. These laws functioned much like the apartheid laws of South Africa in the 20th century. Instead of being aimed a particular ethnic group, the Penal Laws were directed at the members of a particular religion and culture, Catholic and Irish. These laws struck deep into the political, economic, and personal life of Irish citizens. They were England’s most vicious attempt yet to break the spirit of these proud people.
War broke out again between William of Orange and Irish rebels who refused to accept the injustice of the Penal Code. These battles were known as the Williamite Wars. A treaty was signed in Limerick on October 3, 1691 that was to bring peace. Equally important for the Irish, the Limerick treaty stated that Irish Catholics would be “protected in the free and unfettered practice of their religion.” Yet, in less than three years, England, through its control of the Anglo-Irish parliament in Dublin, would renege on its promises. The Irish parliament, controlled by London, passed its “Act for the Better Securing of the Government Against Papists.” This act made it illegal for any Irishman to own a weapon. It was just the beginning.
The Penal Laws were carefully crafted and comprehensive. British historian and sympathizer William Lecky, in his A History of Ireland in the 18th Century, wrote that the Punishment Laws had three objectives: to deprive Irish Catholics of all civil life; to deny Irish Catholics access to education; and, to separate them from the land. Of particular interest is the efforts made by the English government at this time to deprive the Irish of access to education in Ireland. It was no longer only Catholic bishops and priests with prices on their heads. Schoolmasters were now forced into hiding.
By the 17th century, there was a well-established commitment to classical education in Ireland dating back to ancient times. There are several references to Irish learning in the surviving texts of medieval continental historians. Within Ireland there is the tradition of the falling of the book satchels on the night Longarad died. Longarad was a bishop in the Irish midlands in the late 5th or early 6th century. He was known as a “master of study and jurisprudence, history, and poetry.” According to the tradition, another great Irish saint, Columbcille, visited Longarad and wanted to borrow some of his books. Longarad refused. In response, Columbcille cursed Longarad’s books saying, “May that as to which thou hast shown niggardliness be of no profit after thee.” There are two variants on the legend. On the night Longarad died, some say the satchel containing the books where Columbcille was fell to the floor. Others say the satchels containing books of learning fell from their hooks throughout Ireland that night. Thus, Columbcille knew Longarad had died. He said,
“Dead is Lon
Of Cell-garad-great the evil!
To Erin with her many homesteads
It is ruin of learning and schools.
Died hath Lon In Cell Garad-great the evil!
It is ruin of the learning and schools
Of Erin’s island over her border.”
At the end of the 16th century, English poet Edmund Spenser, no friend to Ireland, wrote a text entitled A View of the Present State of Ireland in which he imagines two Englishman in dialogue about that land of savages. Yet, even Spenser writes, “For it is certain that Ireland hath had the use of letters auntiently is nothing doubtful, for the Saxons of England are said to have their letters and learning, and learned men, from the Irish.” In the early middle ages, Ireland was well known for its wide range of learning in history, astronomy, and philosophy. By the 7th or 8th century, Ireland had a fully developed written language with an elaborate grammatical structure. Ireland had also become known as a bastion for classical learning, particularly Latin and Greek. How did Ireland become so advanced in classical learning? There are several factors. Regarding Latin and Greek, some believe these classical languages were brought to Ireland by learned people fleeing Gaul in the 5th century when barbarism was sweeping the continent. However Latin and Greek came to Ireland, they remained and were taught there for centuries long after these languages had fallen out of favor throughout the rest of Europe. Alongside ecclesiastical works in Ireland, one found works by classical authors as well. Pope Gregory the Great had no knowledge of Greek, yet knowledge of Greek among Irish scholars and priests was quite normal. As with all lands in medieval times, the masses of the Irish people remained mostly uneducated. Yet, if a person desired it, a solid classical education was possible in Ireland. A young person who said good-bye to family and home in pursuit of education was known as a Scolaire bocht, a poor scholar.
Greek was known by most school teachers in Ireland. Irish and Latin were the common languages. In The Story of the Irish Race, Seamus MacManus writes that “with the Latin language all the Irish scholars of those early days show almost a like familiarity that they do with their own Gaelic. They were experts in Latin literature.” MacManus also notes that there is a manuscript in the library of Laon, France written in the last half of the 9th century by an Irish scribe which contains “two glossaries of the Greek and Latin languages, some passages in Irish, and a Greek grammar.” There was a great Irish scholar-king who ruled Munster at the close of the 9th century. His name was Cormac MacCullinan. He was killed in a battle in 903 on the field of Bellach Mughna, but while he lived it was said that under his rule “public schools were established for the purpose of giving instruction in letters, law, and history.”
There had also developed throughout the middle ages a great body of Irish literature and lore. Much of it was lost during the Danish period of destruction when many Irish texts containing the literature and scholarship of Ireland’s early days were lost or taken to Scandinavia. But, the Irish memory is long. And, the tradition of scholarship remained an important part of Irish culture. Scholars and teachers were revered. Schoolmasters were welcomed into the homes of Irish families for as long they liked. That Ireland’s commitment to classical education was strong is evidenced by the fact that there are so many laws in the Penal Code attempting to quash it. Here is one law mandating that a Latin free school be kept in each diocese of Ireland.
Those cited acts of parliament which require every incumbent of each parish to keep a school to learn English, and provide that a public latin free school be constantly maintained within each diocese, (which acts have generally been kept, but have not had the desired effect, by reason of Irish popish schools being too much connived at), and all other statutes now in force concerning schools shall be strictly put in execution. 7 Will III c.4 (1695):
Here is another example from the Penal Code outlining the danger of the Irish youth being exposed to literature:
Whereas it has been found by experience that tolerating at papists keeping schools or instructing youth in literature is one great reason of many of the natives continuing ignorant of the principles of the true religion, and strangers to the scriptures, and of their neglecting to conform themselves to
the laws of this realm, and of their not using the English habit and language, no person of the popish religion shall publicly teach school or instruct youth, or in private houses teach youth, except only the children of the master or mistress of the private house, upon pain of twenty pounds, and prison for three months for every such offence. 7 Will III c.4 (1695)
As for schoolmasters, they were now treated the same as priests under the Punishment Laws, which is to say they were treated like criminals.To encourage the “Popish” schoolmaster’s neighbors to turn him in, a reward would be given of “10 pounds for each popish schoolmaster, usher or assistant; said reward to be levied on the popish inhabitants of the county where found.” 8 Ann c.3 (1709)
Schoolmasters were also subject to transportation which meant being captured and banished to the West Indies. If they tried to return, they would be imprisoned indefinitely.
Any papist clergy or schoolmaster liable to transportation under these Acts shall within three months be transported to the common gaol of the next seaport town, to remain until transported. 8 Ann c.3 (1709)
Irish parents were also forbidden to send their child out of the country to be educated. They were forbidden to teach Irish or Latin. Parents were forbidden to send their child to a Catholic teacher or to hire a Catholic teacher to come to their home. Neither could parents, if Catholic, educate their own children at home. Yet, in true Irish fashion, the people of Ireland refused to accept these unjust laws and they were determined to keep classical education in their land. This quiet rebellion was called the hedge school.
A hedge school is literally what it sounds like. Lessons were conducted in secret by Irish teachers out in the country side, often behind hedges but sometimes behind large rocks or in barns. The students would take turns keeping watch for the authorities. Seamus MacManus describes it this way:
Throughout those dark days the hunted schoolmaster, with price upon his head, was hidden from house to house. And, in the summer time he gathereed his little class, hungering and thirsting for knowledge, behind a hedge in remote mountain glen – where, while in turn each tattered lad kept watch from the hilltop for the British soldiers, he fed to his eager pupils the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.
This is one of the most enduring images in 17th century Irish history, and for me one of the most endearing images from all of Irish history. Teachers were hunted like animals. They often had to sleep on the ground amidst the elements. Half-starved and constantly in danger, these men devoted their lives entirely to the continuation of classical education in Ireland. They kept their own language and literature alive in the minds and hearts of their pupils along with the classical languages. The parents of these hedgeschool students were also incredibly courageous to send their children out under these conditions. The pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty could have cost them everything they had. It is because of these courageous teachers and parents that it was often boasted throughout Ireland that in the mountains of Kerry cows were bought and sold in Greek.
The Penal Code, or Punishment Laws, of the 17th century were a systematic attempt by the English government to disenfranchise 3/4 of the population of Ireland, simply because they were Irish. The Code was rigorously enforced until the latter part of the 18th century. A Frenchman travelling in Ireland in 1796 named de Lotocnaye wrote of seeing the hedgeschools. He entered one such school and said it was like entering a cavern’s mouth. It was dark, smoky and smelly inside. But, when his eyes adjusted, he saw “twenty children sitting on stones, humming like hornets preparing to swarm. Every urchin had a scrap of paper or a leaf of a book in his hand.” In 1775, an English traveller named Twiss passed through Ireland and was saddened to see groups of boys along roadsides learning to write. He was not saddened by the conditions of their “school,” but rather because he thought it was “not judicious to teach the lower orders.” In 1776, a traveller named Arthur Young wrote that he witnessed schools being formed behind hedges all over Ireland. He added, “I might as well say ‘ditch’ for I have seen many a ditch full of scholars.” Yet, throughout these tyring times in Ireland, teachers and learners were held in high regard among their people. The Scolair bocht, or Poor Scholar, was honored and loved and housed free of charge wherever he went. An Irish scholar of modern times named Doheny wrote the following:
As late as 1820, there were in many counties classical schools in which the English tongue was never heard…Literary hospitality continued unimpaired. The ablest masters, classical and scientific, have taught thousands of students who for years were entertained with the most lavish kindness in the houses of the farmers in the districts around the schools, of late a barn or deserted dwelling of mudwall or thatched roof. In Tipperary, Waterford, and Limerick it was usual to have two of these scholars living (free) for four and five consectutive years with a family, and treated with extreme courtesy and tenderness. In the first cycle of this century there was scarcely a farmer of any competency who did not give one son or all of his sons, a classical education, without any reference to intended professions or pursuits.
The Punishment Laws passed by the Anglo-Irish parliament were so harmful to the Irish people that the Frenchman Montesquieu described them as “conceived by demons, written in blood, and registered in Hell.” By the close of the 1700s, more just minds began to influence the English government. In 1793, King George III actually used the word “Catholic” in a speech given from the throne of England. This was considered shocking. Throughout the Penal Code and in all official documentation, that word was never used. Catholicism was always “papism” and Catholics were always called “papists.” It wasn’t until 1829, however, under the Act of Catholic Emanicipation that the Punishment Laws were officially abolished and hedgeshools came to an end. The following is a poem honoring the Masters of the hedgeschools.
The Hedge Schoolmasters
When the night shall lift from Erins’ hills, ’twere shame if we forget One band of unsung heroes whom Freedom owes a debt. When we brim high cups to brave ones then, their memory let us pledge Who gathered their ragged classes behind a friendly hedge.
By stealth they met their pupils in the glen’s deep-hidden nook, And taught them many a lesson was never in English book; There was more than wordy logic shown to use in wise debate; Nor amo was the only verb they gave to conjugate.
When hunted on the heathery hill and through the shadowy wood, They climbed the cliff, they dared the marsh, they stemmed the tumbling flood; Their blanket was the clammy mist, their bed the wind-swept bent; In fitful sleep they dreamt the bay of blood-hounds on their scent.
Their lore was not the brightest, nor their store, mayhap, the best, But they fostered love, undying, in each young Irish breast; And through the dread, dread night, and long, that steeped our island then, The lamps of hope and fires of faith were fed by these brave men.
The grass waves green above them; soft sleep is theirs for aye; The hunt is over, and the cold; the hunger passed away. O hold them high and holy! and their memory proudly pledge, Who gathered their ragged classes behind a friendly hedge.
‘scoileanna scairte’ Irish Hedge School