The Hedge School

I Still crouching ‘neath the sheltering hedge,
Or stretched on mountain fern,
The teacher and his pupils met feloniously to learn.

Saving the Irish
Many of those be the most barbaric and loathy conditions of any people (I think) under heaven…They do use all the beastly behaviour that may be, they oppress all men, they spoil as well the subject, as the enemy; they steal, they are cruel and bloody, full of revenge, and delighting in deadly execution, licentious, swearers and blasphemers, common ravishers of women, and murderers of children.
Edmund Spenser, A View of the State of Ireland, 1596

Annihilating a people through war and famine, as the poet Spenser advised, was not the only way to make a people subject. Beginning in the early eighteenth century, after waves of open warfare, the English began their long pacification campaign against the Irish. What didn’t change was a common sense vision of the Irish people, a way of prescribing their natural abilities and thus their potential.

To grasp this historical fact is to accept that the education question in Ireland was not primarily an economic or a religious question. It was a conflict over what a people were capable of, how their past was told and what their futures promised.

Accounts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries testify to this. People crawling from hovels and sleeping with animals were not a people perceived to be capable of freedom. The penal laws which banned the education of Catholics can be interpreted through this logic, a logic that made sensible the belief that such prohibition was actually a step forward, a step on the road towards saving the Irish from being Irish.

The balm of information for the wound of ignorance
Thomas Orde, Chief Secretary, 1792

As early as 1730 the English opened a system of Charter Schools around Ireland. They wanted good subjects. What does this mean? It means subjects who see and hear and feel the same way, who value and understand the same things, who come from the same history and aspire to the same dreams. The fact that the Irish kicked and screamed was only evidence of their ignorance. As long as they kicked and screamed they made manifest their inability to communicate and to be reasonable: the power of a formula that required better instruction where ever there was disorder. And so pamphlets were circulated revealing that the Irish people who starved did so because they didn’t yet know the latest methods of husbandry.

To the average traveller the scenes in Ireland spoke for themselves: bare hills, thatch cottages, smouldering fires, toothless children: “In a country where there is hardly any employment but tilling the ground, it (learning) can eventually be of no use except to such as are bred to trades”. These were accounts from those who came to study the situation- the geographers, economists, prospectors. They reported to the Crown that the Irish were little more than hewers of wood and drawers of water, little more than animals. If this was the case what reason to promote thinking? What use had they for books or poetry?

At the end of the eighteenth century, the revolutionary decades, liberal philosophies of education began to filter into the reckoning of the English government. The child was perceived to be something more than a worker. Rousseau and Paine discoursed on the holistic development of heart and spirit. They were convinced that sound tutelage, careful exposure to the right kind of ideas and a healthy environment would encourage a moral, willing citizen. A conflict arose between those wary of upsetting the social order (the conservatives) and those who sought to strengthen the social order (liberals). Everyone believed in the ‘ageless rule of regularity and order- a time and a place for everything, and everything in its proper time and place’.

Conservatives and liberals debated over techniques and aims of education, text books, class sizes, teacher training. They could do this because they were agreed on the general parameters; they had a consensus. As Richard Lovell Edgeworth said, reporting on the future of Irish education in 1806: “to inculcate democracy and a foolish hankering after undefined liberty is not necessary in Ireland.”

No one questioned the common sense that fiction and dreams were dangerous for children. Instead children were taught Mrs. Marcet’s fairy tale about an imaginary world of equality and freedom. Life in this utopia was depicted as so diabolical and disturbing that the characters plead for a return to the status quo, to the security of their earlier enslavements.

To appreciate the hedge schools we have to understand the depth and extent of this common sense partition of the Irish people, a common sense that reiterated the limits of their potential and sought above all “to make youth more useful without elevating them above the situation in life for which they may be designed.”

Another Vision
It is not a question of pulling machinery asunder and piecing it together
again; it is a question of breathing into a dead thing a living soul
P. H. Pearse

The hedge schools fostered a different common sense vision of Ireland. They operated on a different spectrum, a different understanding of where the Irish people came from and what they were capable of doing. This must be evident when we see priests leading their congregations to the hills and teachers taking their students to the fields and the ditches.

What was the vision?
It was a different history to begin with. A history animated by music, myth, poetry and song, an intimate geography and a connection to the land. From this history stems the possibility of a different way of looking into the future.

There is no question that in 18th century Ireland the native people lived on very little. No question either that they paid rents to landlords and tithes to a church that didn’t share their faith. They had no rights to congregate, no rights to think. They were forced to bury their books in the ground leaching their language back into the soil.

Against a political will and a common sense that sought at every turn, in every sneering look, in every unheralded eviction, in every moment of brutality, to inform the people that they had what was suited to them, the force of another vision grew. The hedge schools held on to and kept common this vision through a belief that poetry and imagination were available to all.

I did not read the classics as they are usually read by Learners. I read them as novels – I looked to the story – the narrative – not to the Grammatical or other difficulties.
William Carleton, Irish novelist, educated in hedge school, 1830

At a time when fiction was frowned upon (‘nothing but gilded lies’) and education was universally considered to be utilitarian- for the making of a factory worker or the making of a good subject- the hedge schools fostered a form of education that was open and broad.

Freedom in the literature, in the teaching, and also in the architecture meant no bureaucracy, no licenses, no certificates or exams; as fast as the weather changed the masters moved with their satchels, skirting over hills and mountains. They met at night when the workers came in from the fields, they met in clefts of rocks and under trees; free to come and go, to move as they wanted.

Students were taught maths, literacy, science, geography, astronomy… Latin, Greek, Irish, Hebrew… hurling, poetry, dancing, singing…. They were also taught what the parents wanted, and even what the children themselves wanted. A scene in Brian Friel’s play Translations shows the hedge school master sitting in the midst of a chaotic scene as all around him the children perform different tasks: one reads alone, another plays with objects on the ground, another recites a song to a younger boy, one girl helps another to read. The freedom of the classroom, so reviled by the authorities, sprung from the understanding that people could direct themselves.

An extension of this faith was the importance of unplanned play in the classroom. With so many different groups taking part in the classes, of all different ages, a necessary independence meant that distinctions between work and play could not exist. Even the authority of the master was dispersed as older children helped younger children in their lessons. Despite the apparent disorder there were no quarrels or fights, no children desperate for the clock hand to reach the time of escape. There were pranks and jokes and frequent disruptions as passing folk dropped in to say a word or sing a song, but all this was part of the fabric of the children’s day.

The hedge masters had few books and buildings to store their stories and songs. They moved with them and kept them alive through processes imperceptible to the authorities, who characterised the masters as chancers and opportunists. Successive education inquiries claimed that the ability of the masters was slight, that they only taught basic maths and literacy from cheap chapbooks because they were too poor to afford anything else. But after the priest the master was the most respected figure in the community. Their lifelong commitment to teaching was understood as a vocation. With so many masters offering their services, travelling from place to place in search of pay and hospitality, a system of training and apprenticeship between the most learned and the inexperienced arose.

Of great dismay to the authorities was the preponderance of cheap chapbooks, or penny books, used in the schools. These were thought to be trashy romances and adventure stories unfit for a child’s developing mind. Dreaming, they said, was inherently destabilising. To fill children’s heads with make believe and nonsense made them anarchic or morally perverse.

The chapbooks most popular with the children were those stories about highwaymen and rapparees. The adventures of men such as James Freney and Redmond O’Hanlon who lived outside the law but in their own way showed how a different sort of justice could prevail. These outlaws were heroes for striking a blow against the establishment: they took money from the land agents and tax collectors and re-distributed it amongst the tenants.

Alongside these contemporary tales were the classic myths of Ovid and Homer, the ancient stories of the Fianna and Cuchulain. Accounts tell of those moments when the minds of children were thrown open, of how strongly and mysteriously they were affected by these strange, distant worlds.

The teaching of an uncensored history kept alive the possibility of a different sequence and so it was that of all subjects taught, history was considered the most treacherous by the English government. Wakefield, in his Account of Ireland, feared for the security of the state because of the books he had seen being taught in the schools, books which were impossible to read “without imbibing a spirit of disloyalty to the government, and hatred of the present royal family and the English connection.” In the early nineteenth century the hedge master was increasingly spoken of as a ‘disloyal subject’ who kept alive ‘the spirit of discontent’. Alongside histories of O’Neill and O’Donnell were histories of Rome, Troy and, most recently, the French Revolution. Teaching alternative histories was not simply a case of preserving a heritage but preserving the possibility of a different step into the future.

Amidst the unspeakable miseries the peasants enjoyed to a very exalted degree poetry and song.
Charles Topham Bowden, A Tour through Ireland, 1791

Lord Palmerston, the Sligo landlord, wrote to a friend that he couldn’t believe, or understand, how five or six of schools had sprung up on his land. Robert Peel, Home Secretary, was more dismissive when he wrote to his friend, the MP of Limerick, that he did not want to see “children educated like the inhabitants of that part of the country, to which the honorable member belongs, where the young peasants of Kerry run about in rags with a Cicero or a Virgil under their arms.”

The utilitarians, the bearers of the governing vision, couldn’t understand why parents with no income paid vagabond masters to study the classics: ‘surely it’s a waste of money’, they said, ‘surely they had better spend their money on tools for the field or shoes for their feet’. While some parents had faint hopes of sending their children to Louvaine, to train in the religious college, many simply wanted their children to learn how to read and write, to learn from men they respected.

After the end of the Gaelic aristocracy in 1601 many of the court poets and scribes remained in Ireland while their Lords fled to Europe. They carried with them a rich repertoire of stories, poems, songs and history. Beyond the classroom, on evenings by the fire, people used to gather and hear of fantasies and tragedies. In this way tunes and verses passed between the people and though most could not read and write they would sing the words as they worked or walked in the fields. It was this apparent dissonance, a dissonance of two visions, poverty of flesh and wealth of spirit, which stirred foreign travellers: ‘the peasantry are uncommonly attached to their native melodies and some are exquisitely beautiful’.

Despite their authority the masters were ‘imbued with the same prejudices, influenced by the same feelings, subject to the same habits’ as the people they lived amongst. This was in contrast to the Church which gradually moved in the opposite direction.

In the early eighteenth century the Church had sided with the hedge school masters in opposition to the crown; they had been itinerants too. But with the rise of agrarian violence and agitation the Church turned towards the state. They began to wear collars and black uniforms. They were banned from wakes, weddings and banquets. They didn’t play hurling in the fields or get drunk on a summer’s night.

The hedge school masters hosted the wakes, sang the songs, and, most importantly, empathised with the people: they suffered directly when the tithes were raised and the tenants evicted.

In 1758 the common lands of the people were taken away under the Enclosures Acts. What had been free land to graze livestock became ranches for cows bred and fed on Irish soil for export to England. Fields were fenced and walled; tenants were evicted without any notice. Not surprisingly it was the hedge school masters who orchestrated the first gatherings of the secret societies, the Whiteboys.

The Whiteboys, so called for their white smocks, were the outcome of a form of education that fostered imagination and equality. In places where the Whiteboys circulated there were different laws for the people to follow, a separate system of justice. Men and women levelled the walls and ditches that divided their lands, just as they had read books and sung songs of levelling injustices.

It is not hard to imagine evening classes extending on into the night as frustrations and angers were voiced by a people suffering without an obvious choice. By the second half of the eighteenth century these secret societies were operating in conjunction with the schools. The authorities couldn’t detect the leaders or the participants, those who sent threatening letters to landlords, who destroyed property, who joined in torch-lit parades through towns and signed their names ‘captain moonlight’ after nightly raids. The people and the leaders were indistinguishable; their networks were part and parcel of their daily lives.

From agrarian agitation it was known the hedge school masters became part of the more radical and revolutionary United Irishmen. Taking their leave from the French revolution (a long held knowledge and awareness of continental writers and thinkers) they succeeded in mounting an offensive in 1798. While the rebellion was defeated one area in which the rebels claimed victory was in the propaganda war. Using a vast distribution network of radical literature, pamphlets, handbills, newspapers and popular ballads a rapid politicisation of people had occurred. As Thomas Addis Emmet said, the United Irishmen sought to ‘make every man a politician’. The scale of this expression machine would have been impossible without the previous decades of hedge school teaching that had made a population literate and imaginative.

National Education
Even the worst government that ever was, is both much better and much cheaper than no government at all.
Fourth Book of Lessons, text book for national schools, 1847

Realising the role of the Hedge school masters in the upheaval of the 1790s (many were identified as such before being executed) the question of education became a priority for the state. Liberals, Conservatives and Catholic emancipators worked together against the seditious hedge schools. They had to break the force of the masters, the force that spun alternative histories and impossible utopias.

The first task of the commission was ‘to ban books calculated to incite to lawless and profligate adventure, to cherish superstition, or to lead to dissension and disloyalty’. After the establishment of the church-backed national education system in 1831 the state was able to print its own books and supply them free of charge to the new schools now being built all over the country. These schools were managed by church and state, filled with approved masters and set to a standard curriculum. The ‘lesson books’ cultivated ‘good values’: they taught the merit of hard work, the immorality of idleness, the value of being content with whatever God granted you. Most of all the unity between the two countries was emphasised: the common bond of language, geography, nationhood and even history. These same books were sent to Canada, Australia, Wales and India.

These institutional technologies- the rules, the training centres, the buildings, the funding- was the beginning of an extensive pacification machine. Over the course of the nineteenth century education was increasingly controlled by the Church.

Hedge schools became a thing of the past; their power, like quicksilver, spread elsewhere.


[1] States showed indeed no hesitation in nationalizing banks, when these were about to bankrupt.

[2] This tendency is evident in some post-autonomist thinking on the university as the factory of immaterial capitalism. The strategy which flows from such an analysis involves translating the politics of the factory (demands for better wages/conditions) to the university and emphasizing the productive power of the ‘general intellect’

[3] Here the notion of student is intended in its broadest sense. Although today the university is a hard to access space, in many cases expensive and unaffordable for many people, we think that it should operate on an egalitarian basis, i.e. it should be opened up to every interested individual, independently from their social status/ qualifications/ skills.

[4] The Ignorant Schoolmaster

[5] Badiou, Alain, 2003. “Beyond formalization. An interview”. Angelaki 8,11, pp 108-132.

[6] The word ‘police’ is used here in Ranciere’s sense of maintaining boundaries through which power distributes spaces and functions