From Hedge Schools to National Schools

by Dr. Gillian O’Brien
(Skerries Historical Society Meeting – September 2014)

What makes for a good talk? If you come away from one mulling over its subject matter and find yourself reaching for book or mouse to try and find out more, then surely, it was a good talk. After the last offering from Skerries Historical Society, you couldn’t do better than reach for the late Dr Garret FitzGerald’s ‘Irish Primary Education in the Early 19th Century’ – a fascinating read.

We were very lucky to have one of Dr FitzGerald’s collaborators on the book, Dr Gillian O’Brien, a native of Skerries and senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, over to tell us all about it.

We have the romanticised idea that put-upon Catholic children were learning ‘Latin verse and Grecian lore’ gathered around the feet of a wandering sage in the lee of a verdant hedge but is it true? A survey conducted in the 1820s shows they weren’t sitting under hedges – the vast majority of children at that time had a classroom of sorts to go to but some of them, particularly on the west coast it seems, were indeed learning Latin and Greek. What they weren’t learning, was Irish – how times have changed! Even in Gaeltacht areas, parents were keen for their children to learn the language of advancement – and that was English. This meant that when these children grew up and emigrated, almost all of their letters home were written in English – native Irish speakers could not write home in their own tongue.

Even if they could stomach this notion – and most of them couldn’t – the Charter Schools sponsored by the state at the time contained ‘sullen and wretched children’ taught by violent masters in filthy buildings. Even the Kildare Place Society schools, which aimed to educate without proselytising, appeared biased as the teachers were all Protestant.

In Skerries there were four schools, all of them ‘Pay Schools’ in which the parents paid the (Catholic) teacher in cash or in kind. Each school had only one teacher – the single male teacher was outnumbered three to one by his female counterparts and, despite the fact that it was generally felt that there was less value in giving girls an education, all catered for both girls and boys with three of them teaching both Catholics and Protestants and only one being exclusively attended by Catholics. Unfortunately the teachers themselves had often not been educated to a high standard so there was a limit to what they could pass on. Books, too, were in short supply – usually the readers were whatever the children themselves could find at home which could range from such childhood classics as Robin Hood to the rather more adult Paradise Lost.

The need for an overhaul of the system was clear and by 1831 a new national school system had come into being, one of the earliest in Europe and Irish children were some of the most literate in the world. We had come a long way from the hedge schools of the 1700s.

Report by Oona Roycroft

Page updated – 08 / 10 / 2014