It’s that time of year when on both sides of the pond, parents have a little more pep in their step as they try to be discreet about knowing the exact number of hours until school starts and children bounce between excitement at their new school gear and seeing new friends and anxiety and dread at the return of homework. The stores always make sure everyone knows that it is back to school season, and soon all the little scholars will be hard at work – either studying or thinking up ways to avoid studying.
While nowadays parents worry about their children skipping school (known as ‘mitching’ school in Ireland), once upon a time, going to school was basically illegal for Catholic children so, with their parents’ blessings, they would sneak off to secret schools. They were known as ‘hedge schools’ because the penal laws specifically outlawed using buildings to educate Catholic children. Catholics were not allowed to teach either, under the penal laws. So the schools were most often held in the shelter of a hedge row, which offered some protection from the elements and the eyes of authority.
The teachers were outlaws, and they were often paid in farm produce by their students. Without the benefit of classroom or curriculum, they managed to teach their students – who ranged widely in age – the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. In some hedge schools, students even learned Latin or Greek. Regardless of the subject matter, lessons were usually conducted in Irish – another thing the British authorities of the time wanted to stamp out. But parents did not have to drag their grumbling offspring from bed to get to school on time in the morning. Often, hedge schools were held in the evening because the young students who attended them were busy working on their family farms during the day.
The thought of learning Latin in a cold, damp hedge school in the evening after a day’s hard work on the farm is probably enough to make today’s young scholars stop grumbling about their algebra homework… for about five seconds. Be aware that mentioning hedge schools to your children incurs the risk that they will misunderstand and think you went to a hedge school. It isn’t much of an ego boost for mammy or da to be mistaken for someone who was young in the 1700s.
The secret hedge schools were in reality about as secret as anything else in rural Ireland – not very. While there isn’t evidence that hedge school teachers were routinely arrested, going to school was an act of defying the authorities for Catholic children and their parents as well as for the teachers.
The Penal Laws that led to the creation of hedge schools dated back to about 1695 and were in effect until 1782. After that, schools for Catholic children were not illegal, but the hedge schools continued anyway. Eventually some became official schools with buildings and more structure, and now the majority of primary schools operate under the auspices of the Catholic Church.