Hedge Schools Of Inishowen
By C. K. Byrne

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    It would appear that the ancient professional schools of Ireland survived until the beginning of the eighteenth century, even though the whole country was under English rule during the first decade of the seventeenth century and the great northern chiefs, the patrons of these schools, had fled to the continent. Even under the Commonwelath education was continued, despite the fact that the schoolmaster was putting his life and liberty at stake, for in the records of the time they are mentioned as the "Popish Schoole Masrs", who teach "the Irish youth, trayning them up in Supirsticion, Idolatry and the Evill Customs of the Nacion". And it is also recommended that, if taken, the school master should be put to death or transported to the Barbadoes. But still the schools continued, though they were at the mercy of the occasion "for during a period of toleration they flourished and during a time of suppression they vanished".

    After the accession of William and Mary in the 1690s they went completely underground, for now education at home and abroad was forbidden under the severest penalties of the Penal Laws. It was during this period that education was left entirely to the lay schoolmaster who was bold enough to risk life and limb in order to teach. Schools were set up in the remote mountainous districts where danger of detection was least likely and where instruction could be given without serious or prolonged interruption. These illegal schools or as they were better known, Hedge Schools - were to become the only channels of education for the native Irish until the middle of the nineteenth century. These schools were an institution of the people, they were maintained by the people who wanted their children educated and they were run by men of the people who had a teaching vocation Patronage was unknown in the hedge schools of Inishowen, although I was told by Mrs. McHale of Muff (b. 6.10.1892) that when William McConnellogue, her great grandfather taught his hedge school at Muff he was paid 10 per year by Captain Hart of Kilderry. Such instances were most uncommon. The poorest and most humble of these schools gave instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic. Latin, Greek, Mathematics and other subjects were taught in many of the schools e.g. Donnell 0'Doherty of Bree (Malin Head) taught navigation in his hedge school (John Deery, Blacksmith, Malin, b. 1883).

    This work was done almost entirely through the medium of Irish, although it must be said that the use of Irish was rapidly falling into decay during the eighteenth century over most of the country though this was attributable to the greater value of English at the fair or market. There is no evidence that the schools shifted their ground and they never lacked men who were well versed in the language, literature and history of the country. John O'Donovan, writing from Buncrana on Sunday, 23rd August, 1853, says

"Clonmany is the most Irish parish I have yet visited; the men, only, who go to markets and fairs speak a little English, the women and children speak Irish only. I never heard Irish better spoken, nor experienced more natural civility and innocence than in that very secluded and wild parish".

Educational Societies in Inishowen in 18th and 19th Centuries

    The law of the land was not the only opponent of national education at this time for other educational establishments began to appear and these English schools were intended for the most part of wean the people from the customs, language and after Henry Vill's time, the religion of their ancestors. The first of these were the parish schools and from Leslie's Derry Clergy and Parishes (1937) we see that in 1693, when John Young was clerk of Malin (Cloncha) and Culdaff, the rector is warned to appoint a schoolmaster and in 1718 Bishop Nicolson reports that Matthew Gill is parish clerk and schoolmaster. We learn from the same source that in 1693 a Mr. Deniston is clerk and schoolmaster in Clonmany. These schools were established to introduce and spread a knowledge of the English language. In his Hedge Schools of Ireland, Dowling, quoting from Wakefield, states that by 1809 these schools were a failure and that they did not appear to have answered the purpose of their institution.

    In 1811 the largest and most powerful of the educational societies was founded at Kildare Place in Dublin. It was called the "Society for promoting the Education of the poor of Ireland", but was better known as The Kildare Place Society. Its aim was to give assistance to schools in which an undertaking was given that "the scriptures would be read without note or comment" and that all controversial reading material would be excluded. Parliament gave it a grant of 6,980 but O'Brien says that for several years before the Society was superseded by the Board of National Education in 1831 the amount of the grant was between twenty and thirty thousand pounds.

    According to the Education Inquiry of 1826 there were three of these schools in Inishowen, two in Malin and one in Culdaff. James and Andrew Heuston taught in one of the Malin schools and Anthony Kane in the other. Anthony Kane was paid 22.55 and 2 by the Rector while the Heustons got a joint salary of 24.7.6, ten guineas of which was paid by Lord Donegall, who also gave the school house rent free. By the Report of 1835 however, we see there are four more schools under the auspices of the Society established at Goorey in Malin, Fahan near Buncrana, Crehennan near Moville and Donagh (Carndonagh) where the parochial school is grant-aided by the Kildare Place Society.

    The work of this society was on a wide scale and it is noteworth that needlework in their schools was widespread and of course this necessitated the appointment of lady teachers, which was unusual. In the Commissioners' Report of 1826 we see that out of a total of ninetytwo schools in Inishowen only seven have lady teachers - Mary White in Kumaglug (Kinaglug), Margaret O'Donnell in Shandrum, Eliza Kerrigan in Drummellin, Elizabeth Gray and Jane Garston in Buncrana, Ann Martin in Muff and Brigid Barr in Iskaheen. It would seem that the educational aims of the Kildare Place Society was on a much higher plane than most of its contemproaries but the Commissioners' Report of 1826 states that it "failed in producing universal satisfaction". Sir Thomas Wyse is much more severe in his criticism:

"The Kildare Place Society which had set out with such professions of liberalism, was demonstrated to have acted in a manner very inconsistent with the avowed objects of its institution, and to have been totally inadequate to the purposes for which it had originally been set up".

    Although it is obvious from the Commissioners' Report of 1826 that Catholics attended these schools in Inishowen it is also true to say that they were thought of as proselytising agencies. And O'Callaghan (1816) points out that the Church of Ireland parents objected to these schools because the Bible was read "without note or comment" and that no authority was given for any explanation of its passages.

    It would seem therefore that the schools of the Kildare Place Society made little impact on education in Inishowen, for although they were supported by Parliament and the landlords and were in possession of substantial means, they made little progress in establishing themselves as a popular system of education. As a matter of fact the number of schools in connection with the society in Inishowen in 1826 was only three out of a total of ninety; and by 1835 the number had only increased to seven out of one hundred. There were fifty which received no assistance of any kind and the Hedge Schools formed the majority of these. When the laws against education became a little more relaxed school was taught in a sod house hastily constructed by the people, a barn or any building made or lent, but the name Hedge School remained even when it moved permanently into such accommodation. The school master had to be content with what was offered to him by way of a school house as it was always given free of charge and the people who wanted education for their children were prepared to pay, even more than they could afford, to get it. This desire for education was a constant factor and universally held. Corcoran quotes Wakefield as saying in 1812

"The people of Ireland are, I may almost say, universally educated. Many of my readers will, no doubt, smile at this expression, but I must beg leave to assert that I do not know of any part of Ireland so wild that its inhabitants are not anxious, nay, eagerly anxious, for the education of their children".

    Again Corcoran quotes William Reed in his tour of Ireland in 1810. Reed says,

"A desire for education manifests itself, and very generally, among the lower orders of the people. In my wandering through the country, I found several very humble seminaries, called Hedge Schools. Not having any other convenience, the scholars are taught reading, writing etc., in the open air. There are also itinerant teachers, who become inmates of a cabin for several weeks together, and who receive only a temporary lodging and a few potatoes for instructing juvenile inhabitants".

    Several schoolhouses of this type existed in Inishowen and Hugh Quigley of Lowertown, Malin who was born in 1874, told me that in such a schoolhouse on Aghaclay Hill taught John McLaughlin. He described to me how his father had told him that each child took two sods of turf to school each day, that the fire was in the middle of the floor of a sod and stone house and that in winter time the boys warmed themselves in turns. He said that the children paid according to the subject, he did not know how much and that Latin was taught.

    During the latter half of the eighteenth century the number of Hedge Schools increased and this is attributable to the fact that the laws against education were relaxed. For the Act of 1792 gave permission to teach to Catholic schoolmasters who fulfilled certain conditions and got a licence from the Protestant bishop of the diocese. I could find no trace of any such licence being applied for in Inishowen for the masters here, believed, presumably, that their safety lay in their obscurity. Certain it is however, that by 1826 there were at least fifty hedge Schools in Inishowen and these are listed in the report for that year as pay schools.

    The income that the Hedge School teacher received was usually very small as it depended entirely on the number of his pupils and it can be seen from the Report of 1835 that in winter the attendance fell dramatically and of course the pupil did not pay if he was not there. This winter attendance can be understood when we know the children often sat on stones around the walls and used a "fir-block" as a desk.

    According to Dowling the rates were 1/8 per quarter for spelling, 2/- for reading, 3/3 for writing, 4/4 to 7/- for Arithmetic and 11/- for Latin. In the schools of Inishowen fees from 1/8 to 5/- per quarter were charged by the school masters and only one, William Sweeney, who taught in Linsfort, Buncrana, charged fees as low as 10d to 1 /8 per quarter. We note that the fees per annum of Michael Hassan who taught in Bocan, Culdaff R.C. Chapel, were as high as 20 while Michael Murphy who taught in Drung, Moville, got half that sum for teaching more pupils. In the 1826 report many of the salaries are given as a lump sum and it shows that the average wage was 9 per annum. It seems though that even in Hedge Schools female teachers were discriminated against for Mary White who taught 39 pupils in a cow house in Kinaglug, Carndonagh got only 4 per annum.

    It is doubtful if the report can be fully relied upon in respect of salaries as no records were kept and the master would hardly tell the commissioners what he got for his services. This can be seen if one looks at the salary of John Devlin of Rockstown, Clonmany. He is said to have eighteen pupils and is paid 6 per annum. This would work out at an average of 1/8 per pupil per quarter, but this was one of the classical schools of Inishowen and the fees would certainly have approximated to the national average of 11 /-. In the 1826 Report Mr. Devlin's school is not listed as classical but in the Report of 1835 this is stated and his fees are said to be from 5/- to 12/- per quarter per pupil.

    The Hedge Schools of Inishowen were located in every conceivable situation and again we see from the 1826 Report that this is so. For example, Michael McColgan taught in "mudwalls thatched" in Collon, Camdonagh while Hugh O'Donnell of Kinago , Buncrana, taught in a barn. David McKinney of Greencastle taught in the parish stable while Philip McLaughlin's school in Glentogher, Camdonagh, was held a week in each of the scholars' houses. Tradition has it that the Ardmalin school in which Gearoid O'Doherty taught was lent to him by a woman in the neighbourhood. This is confirmed by the 1826 Report. It gives the teacher's name as George Doherty but the stone and mud school house is "lent by a poor woman".

    Many of the Hedge School Masters of Inishowen taught in their own houses while Arthur Gormley, a Roman Catholic, taught in a slated house at the Hill Head, Carndonagh "lent by the Presbyterian congregation". On the other hand Allan Cresswell, a Presbyterian, taught a Hedge School in the Roman Catholic Chapel at Inch. The ages of the teachers are not known by tradition nor given in any report except that in the 1835 Report it is commented on that John Duffy of Molenny school, Burt, is only sixteen years of age.

    The master was himself a product of the Hedge Schools and his real studies began when he had learned all he could from the local teacher. He then left his native parish and began to study in other schools. He was known as a poor scholar and he lived during his wanderings on the hospitality of the people. He very often returned to teach in his native place where he had, on occassion, to oust the resident master. This was done by issuing a challenge to the teacher to meet him in a contest of knowledge before other school masters and if successful he took over the school while the "resident" had to move elsewhere. There were few other outlets except teaching for the native Irish at this time and so those who did not go abroad to become priests stayed at home to teach.

    Tradition with regard to wandering or poor scholars is vague now in Inishowen but Denis Collins of Dreenagh, Malin (b. 1876), told me that he heard of "foreign" teachers in Keenagh or Bree. It is of interest, therefore, to note that in the 1826 Report Michael McKeners is listed as teaching a Hedge School in Bree and Owen Roger in Keenagh. Neither of these names are native to Inishowen nor could anyone ever remember a family of the name in the district.

    The Hedge Schools of Inishowen can be divided into two catagories, "senior" and "junior" schools and it is obvious that far more of the latter existed. In the "junior" schools the three R's (reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic) were taught and very often bookkeeping mensuration and navigation. These subjects are recorded as being taught by Arthur Gormley in Carn School (Carndonagh) in the Report of 1835 and tradition has it that Daniel Doherty of Bree taught navigation and mensuration as well as spelling, reading, writing and arithmetic. At the school in Bree, all the subjects were taught through the medium of Irish which was spoken universally in Inishowen at the time. All these "junior" schools are listed in the Commissioners Report of 1826 but this report does not specify what subjects were taught.

    In the Report of 1835, however, the subjects are given and three senior or classical schools are mentioned, one in the meeting-house resting in Upper Fahan taught by John Kane, one in Buncrana taught by Mr. Kennedy in his own house and one in the parish of Clonmany taught by Mr. Devlin. This was John Devlin's school at Rockstown already referred to in the 1826 report. A total of 44 pupils attended these three schools and they were all boys. There were at least two other classical schools in Inishowen which are not mentioned in the report. The McColgans kept a classical school in Cregamullen, Carndonagh about which little is remembered, but Big Jimmy's school in Tirhorn, Clonmany, is still fresh in local lore.

    This was the last classical school in the Barony and it lasted until the 1850's. James Doherty, or Big Jimmy, was born and bred in Tirhorn. There was, it seems, a hedge school in the townland for generations, situated in Lag an Eolais (the Hollow of Learning) as it is known to this day. Here James Doherty, according to his grand-nephew, John, of the same townland, got his early education and then went abroad to study for the priesthood. For some reason he came home after three years and began to teach school. Young men who had a vocation to the priesthood sought him out with a view to learning Latin and Greek. Among those who went to Tirhorn and later became priests in the Derry Diocese were:- Philip O'Callaghan of Glenagannon, Carndonagh; John Doherty of Magheramore and John 0'Doherty of Glebe. Patrick McGlinchey of Minaduff, another scholar of James's, became a monk. James interviewed all his prospective pupils and it is claimed became unpopular with some parents because he rejected their offspring; he only accepted the cleverest boys. He had a small farm of some eight acres and in summer he taught in the open air. His pupils worked beside him or sat under the hedge to work at their lessons, calling the master only when in difficulty.

    James had so many aspiring clerics on occassion that he walked to Derry to consult Dr. Kelly who was bishop at the time; his nephew thought it was in 1870. The Bishop was well aware of his work and granted him a licence to continue. The rates that he charged are not remembered but his nephew was certain that he had heard that each pupil paid according to his means. If a pupil's parents were poor James had no hesitation in teaching him gratis.

    He taught Latin, Greek, Geometry, English and Irish Grammar but while he spoke Irish fluently he did not teach it as a subject. All other subjects were taught through the medium of English.

    If the Hedge School master in Inishowen could not earn a living by teaching he often did manual labour to augment his stipend. John McLaughlin (b. 1890) of Blackmountain, Malin, relates that the heard of some going to the Scottish harvest while his mother told him that Patrick Diver who taught in Tully bought fish on Malin Head pier and resold them in Carndonagh. When I questioned this old man further on the life of the master in question he told me that his school was situated in a "three cornered" field of James Monagle's, that Harvey, the local landlord, gave him two acres of land taken from Hannah McDaid's farm and that the landlord finally dismissed Patrick Diver for roasting potatoes in the ashes and eating them during school time. Regarding the books used he had often heard his mother recite the first lesson she learned (ab, eb, ib, ob, ub) and this book was called elementary spelling. It was in fact from "The Elements of Spelling" which constituted the first eleven lessons of Walls Hibernian Preceptor, referred to by Dowling.

    Text books in the Hedge Schools of Inishowen seemed to depend on the whim of the master and the resources of the pupils but two popular books in the Junior Schools seem to have been Irish Rogues and Rapparees and A History of Freeny the Robber. These books were used in many parts of Donegal and McManus refers to both in A Lad of the O'Friels. I could find no account of any books used in the senior schools.

    It is difficult to assess the standard attained in the Hedge Schools in the more popular subjects, but in classics we have the testimony of Dr. Alexander Ross, Dungiven, Co. Derry. He says

"Even in the wildest districts, it is not unusual to meet with good classical scholars; and there are several young mountaineers of the writer's acquaintance, whose knowledge and taste in the Latin poets might put to the blush many who have all the advantages of established schools and regular instruction".

Traditional Culture In Inishowen

    Being himself one of the people, the Hedge Schoolmaster naturally shared their opinions on questions of politics and at the same tine he was an exponent of the national literary tradition and did what he could to promote the culture of his pupils and of the people in general. For during the eighteenth century this literary tradition had become the heritage of the tiller of the soil.

    This was a period of extreme poverty in Inishowen and the Parliamentary Gazetteer of 1844 shows that 39% of the population of the barony lived in fourth class accommodation and fifty per cent lived in 3rd class accommodation. Fourth Class was defined as a one roomed mud cabin" while third class was described as "little removed in comfort from fourth class but varying from two to four rooms in mud cabin and windows". Eighty nine per cent of the people therefore lived in houses which today would be considered unfit for cattle. Nevertheless, widespread were "meitheal" (kind of help) and "comhar" (kind of help) words significantly the people could not translate. The destitute people, however, retained their charity and hospitality to those even poorer than themselves and with this poverty went gaity! Endless song and dance. Indeed parents paid to have their children taught to dance correctly. And Corcoran quotes from Young's Tours to prove this

"Dancing is so universal among them that there are everywhere itinerant dancing masters, to whom the cotters pay sixpence a quarter for teaching their families".

    Fiddle playing was universal and the music of the nation was passed from father to son and from mother to daughter. Poetry also had its place and Henry Morris relates that he spoke to several men in Donegal who could recite more than one thousand lines of poetry and that an old lady in Clonmany gave him several poems composed by Denis O'Donnell who died in 1778; among these was a lengthy poem called "Plearacha na bPollan". Dowling (1933) gives an interesting account of how these poetry sessions were conducted in the homes of the people and in Mason (1814) Mr. Ross, Protestant Rector of Dungiven says

"The manner of preserving the accuracy of tradition is singular and worthy of notice. In the winter evenings, a number of seanachies meet together and recite alternately their traditionary stories. If anyone repeats a passage; which appears to another to be incorrect, he is immediately stopped, when each gives a reason for his way of reciting the passage. The dispute is then referred to a vote of the meeting, and the decision of the majority becomes imperative on the subject for the future. This plan, aided by the measure of the poetry, and also that of the music, may account for the accurate preservation of these ancient poems".

    Again in the same survey we see that in Cloncha (Malin) "Some old people repeat poetical fragments like those translated by Mr. McPhearson and ascribed by him to Ossian". This was an unwitting reference to the Fiannaiocht, those poems and stories of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his men which comprised an important part of traditional lore and which were known and recited from Malin Head to Mizen Head.

    In Inishowen it was possible to meet men who had never left their own district, never been to any school and who according to unimaginative census officials, were illiterate and yet were well "read" in the unwritten literature of the people. Their minds were bulging store houses of tradition of all kinds, pithy anecdotes, intricate hero tales, proverbs, rhymes and riddles and other aspects of rich, orally preserved lore common to the whole country at the time.

    It would be difficult to specify which aspect of the native culture was held in most esteem for the music, dancing and literature were all part of the same fabric. But it would be true to say that a special reverence was attached to that part of our culture which was the preserve of the Seanachai or storyteller, for his art promoted many of the values inherent in the society. These values included the brotherhood and equality of man, the finite nature of man but infinite nature of his soul. His stories, therefore, had a therapeutic value for the audience and they had also an educational value in so far as they were the literature of the people.

    These stories were told around the fire to while away the long winter evenings and many of the seanachies could recite a different story every night the whole winter through, for it was forbiddden to tell hero tales during the day time. Storytelling had a recognised place on certain ceremonial occasions: during night vigils at holy wells, after "stations" and at wakes and christenings and fishermen listened while they waited to haul. It must be said that other cultural activities came to life at these gatherings. There were also poems, riddles, songs, folk-prayers, genealogical lore and local history and traditions. But the pride of place was given to the hero tales and wonder tales, many of which would each take four hours to deliver. It was considered improper for a woman to tell the stories of traditional heroes and no man would tell one of these stories in the presence of his father or older brother. The stories were not confined to any class, since many of the stories reflected the importance of class boundaries. On the contrary they were a fundamental part of the culture of the chiefs and nobles as well as the clansmen and tradition has it that the poet Forgall recited a story to Mangan, an Ulster king, every night from November to May. Great care was taken to insure the integrity of the traditions and a blessing was promised to all who would memorise a tale with fidelity and put no other form on it. Diverse blessings were supposed to accrue to those who heard these stories and the seanachies and their audience believed in all the marvels of their tales and would have been utterly dismayed if anyone had ventured to cast doubt upon the story of Oisin returning from Tir na nOg (the Land of Youth) or queried his actual existence.

    These stories have proved a fount of inspiration for poets and artists throughout the ages and more recently psychologists of the calibre of C.G. Jung have found that recourse to "this treasure of archetypal forms is invaluable for the cure of psychological illnesses". Other scholars discern in these stories a body of metaphysical doctrines and maintain that although the folk-story teller was unaware of the import of his tales that of which he was unconscious was itself far superior` to the empirical science and realistic art of the "educated man". These old tales enshrined the deepest wisdom, for it was a function of mythology to "confound the guardian spirit of reason so that finite man might glimpse the infinite, which lies beyond the confines of the cosmos", for it can be seen that myth and legend loosen the grip of the temporal upon the human spirit.


Corcoran, Rev. T., Some Lists of Catholic Teachers and Their Illegal Schools. Dublin 1932. O'Donovan, J., Ordnance Survey Letters, 1835. ed. Bray, 1927. J. B. Canon Leslie, Derry Clergy and Parishes. 1937. Dowling, P. J., The Hedge Schools of Ireland, Dublin, 1933. O'Brien, W. S., Education in Ireland, London, 1839. Second Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education, 1826. Report of Commissioners of Public Instruction, Ireland, 1835. O'Callaghan, Rev. A., Thoughts on the Tendencies of Bible Societies, etc. Dublin, 1816. Parliamentary Gazateer, 1844. b Muirgheasa, E., Chad de Cheoltaibh Uladh. Mason, William S., Parochial Survey of Ireland. 3 vols. Dublin. 1814.


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