Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Hedge Schools or Pay Schools
The Hedge Schools of Carlow

by Hugh Clifton

The Hedge Schools of Carlow

THE Hedge Schools of Carlow—-town and county, like those of the rest of Ireland, owed their origin to the suppression of the ordinary legitimate means of education; first, during the Cromwellian regime of 1649-59, and then under the penal code introduced in the reign of William III—1697-1746, and operating thence until less than 20 years after the opening of the 19th century. These schools, however, really took root in the early 18th century when the continued rigorous enforcement of the laws against education of the type acceptable only to the majority of the population, rendered teaching a dangerous calling. It was then, no doubt, that the term ‘Hedge School’ arose.

The teacher in such school, as a marked man, had to go ‘underground’ in his scholastic activities, doing so, however, in a converse fashion, by teaching out of doors on the sunny side of a hedge or bank in a remote spot, where his pupils and himself would be hidden from prying eyes. Naturally, this school could only be held weather permitting. In wintertime, he desisted, turning his hand to farmwork or living on the hospitality of the people, teaching his host’s children sub roan. (The householder was liable under the law for harbouring a recalcitrant teacher, or abetting him in any way).

Later, when the laws relaxed, although the name “hedge school” was retained the school took the shape of a cabin or' barn. Hence the reference ‘poor hut or cabbin’ (sic) in contemporary writings. Obviously, those schools were of peasant institution and maintained by people determined to have their children educated in the way they considered best, and by the individual they claimed to be the proper teacher. And such men coming ‘from the people’ to the task of educating their children, invariably believed that teaching was their life mission.


In the late 18th century the legal code having been modified somewhat, the Hedge Schools increased rapidly in number, but still they were illegal establishments until the passing of Catholic Emancipation Act 1829.

Another reason for their increase was the growth of population, but, said John L. Foster in a letter in 1811 to Secretary, Board of Education: “The strong passion for education which marks the lower classes of our people assures us that if we do not assist them, instructed nevertheless they will be."

In 1824, official returns were made of the schools in every parish in Ireland, and of the children attending each school, and it appears that of 11,823 schools, not less than 7,600 were Independent Pay Schools. A number of the latter were town schools and city ‘academies’, but the vast majority of the Pay schools were truly hedge schools, and it was to these the great bulk of the children went for education.

The standard of work in hedge schools was higher than that done in any other school of equal social status, its curriculum more extensive, and the hedge schoolmaster's attainments usually of a more liberal nature. The least he taught were the three “R's” viz. reading, writing and arithmetic, but subjects like history, geography, book-keeping, surveying, and navigation would appear in curriculum. Latin and Maths. were commonly taught, occasionally Greek.

These teachers were themselves products of the Hedge School. They went far afield—known as ‘poor scholars'-—in search of further knowledge, ultimately returning to their native hearth to settle down vocationally. There was keen competition between the schools. Reputations were only won by the superiority of the master’s teaching. In an age when the cost of school books was prohibitive, the popular method for imparting knowledge was that of rehearsing although the immense variety of books mentioned in the official returns of 1824 was remarkable.


The schoolmaster’s income was usually very small. His fee for teaching spelling was about 1/8d. quarterly; reading, 2/- quarterly; writing from 2/2d. to 3/3d. a quarter, but the standard of payment depended on three factors, viz: number of school's pupils; their all-year attendance; the actual payment of the fees. He was often paid in kind, e.g. turf, butter, eggs or home-cured meat. But he might make a bit ‘on the side’ by way of surveying, will-making, etc. And his high social status compensated for frequent slack pockets in that ‘poor hut or cabbin'. But what was available, be it cash, kind, shelter or respect—was given to him freely. The people wanted education for their children. Now for a glance into the Carlow Hedge Schools per the above-mentioned Returns (these were sworn statements made to a Royal Commission appointed in 1824 to inquire into the state of education in Ireland). Let's first visit the Free School in Chapel Lane, Carlow, where Michael Wholohan presides with his assistant. Michael has a yearly salary of 30 guineas, with 3 guineas rent allowance. The assistant gets 12. A two-roomed building with 180 male pupils. The three ‘R's’ are taught, also Christian Doctrine. The Bishop is patron.

Nearby is Presentation Convent, opened 12/1/1812 and Superioress has five nun assistants. 300 pupils learn the three ‘R’s’, Catechism, spinning, knitting and plaiting.

Easton House, Athy Road. Opened 1810, where Mrs. David Kelly teaches 27 girls for 30 guineas yearly (each presumably). We find another school in same street, that of Mrs. Frances Redmons (sic). Opened 1822 and has 38 girl pupils apparently, who pay each 2: 5:6 annually.

Down to Dublin Street to find Miss Costello teaching 12 pupils (four of them Quakers). Her terms are 10/- a quarter. In same street we meet a Maria Lindsay who in her small house teaches 31 children, each for 1/ 7d. weekly.

Crossing over to Centaur Street, we find Michael Taylor teaching for approximately 3/9d. per quarter per capita, 48 pupils. The school has been there since 1819, and he says his total income yearly is 30.

And in Water Lane, James Redmond, since 1820, enlightens 50 children. Terms are (weekly), 5d. for writing and 6d. for arithmetic, and 11 /4d. per quarter for the scientific branches of knowledge. All this in one room. Has private pupils also.


Then we became acquainted with the remarkable John Garrett. In a room, 28ft. by 19ft., he teaches 56 pupils (19 Protestants) the three ‘R's’, as well as Catechism, History, Grammar, Euclid, Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry, Surveying, Navigation, Gunnery and Fortification, Astronomy and Book-keeping.

Up to Barrack Street, where, in a small room, since 1801, Ellen Poor (sic.) educates 24 pupils for three-ha’pence a week, per child.

In Pollerton Road, we meet Daniel Molloy, in an old malt house, teaching 16 pupils for two pence a head weekly. So far none of the children can read, but the poor man (he has no other source of income than the sum total of the tuppences) asks for 18 months in which to make good in the scholastic arena.

In same street, we find James Neil. He was educated “at Brown’s Hill” (no doubt another ‘poor scholar.’) For a total income of 20, he teaches 61 pupils, in a thatched house.

In Potato Market, we find--in a very small room-—McDonald's school, operating for 18 pupils at 3/9d. per capita per quarter.

But we mustn’t forget some non-Catholic establishments, which seem to be of the hedge school class, for example:—

In Rutland Place, Rev. John Caldwell teaches 10 children. Appears to be a classical school. Says: “He was of the Established Church but won’t say what his religion may be.

And in Tullow Street, we find Mr. Jenkins, “a Dissenter," with four pupils (of whom two are Quakers). We’re told the school may be discontinued.

A Mr. Scraggs teaches classical subjects in Montgomery Street to 11 pupils. They pay 1:2:9 quarterly. In Rutland Place Mrs. Hoffman presides over 26 female pupils for 4: 11:0 yearly per head, and we hear this school is progressing ‘on account of the great attention of the Mistress.’

In Bridewell Lane, we meet Mrs. McAuliffe in her Methodist (thatched) school, educating girls of various religious persuasions along with her five daughters. She has 16-day scholars, the rest are boarders. We note that ‘dissenters’ are on her roll.

We find a Michael Lynch in Potato Market teaching-in a small room-ten pupils, at “prevailing rates.”

Then, into the Misses Strahan’s school (in her parents’ house) where 32 children are taught, paying 9/9d. for writing and 5/5d. for reading and spelling.

And we visit William Carleton’s Parish and Free School, in Tullow Street. It seems the school’s patrons each pay a guinea, annual subscription. The boy pupils number 62, girls, 90. We note that spinning, knitting, plain and fancy work, are included in the curriculum (these items, no doubt, concern the girls, over whom a Mrs. Adams and her daughter preside).

At No. 12 Dublin Street, we meet William Condell, with his 40 pupils, in a stone and slated house. His fees are 7/ quarterly.

And although the County Gaol in Barrack Street is scarcely the headquarters of a Hedge School, yet it is intriguing to find an M. Mills teaching here eight pupils on an average daily.

Escaping reluctantly from his classroom, we resume our ‘run’ through neighbouring schools of ‘hedge’ type.

In Graigue (Carlow) we meet James Haughey, for a total income of about 10: 8: 0 yearly, imparting knowledge to 26 children.

Mary Kinsella also teaches in Graigue—for about 20 annual income—37 children. So does a James Mulhall, who in his whitewashed cabin, instructs 30 pupils, and his yearly remuneration comes to the princely sum of 13.


In Slaty (Sleatty) we meet Matthew Hoey (or Haughey). He teaches 16 pupils in an Outhouse on an annual income of 13. But concerning this remarkable Matt., let's digress a few moments, whilst I project myself into the pages of the Knockbeg Annual of 1935 which say: —-“This schoolmaster lived opposite Miss Dunny's door. His domicile was a barn.

Matt went from house to house teaching. He taught the three ‘R’s" and Greek and Latin. Matt used wear a tall hat and priest's clothes given to him by Fathers Pat and James Maher. He taught the Dunny children their lessons, Catechism and prayers. He used to teach them ‘Glory be to God on High’ and he pronounced ‘High’ in such a way that the children thought he meant ‘Glory be to God on Hoey (Matt.’) . . . Miss Dunny often saw Matt. praying on his knees in the fields.”

And in the same Annual we learn that the late Miss Dunny (Sleatty) went to a Hedge School at Harristown in a vacant farmhouse.

A Miss Margaret Cummins was the teacher of about twenty children. They sat on planks laid on big stones. There was table and chair for the Mistress. School lasted from ten to three. The children were allowed out to eat their lunch about noon. . . They were taught Catechism, the three ‘R’s’ and geography.

Miss Dunny used a Primer with a paper cover, her sister had a manual called “Reading Made Easy.” There were no other books that Miss Dunny could remember. Quill pens were used.

She subsequently went to a school in Graigue taught by an old woman named Mrs. Delaney, who had 20 pupils in her one-roomed thatched cabin. (It was still standing on top left-hand side of Henry Street in 1935).

Back now on our tour per Official Returns of 1824:—At New Acre or Newgarden, Pains-town, Carlow, we find 20 children being taught by a Mr. Hennessy in a small hut, and he receives 2/6d. a quarter from each.

Over then to Palatine Town, Knockard, where in a thatched poor cabin James Scully instructs 80 pupils (13 of whom are non-Catholics). Again, the writer must digress into self-projection. He recalls his own mother telling him about her childhood’s schooling in Pat Curran's hedge school in (or near) ‘Pal’ and that on a fine day the scholars used sit near the ditch outside. No doubt, Pat was a scholastic descendant of James Scully. Maybe her school was the latter’s once? Tempus fugit; not fond memories!

The image (above) is of a school made of mud and was quite common during the period mentioned in this article.


Across the parish to Busherstown. There John Kelly in his mud cabin, which was built for 8, instructs 60 children, from whom he derives an income. of 5. He must love his work! Remember these Returns were made on oath!

Tinryland next, where Michael Coghlan teaches, for an income of 20, some 70 pupils, in a mud cabin also.

And there is a poor cabin in Graiguenaspiddogue where we find a Thomas Byrne presiding over 77 pupils for a yearly income of 10, towards which the Parish Priest and Incumbent give 1 each. The school cost 6 to build.

The schoolhouse at Milford, Ballinabrannagh, looks far more pretentious. It should, for it cost 50, being provided by Mr. Alexander for his tenants’ children. There are 68 pupils. James Murphy is the teacher. His income is better too, viz: 30.

In adjoining townland of Tomard. for an income of 20, we discover Patrick Kehoe enlightening 50 pupils, in a mud cabin rented for 1:14:1, Whilst in Upper Tomard, John Conran, for the same remuneration, is busy with 51 children, in a school built by their parents which cost 5.

In Leighlinbridge, Elizabeth Money (s1c.) in a rented room teaches 15 pupils. Her income is 5. And John Dalton in Old Leighlin, for the yearly sum of 40, attends to 85 pupils in the aisle of the Cathedral.

At ‘Ballyknockan, we come across a John Conwill, in a limestone schoolhouse on a yearly income of 18, _teaching 50 children, and in another school in this parish, similarly constructed, we meet Michael Delaney with the same number of pupils.

John Kavanagh is doing better in Bannigagole-—financially, anyhow. for 20 a year, he rules the educational world of 51 subjects, in his stone and clay schoolhouse, but at neighbouring Coolnakisky, Ann Byrne only earns 9 from her 80 pupils.

There are some non-Catholic schools scattered through the last dealt with area, which may, or may not, be ranked as hedge schools, e.g., we find that Anne Rogers, a Protestant, in Leighlinbridge, teaches in a ‘Pay School’ 24 pupils for an income of 8, and it is a poor cabin.

And it is interesting to find that at Old Leighlin in the aisle of the Cathedral, a Mrs. Armstrong teaches 30 children without any income.

Space does not permit me to deal with every Hedge School in Carlow County (about 100 are mentioned in the Returns). I will have to be content with giving a general picture instead of our resuming that tour.


In Ballon parish there are five schools. Here, economic distress is evident. Yet, elocution is taught in one school. In another, after teaching Catechism, the teacher uses her own “Volume of Moral Entertainments” and “Sinners’ Guide" as text books, but the good woman “fears she'll have to give up her school unless some public institution gives her financial assistance.”

At Rathoe, James Tallon, for an income of about 15, teaches reading, writing, arithmetic, book-keeping, mensuration, surveying, dealing, geometry, trigonometry and English grammar. The curriculum of James Lyons at Ballontraine is practically similar (we note Aesop's Fables and Robinson Crusoe among his text books), whilst in same townland, Jane Murray, aged 20, in a clay house, costing 5 to build, teaches the three ‘Rs’, plus sewing, fancy work, music and drawing.

And in Cashel, Parish of Kiltennel and Borris, we find Darby McDonald, a ‘moral correct man,’ teaching the three ‘R's’ to 80 pupils in a miserable hovel, and as the 7 income cannot support him, he has to get meals from the children’s’ parents. In this school, the Spellers sit on stones, and the Cipherers and writers use the new forms available. The building is roofed with sticks and badly thatched. (Those schools generally show the same constructional ingredients, viz: stone, mud, thatch, low roof, cramped accommodation, poor ventilation). Here’s what a County Carlow priest says in his Parochial Return to Commission of 1824.

“In these small schools, on the other hand, there can be no order or regularity (in general) observed. The poor naked children pine with cold on the stone, or imbibe the seeds of consumption and decay on the damp floor. Cleanliness is banished, and nothing can exceed the filth in which they sometimes wallow . . ."

In Kilcarrig, Bagenalstown, Catherine Byrne, aged 56, holds school for eight pupils in a small bedroom, in a thatched house. Her income is between 3 and 4. She teaches the three ‘R's’, and the Catechism. One of her text books is the Imitation of Christ. Then there is Patrick Burns, who, in a barn in Slyguff, ministers educationally to 36 children, and his income totals 8 therefor.


But striking a brighter note, I find Mary Barron in her little thatched schoolhouse at Ballyellin gambolling—~with her flock—through a text book labelled ‘Little Red Riding Hood, whilst at Ballyhacket, Thomas Griffin, with pupils numbering 60, seated on long sticks, introduces another old favourite of mine, named Robinson Crusoe, after the Catechism and three R's have been dealt with.

Now for the tribute paid in Returns to Mistress Anne Doyle of Englishtown, Rathvilly. Age between 20 and 23. (Must have been as reticient or uncertain in this respect as modern ladies): “She is of character, manners and qualification that entitle her to a rank in society far superior to that of Mistress in a country school." Mistress Anne was educated by the Nuns of Carlow Convent, and for about 8 or 9 a year she taught, with Master John Cain, the Englishtown school’s 153 pupils.

A flying visit to Tullow and district, where we find the Tree of Knowledge in full growth, even if the gardeners and garnerers are labouring under disabilities. Most of the schools are the Hedge type, the one at Ardristan is “in an old ditch built of sods by one Murphy” (I presume it is the school which is built of sods—-as well as ditch). Its Master is Pat Byrne, whose income is 4. As this is the only case in which pupils’ names are mentioned in the 1824 Returns, and in case some of my readers are their descendants, I give the scholars’ names as follows:—

Martin Nowlan, Paul Nowlan, William Nowlan, Michael Carney, Thomas Carney, Edward and John Murphy, John Dawson, Pat Byrne, John Kepple (Ardristan), Ed. and James Dargan, Thomas Bulger, James, Michael and Thos. Bryan, Pat and John Neill, John and Thos. Gahan (Roscatt), Pat and John Neill (sic.), Michael Hynes (Rath-rush), Elizabeth and Bridget Murphy, Mary Nowlan, Elinor and Elizabeth Dawson, Elinor and Ann Headen, Ann Malone (Ardristan), Elizabeth Bulger, Margaret and Bridget Dargan, Margaret Foley, Mary Neill (Roscatt), Ann and Mary Hynes (Rathrush).

But Alexander Roche's school at Tullowbeg has a brighter aspect. It and his dwelling-house (stone and mud) are under one roof and the scholar’s number 34. His quarterly rates are: Reading, 2/2d.; Writing, 3/3d.; Arithmetic, 5/5d.


And run in connection with the Patrician Brothers’ Monastery, is Tullow’s “Poor School (Free).” Here Edmund Kelly handles the education of 60 boys for no income. Presumably he is a Religious.

If the teaching abode of the Hedge School-master was generally wanting in character, not so the Master (or Mistress).

The Returns speak of his ‘excellent character,’ ‘moral character,’ ‘patient and mild disposition,’ ‘sober, religious and diligent in the discharge of his duties,’ ‘ conducts himself with great propriety,’ whilst as to the school-mistress, she is eulogised for her meekness, humility, patience, unblemished character, and for her desire to inculcate in the youthful mind the spirit of decency, honesty and truth.

These people -with pride in their roots—were truly generous with their time and energy.

The introduction of the State primary school system in 1831 tolled the passing of the Hedge School, but so strong was its hold on the affections of the people, so firm its foothold in national traditions, that death didn't come till after the passing of the Inter-mediate Act in 1878.

The Hedge School had its critics, of course. But it stood for a system of education that was national and democratic, and signposted the way of life our forefathers sought, fought and bled for; died for.

Let’s resolve therefore never to forget the Hedge Master and his ilk, their and our forebear’s Hedge Schools, OR OUR ROOTS.

Source: This article originally appeared on p.14 to 19 of Vol. l. No. 9, New Series, Dec. 1960  edition of the Carloviana.

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