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Abstract: The national system of education was introduced in Ireland in 1831, which meant the beginning of the end for hedge schools. Nevertheless, they lasted longer than it is popularly believed and up to the 1870s there were still many parents willing to pay for the education of their children at the native schools. This was due to several reasons: the changing attitude of the Catholic Church towards the new system, the curriculum of the national school, its rules and material conditions, etc. After this date there is hardly any information about them. However, we have found a unique photograph which shows a hedge school still in use in 1892! In spite of being the last native school documented, it does not seem to be so different from the ones that many writers travelling in Ireland reported on earlier in the nineteenth century. In fact, it could vividly depict a scene belonging to pre-Famine rural Ireland, an essential document in any history of Irish education.
Key Words: hedge schools; native schools; elementary education; school buildings; nineteenth-century Ireland.
Changing attitudes of the Churches towards the National school
The First Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, published in 1825, showed how the British attempt at using education as a tool of social control -endowing Protestant societies so that they provided elementary education for Catholic lower classes- had had little success. The report concluded that the only alternative to truly educate the population while pleasing every religious denomination would be a neutral, mixed, national system, a solution already pointed out by an earlier Commission in 1812. Therefore, the National School system was set up not only with the aim of achieving the literacy of the lower classes but also "to cultivate good feeling between the parties that may have been at variance" while introducing religious education without causing any animosities (Hyland & Milne 1987: 116). However, as time went by, the pressure of the Churches would make it unworkable and it ended up being non-denominational de facto, though not de iure.
As for hedge schools, they became legal when Catholic Emancipation was achieved in 1829, though their situation did not change much. Lacking an official status, they were considered part of the informal education sector. Certainly, the introduction of national schools meant the beginning of the end for the native system of education. Nevertheless, they still lasted for some years, as we intend to show in the following pages.
To fully understand the competition hedge schools were going to face we must consider that national schools were publicised as efficient from an educational point of view, while socially respectable, as they had the support of the government. The Commissioners of the National Board of Education would contribute to the cost of building schools, provide school equipment, establish training schools for teachers and pay teachers' salaries. The fact that their fees were so low must have had a great influence, too, especially for those parents with little or no means. (1) In return, schools should be under the supervision of a local Committee. In small communities very often Catholic priests ended up being the only ones in charge of distributing the money received from the government, which they did following their own criteria. Therefore, there was a continuity between what Daly considers the "clerically patronised schools" of the 1820s and many National schools of the 1830s: up to 55% of schools applying to become part of the new system were already in existence earlier (1979: 156). Among these, the majority had been established with the support of the priest or the landowner, only a few were 'private', i.e. established by the teacher himself (hedge schools strictly speaking).
In the beginning, the Catholic hierarchy favoured the National system, assuming that "national" meant being provided with government funding. Money for education would be equally distributed to the representatives of different denominations, and not only to the Official Church as had been happening till then. In fact, when asked in 1824, a Catholic priest had considered that the government support of Catholic hedge-schoolmasters would have solved the pressing problem of educating the vast amounts of Catholic children:
It rests with the government to make their situation something better than it is. If they were provided with a house rent free and 5 [pounds sterling] per annum, it could be a matter of great consequence to them; it would enable them to live in comparative comfort, and teach all the very poor children of their neighbourhood gratis. ... I mean a house which would protect the inmates from the rain or from the snow, and which could be erected for [pounds sterling]10 or [pounds sterling]15. The medium through which the money and expenditure should be conveyed is the
Catholic Clergy (Brenan 1935: 530). Catholic leaders, however, saw hedge schools and their masters in a rather different light. Thus, Dr. Doyle, bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, supported the concept of mixed education, among other reasons, because it would mean the end of the hedge-school system, an opinion openly expressed in a letter to the priests of his diocese in 1831:
[The Roman Catholic bishops] welcomed the rule which requires that all the teachers henceforth to be employed be provided from some Model School, with a certificate of their competency, that will aid us in a work of great difficulty, to wit, that of suppressing hedge schools, and placing youths under the direction of competent teachers, and of those only (Hyland & Milne 1987: 108).
So, generally speaking, the Catholic clergy favoured the system during the first decades and one of their archbishops, Daniel Murray of Dublin, was a Commissioner of national education from 1831 until 1851. It was only John MacHale, Archbishop of Tuam, who vetoed it. He was a passionate nationalist and defender of the Irish language so he fought against the settlement of any national school in his area because there was no provision of Irish and everything was taught through the medium of English (Daly 1979: 151). It was mainly in 1838 when, through several letters, he urged a great transformation of the system, making the population wonder if the National System was really fair for Catholics. He complained that, in order to be so, among the seven members of the Board there should be a majority of Catholics, as they represented the majority of the population. He also disagreed with the fact that the prospective teachers for Catholic students were instructed by Protestant teachers, and not even Irish ones. In his opinion, it was actually an "anti-national" system and, eventually, he was able to bring the controversy to Rome, in 1839 (O'Brien 1885: I, 181).
Meanwhile, Presbyterians and the Official Church were not happy either and were trying to include significant changes in the system. In 1839, in the Synod of Ulster the Presbyterians requested that in that province Catholic priests would be banned from teaching Catholic students separately. When in 1840 their request was granted, Catholic parents reacted by taking their children from these national schools, which ended up being Presbyterian in denomination. Later, in 1842, Dr Henry Cooke (considered one of the fathers of Presbyterian Church) complained about what they called the "fifty two Popish holidays" -days for separate religious instruction- and, eventually, they were suppressed. Only from then on did Presbyterians become firm defenders of the National school. MacHale went on with his campaign, calling a meeting in Dublin in 1839 where three bishops for the national system and three against it would set out the Catholic demands, namely, that the Catholic clergy were patrons of their schools, with the power to employ and dismiss teachers as well as to supervise the religious books that their students would use. Although MacHale's popularity was growing in Ireland, the answer from Rome in 1841 was certainly discouraging. Pope Gregory XVI agreed that all the schools founded by the Catholic clergy should belong to the Church but, other than that, he decided to give another opportunity to the National System and ordered the ending of all public debate on the question of education. For their part, in 1845 the Board of …