Any niche is my college.
In wayside ditch roofed by a bramble
I light the small rush candle
Of knowledge in numbskulls.
No mouth-open fledglings sit
Around this Socrates on the turf
But Pat's famished son, the lout
And his daughter, scrapings of the pot.
From father's old waistcoat;
Thankless the task, to create
Fine manners on salt and potatoes,
To hatch out the morrow's priest
Spelling out for the shockhaired
The wars of Caesar,
Hannibal in the Alps or
The Emperor Nero on the fiddle;
To construct with a slate pencil the town of Troy,
Thumbnailing; the geography of heroes;
All history from Adam down
To hobble home on bare toes;
With profit and loss and mensuration
Goes towering Agamemnon
And Arius with his heresy
Of Three-in-one and Homousion,
To be lost in little walls and ricks of turf,
Dwindle down at peasant fires,
Huge ghosts in hungry fields
Wandering without memories.
No profit in it, or credit. Boors thrive
But I eat afield with the crows;
No goose gravy for Tom Euclid;
The master feasts on the hedgerows;
Yet, Pallas Athene, your true legionary
In the last earthworks, the lone garrison, still
Arrays himself in the delicate
Decline you to the barbarian.
A Hedge Schoolmaster (part), by Padraic Fallon
The hedge schools grew up as a result of the English Penal Laws which were enacted to restrict the education of the Irish and then reduce the size and quality of their priest-hood. The Irish hierarchy reacted by send-ing their seminarians to France for their education. Often those who never did become ordained as a priest found their employment as teachers in the hedge schools.
"In a field, surrounded by a hedge, sat an old man. He appeared to be long past middle age, but still seemed hale and strong. His habiliments were extensively patched, said patches not always agreeing color. Around, under the hedge, were seated about fifty or sixty boys. Some of these had seats built of turf, constructed by themselves for their own special use and accommodation, and their exclusive right to which was never invaded by their schoolmates. The school-master's seat --- for such was the avocation of the individual we have already mentioned, and whose external adornment was completed by a leathern cap and a huge pair of horn spectacles --- was, in its way, quite a pretentious affair, and was built of sods of turf welded by clay into a solid mass, and then overlaid with grass. There were also some attempts at decoration, which gave additional dignity and importance to the structure, both in the eyes of the builders themselves, who were some of the elder boys, and their friends.
The pupils, as we have said were seated around the field under the hedge. The greater numbers were barefooted, some had no coats, and many were without coat or vest; but we question among the students of a fashionable academy there was more light-hearted, innocent gaiety or more genuine racy with."
As the laws became more relaxed after the mid- eighteenth century, the schools were often held in the kitchen of a farmhouse, or in a barn, or in the home of the school-master. In 1824, out of 8,000 Catholic schools in Ireland, 7,600 were held by independent teachers as hedge schools. Many of the poverty- stricken ex-seminarians indeed taught their poverty stricken students Greek and Latin classics in the original, and it is 'authoritatively boasted that cows were bought and sold in Greek in mountain places.'
(Kelly et al., Blennerville, The Gateway to Tralee's Past, pp. 67-74)
Thanks to Ray Marshall for this contribution.