Hedge-Schools: Educations as Suppression and Resistance

Brian Friel’s Translations opens to a barn filled with writing tablets, chairs, and books, where Greek and Latin weave into casual conversation. For hundreds of years, classical languages were a staple of Irish education. But through the 17th and 18th centuries, the English established Penal Laws that sought to marginalize the native Irish from political, economic, and cultural power. These laws—while aimed at Catholics (“the popish religion”), in practice affected the entire Irish population—prohibited Catholics from buying or owning land, running for office, or voting. They also restricted the use of the Gaelic language and traditional Irish education. The Act to Restrain Foreign Education (1695) asserted that “no person whatsoever of the popish religion shall publicly teach school, or instruct youth in learning, or in private houses teach or instruct youth in learning within this realm.”

Illegal hedge-schools were the alternative. Hedge-schools were often taught by traveling masters who established the schools based on community needs. Despite the romanticized view that classes took place in small clearings and behind large rocks, they usually occurred in houses or barns. Schoolmasters often taught evening classes for adult learners, and were paid according to the subject and length of time a student took a class. The curriculum included Latin, Greek, arithmetic, Irish, English, history, and geography. Schoolmasters and teachers were well-respected members of the community and it was common for families to welcome them into their homes.

As far back as the Middle Ages, Ireland was known for the breadth of its education, including subjects such as astronomy, history, and philosophy. Teachers mastered Latin, and many also knew Greek. In Translations, Hugh and Jimmy Jack’s affection for Athena and casual leaps into Greek and Latin reflect this tradition: “Jimmy: You know what they call her? / Manus: ‘Glaukopis Athene.’ / Manus: That’s it! The flashing-eyed Athene!” Hedge schools were a way for the Irish to maintain control over their traditions, education, and population—and reject the English law that meant to smother Gaelic language and values.

Starting in 1831, national schools began appearing throughout Ireland. These schools were standardized by the government, and while run by Catholic clergy, were taught entirely in English and did not include the traditional Irish curriculum—or language. Sean Cahill, an Irish academic, describes them as “the graves of the national language.” National schools required children to attend five days a week throughout the year, as opposed to the ad-hoc schooling seen in Translations. Interrupting the home rhythms of harvest and other chores, and shifting the language from Irish to English, national schools represented what scholar Yolanda Fernández-Suárez calls the English’s “attempt at using education as a tool of social control.”

Translations takes place during this transitional period, set in 1833 as a new national school is opening near Baile Beag (which would be renamed Ballybeg by the incoming British Ordnance Survey). While one character comments, “When it opens, this is finished: Nobody’s going to pay to go to a hedge-school,” the last hedge-school existed until the 1890s. Hedge-schools provided a deeper Irish education and the flexibility that parents needed; a 1841 census showed that of children attending school, only one-third were enrolled in a national school.

The conflict between national school and hedge-school represented the larger-scale English efforts to suppress the Irish language, people, and culture. Hedge-schools preserved the Irish cultural values—and they raise important questions about language as a means of power that Friel explores in Translations. Hugh, the hedge-school master, reflects on the English military’s efforts to anglicize Gaelic place names: “But remember that words are signals, counters…it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of…fact.”

—Julia Maier