In my early research into life in Ireland in the 1860s, I discovered the hedge school. Hedge schools were small, informal, and illegal schools, designed to secretly provide the rudiments of primary education to Catholic children. Under the penal codes imposed by the British, the Catholic Church in Ireland was not allowed to have schools. Catholic families resisted by setting up schools of their own that met in fields or barns.
Historians generally agree that the schools provided a kind of schooling, occasionally at a high level, for up to 400,000 students by the mid-1820s. J.R.R. Adams says the hedge schools testified “to the strong desire of ordinary Irish people to see their children receive some sort of education.”
Antonia McManus argues that there “can be little doubt that Irish parents set a high value on a hedge school education and made enormous sacrifices to secure it for their children.” The often hired a “hedgemaster” to do the teaching.
Fiddler’s Lament begins with Sean McNally sitting in the dark, watching for the British while the younger children learned.
Excerpt — “He climbed up the arch and settled in to watch for the British. One at a time, thirteen unwashed peasant children, dressed in tatters, walked silently beneath him pushing through the hedgerow into their ring of stone seats at the clandestine school.”