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New Hibernia Review 5.2 (2001) 9-26

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The Irish Hedge Schoolmaster in the American Backcountry

Greg Koos

Local histories of the portions of the eastern United States settled by Irish Presbyterians, Catholics, and their descendants frequently contain anecdotes of pioneer school teachers, first schools, and early educational lore. The Irish schoolmaster often appears in these reminiscenses. Described as intemperate, cruel, loquacious, musical, and learned, these men--and a few women--are fondly, and often humorously, remembered. An 1874 work titled Good Old Times In McLean County tells the stories of four Irish schoolmasters. The following anecdote is typical:

During the winter of 1836 Shelton Smith commenced going to school. (Smith would have been 11[.]) His first teacher was an Irishman who made the scholars study at the top of their voices. As they shouted their lessons, he stood in the middle of the floor slapping his hands and saying: "Whoop boys! I'll take ye through the arithmathic in four weeks!" This Irishman taught school until the day after Christmas, and then suddenly disappeared and was never seen again. It was supposed that he left because the scholars gave him to understand that they would bar him out and make him treat between Christmas and New Years. 1

Connecting such stories to the pedagogy practiced in Ireland in the eighteenth century provides an account of how a popular form of educational practice was brought by migrating schoolmasters to America. J. R. R. Adams provides a useful definition of hedge schools, "Hedge schools . . . were totally independent of any kind of authority other than market forces and the ire of parents. . . . Second, they were run by teachers who themselves had received no formal training. Third, they were not necessarily held behind a hedge or even in rural surroundings. Fourth, they were intended entirely for the lower orders." 2 Hedge schoolmasters practiced methods that admirably fit the rude conditions of the American backcountry--that area of new settlement which characterized the ever expanding American frontier. These methods were widely accepted by [End Page 9] predominantly Scots-Irish settlers. Comparing these North American teachers to Irish examples enables us to better understand the hedge schoolmaster's educational practices and the conditions under which they were required to teach.

The hedge schoolmaster is a well established figure in Irish educational history. During the eighteenth century, the Penal Laws prohibited the education of Catholics either in public schools or abroad. In response, an improvised method of education was developed from a combination of Irish and continental practices. These proscribed schools became widespread and provided education to thousands of people. 3 Because illegal, these schools suffered from a gross lack of facilities, for they were operated in a circumspect or "underground" manner. Hedge schools were indeed often literally schools housed in the rural hedgerows. 4

A superb account of hedge schools can be found in William Carleton's 1830 collection Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. Carleton, who was educated in such a school, recalls his experience in a story called "The Hedge School." It tells of the difficulty a village called Findramore had in keeping schoolmasters, because they were often hanged for suspected Whiteboy activity. The threat that schoolmaster Mat Kavannagh, the hero of Carleton's story, made to his charges prefigures his own death: "I'll tell you Phelim, you were born for the encouragement of the Hemp manufacturing, and you'll die promoting it." Though comic dialogue typifies Carleton's account, his story is useful for the description he gives of such schools and the traditions which were common to them. 5

Contemporary accounts of hedge schools often describe them as being held in dug-outs, sheds, abandoned barns, and outbuildings, with unruly, ill-tempered schoolmasters teaching a boisterous rabble of dirty children, and having a list of courses taught. Certain practices were commonly found such as the schoolmaster "boarding round," scholars bringing turf for the master's fire, the use of ritual props for passes, an emphasis on oral work, payment being charged by the course, and such seasonal rituals as "barring...