The Hedge School

William Carleton

(Part One)


THERE NEVER was a more unfounded calumny, than that which would impute to the Irish peasantry an indifference to education. I may, on the contrary, fearlessly assert, that the lower orders of no country ever manifested such a positive inclination for literary acquirements, and that, too, under circumstances strongly calculated to produce carelessness and apathy on this particular subject. Nay, I do maintain, that he who is intimately acquainted with the character of our countrymen, must acknowledge, that their zeal for book learning, not only is strong and ardent, when opportunities of scholastic education occur, but that it increases in proportion as these opportunities are rare and unattainable. The very name and nature of Hedge Schools are proof of this: for what stronger point could be made out, in illustration of my position, than the fact, that, despite of obstacles, whose very idea would crush ordinary enterprize—when not even a shed could be obtained in which to assemble the children of an Irish village, the worthy pedagogue selected the first green spot on the sunny side of a quickset-thorn hedge, which he conceived adapted for his purpose, and there, under the scorching rays of a summer sun, and in defiance of spies and statutes, carried on the work of instruction. From this circumstance the name of Hedge School originated, and, however it may be associated with the ludicrous, I maintain, that it is highly honourable to the character of the people, and an encouragement to those who wish to see them receive pure and correct educational knowledge. A Hedge School, however, in its original sense, was but a temporary establishment, being only adopted until such a school-house could be erected, as was in those days deemed sufficient to hold as many children as were expected, at all hazards, to attend it.

The opinion, I know, which has been long entertained of Hedge Schoolmasters, was, and still is, unfavourable; but the character of these worthy and eccentric persons has been misunderstood, for the stigma attached to their want of knowledge should have rather been applied to their want of morals, because, on this latter point only were they indefensible. The fact is, that Hedge Schoolrnasters were a class of men, from whom morality was not expected by the peasantry; for, strange to say, one of their strongest recommendations to the good opinion of the people, as far as their literary talents and qualifications were concerned, was an inordinate love of whiskey, and if to this could be added a slight touch of derangement, the character was complete.

On once asking an Irish peasant, why he sent his children to a schoolmaster who was notoriously addicted to spiritous liquors, rather than to a man of sober habits who taught in the same neighbourhood, "Why do I sind them to Mat Meegan, is it?" he replied—"and do you think, Sir," said he, "that I'd sind them to that dry-headed dunce, Mr. Frazher, wid his black coat upon him and his caroline hat, and him wouldn't taste a glass of poteen wanst in seven years. Mat, Sir, likes it, and teaches the boys ten times betther whin he's dhrunk nor whin he's sober; and you'll never find a good tacher, Sir, but's fond of it. As for Mat, when he's half gone, I'd turn him agin the county for deepness in larnin; for it's thin he rhimes it out of him, that it would do one good to hear him."

"So," said I, "you think that a love of drinking poteen is a sign of talent in a schoolmaster."

"Ay, or in any man else, Sir," he replied. "Look at tradesmen, and 'tis always the cleverest that you'll find fond iv the dhrink! If you had hard Mat and Frazher, the other evening, at it—what a hare Mat mad iv 'im; but he was jist in proper tune for it, being, at the time, purty well I thank you, and did not lave him a leg to stand upon. He took him in Euclid's Ailments and Logicals, and proved, in Frazher's teeth, that the candlestick before them was the church-steeple, and Frazher himself the parson; and so sign was on it, the other couldn't disprove it, but had to give in."

"Mat, then," I observed, "is the most learned man on this walk."

"Why, thin, I doubt that same, Sir," replied he, "for all he's so great in the books; for, you see, while they were ding dust at it, who comes in but mad Delany, and he attacked Mat, and, in less than no time, rubbed the consate out of him, as clane as he did out of Frazher."

"Who is Delany?" I enquired.

"He was the makins of a priest, Sir, and was in Maynooth a couple of years, but he took in the knowledge so fast, that, bedad, he got cracked wid larnin'—for a dunce, you see, never cracks wid it; no doubt but he's too many for Mat, and can go far beyant him in the books, but then, like that, he's still brightest whin he has a sup in his head."

These are prejudices which the Irish peasantry have long entertained concerning the character of hedge schoolmasters; but, granting them to be unfounded, as they generally are, yet it is an indisputable fact, that hedge schoolmasters were as superior in literary knowledge and acquirements to the class of men who are now engaged in the general education of the people, as they were beneath them in moral and religious character. The former part of this assertion will, I am aware, appear rather startling to many: but it is true; and one great cause why the character of the Society Teachers is undervalued, in many instances, by the people, proceeds from a conviction on their parts, that they are, and must be, incapable, from the slender portion of learning they have received, of giving their children a sound and practical education.

But that we may put this subject in a clearer light, we will give a sketch of the course of instruction which was deemed necessary for a hedge schoolmaster, and, let it be contrasted with that which falls to the lot of those engaged in the conducting of schools patronized by the Education Societies of the present day. When a poor man, about twenty or thirty years ago, understood from the schoolmaster who educated his sons, that any of them was particularly "cute at his larnin'," the ambition of the parent usually directed itself to one of three objects—he would either make him a priest, a clerk, or a schoolmaster. The determination once fixed, the boy was set apart from every kind of labour, that he might be at liberty to bestow his undivided time and talents to the object set before him. His parents strained every nerve to furnish him with the necessary books, and always took care that his appearance and dress should be more decent than those of any other member of the family. If the Church was in prospect, he was distinguished, after he had been two or three years at his Latin, by the appellation of "the young priest ," an epithet to him of the greatest pride and honour; but if destined only to wield the ferula, his importance in the family, and the narrow circle of his friends, was by no means so great. But if the goal of his ambition was shorter, that of his literary career was considerably extended. He usually remained at the next school in the vicinity until he supposed that he had completely drained the master of all his knowledge. This circumstance was generally discovered in the following manner:—As soon as he judged himself a match for his teacher, and possessed sufficient confidence in his own powers, he penned him a formal challenge to meet him in literary contest, either in his own school, before competent witnesses, or at the chapel green, on the Sabbath day, before the arrival of the priest, or probably after it, for the priest himself was generally the moderator and judge upon these occasions. This challenge was usually couched in rhyme, and either sent by the hands of a common friend, or posted upon the chapel door.

These contests, as the reader perceives, were always public, and were witnessed by the peasantry with intense interest. If the master sustained a defeat, it was not so much attributed to his want of learning, as to the overwhelming talent of his opponent; nor was the success of the pupil generally followed by the expulsion of the master; for this was but the first of a series of challenges which the former proposed to undertake, ere he eventually settled himself in the exercise of his profession. I remember being present at one of them, and a ludicrous exhibition it was. The parish priest, a red faced, jocular little man, was president; and his curate, a scholar of six feet two inches in height, and a schoolmaster from the next parish, were judges. I will only touch upon two circumstances in their conduct, which evinced a close instinctive knowledge of human nature in the combatants. The master would not condescend to argue off his throne—a piece of policy to which, in my opinion, he owed his victory (for he won); whereas the pupil insisted that he should meet him on equal ground, face to face, in the lower end of the room. It was evident that the latter could not divest himself of his boyish terrors as long as the other sat, as it were, in the plenitude of his former authority, contracting his brows with habitual sternness, thundering out his arguments, with a most menacing and Stentorian voice; while he thumped his desk with his shut fist, or struck it with his great rule at the close of each argument, in a manner that made the youngster put his hands behind him several times, to be certain that that portion of his dress, which is unmentionable to "ears polite," was tight upon him.

If in these encounters the young candidate for the honours of the literary sceptre was not victorious, he again resumed his studies, under his old preceptor, with renewed vigour and becoming humility; but if he put the schoolmaster down, his next object was to seek out some other teacher, whose celebrity was unclouded within his own range. With him he had a fresh encounter, and its result was similar to what I have already related. If victorious, he sought out another and more learned opponent; and if defeated, he became the pupil of his conqueror—going night about, during his sojourn at the school, with the neighbouring farmers' sons, whom he assisted in their studies, as a compensation for his support. He was called, during these peregrinations, the Poor Scholar, a character which secured him the esteem and hospitable attention of the peasantry, who never fail in respect to any one characterised by a zeal for learning and knowledge.

In this manner he proceeded, a literary knight-errant, filled with a chivalrous love of letters, which would have done honour to the most learned peripatetic of them all; enlarging his own powers, and making fresh acquisitions of knowledge as he went along. His contests, his defeats,and his triumphs, of course, were frequent; and his habits of thinking and reasoning must have been considerably improved, his acquaintance with classical and mathematical authors rendered more intimate, and his powers of illustration and comparison more clear and happy. After three or four years spent in this manner, he usually returned to his native place, sent another challenge to the schoolmaster, in the capacity of a candidate for his situation, and, if successful, drove him out of the district, and established himself in his situation. The vanquished master sought a new district, sent a new challenge, in his turn, to some other teacher, and usually put him to flight in the same manner. The terms of defeat or victory, according to their application, were called sacking and bogging.

"There was a great argument entirely, Sir," said a peasant once, when speaking of these contests," "twas at the chapel on Sunday week, betune young Tom Brady, that was a poor scholar in Munsther, and Mr. Hartigan, the school-masther."

"And who was victorious?" I enquired.

"Why, Sir, and may be 'twas young Brady that didn't sack him clane, before the priest an' all; and went nigh to bog the priest himself in Greek. His Reverence was only two words beyant him; but he sacked the masther, any how, an' showed him in the grammatical and the dixonary where he was wrong."

"And what is Brady's object in life?" I asked. "What does he intend to do?"

"Intend to do, is it? I'm tould nothin' less nor goin' into Thrinity College in Dublin, an' expects to bate them all there, out an' out: he's first to make something they call a seizure [Sizar.] ; and afther makin' that good, he's to be a Counsellor. So, Sir, you see what it is to resave good schoolin', and to have the larnin'; but, indeed, 'tis Brady that's the great headpiece entirely."

Unquestionably, many who received instruction in this manner have distinguished themselves in the Dublin University; and I have no hesitation in saying, that young men educated in Irish hedge schools, as they were called, have proved themselves to be better classical scholars and mathematicians, generally speaking, than any proportionate number of those educated in our first-rate academies. The Munster masters have long been, and still are, particularly celebrated for making excellent classical and mathematical scholars.

That a great deal of ludicrous pedantry generally accompanied this knowledge is not at all surprising, when we consider the rank these worthy teachers held in life, and the stretch of inflation at which their pride was kept by the profound reverence excited by their learning among the people. 'Tis equally true, that each of them had a stock of crambos ready for accidental encounter, which would have puzzled Euclid or Sir Isaac Newton himself; but even these trained their minds to habits of acuteness and investigation. When a schoolmaster of this class had established himself as a good mathematician, the predominant enjoyment of his heart and life was to write the epithet Philomath after his name; and this, whatever document he subscribed, was never omitted. If he witnessed a will, it was Timothy Fagan, Philomath—if he put his name to a promissory note, it was Tim. Fagan, Philomath; if be addressed a love-letter to his sweetheart, it was still Timothy Fagan—or whatever the name might be—Philomath; and this was always written in legible and distinct copy-hand, sufficiently large to attract the observation of the reader.

It was also usual for a man who had been a preeminent and extraordinary scholar, to have the epithet Great prefixed to his name. I remember one of this description, who was called the Great O'Brien, par excellence. In the latter years of his life he gave up teaching, and led a circulating life, going round from school to school, and remaining a week or a month alternately among his brethren. His visits were considered an honour, and raised considerably the literary character of those with whom he resided; for he spoke of dunces with the most dignified contempt, and the general impression was, that he would scorn even to avail himself of their hospitality. Like most of his brethren, he could not live without the poteen; and his custom was, to drink a pint of it in its native purity before he entered into any literary contest, or made any display of his learning at wakes or other Irish festivities; and most certainly, however blameable the practice, and injurious to health and morals, it threw out his talents and his powers in a most surprising manner.

It was highly amusing to observe the peculiarity which the consciousness of superior knowledge impressed upon the conversation and personal appearance of this decaying race. Whatever might have been the original conformation of their physical structure, it was sure, by the force of acquired habit, to transform itself into a stiff, erect, consequential, and unbending manner, ludicrously characteristic of an inflated sense of their extraordinary knowledge, and a proud and commiserating contempt of the dark ignorance by which, in despite of their own light, they were surrounded. Their conversation, like their own crambos, was dark and difficult to be understood; their words, truly sesquipedalian; their voice, loud and commanding in its tones; their deportment, grave and dictatorial, but completely indescribable, and certainly original to the last degree, in those instances where the ready, blundering, but genuine humour of their country maintained an unyielding rivalry in the disposition, against the habitual solemnity which was considered necessary to keep up the due dignity of their character. In many of these persons, where the original humour and gaiety of the disposition were known, all efforts at the grave and dignified were complete failures, and these were enjoyed by the peasantry and their own pupils, nearly with the sensations which the enactment of Hamlet by Liston would necessarily produce. At all events, their education, allowing for the usual exceptions, was by no means superficial; and the reader has already received a sketch of the trials which they had to undergo, before they considered themselves qualified to enter upon the duties of their calling. Their life was, in fact, a state of literary warfare; and they felt that a mere elementary knowledge of their business would have been insufficient to carry them, with suitable credit, through the attacks to which they were exposed from travelling teachers, whose mode of establishing themselves in schools, was, as I have said, by driving away the less qualified, and usurping their places. This, according to the law of opinion, and the custom which prevailed, was very easily effected, for the peasantry uniformly encouraged those whom they supposed to be the most competent; as to moral or religious instruction, neither was expected from them, so that the indifference of the moral character was no bar to their success.

The village of Findramore was situated at the foot of a long green hill, the outline of which formed a low arch, as it rose to the eye against the horizon. This hill was studded with clumps of beeches, and sometimes enclosed as a meadow. In the month of July, when the grass on it was long, many an hour have I spent in solitary enjoyment, watching the wavy motion produced upon its pliant surface by the sunny winds, or the flight of the cloud-shadows, like phantom ships, as they swept rapidly over it, whilst the murmur of the rocking trees and the glancing of their bright leaves in the sun, produced a heartfelt pleasure, the very memory of which rises in my imagination, like some fading recollection of a brighter world.

At the foot of this hill ran a clear deep-banked river, bounded on one side by a slip of rich level meadow, and on the other by a kind of common for the village geese, whose white feathers, during the summer season, lay scattered over its green surface. It was also the play-ground for the boys of the village school; for there ran that part of the river, which, with very correct judgment, the urchins had selected as their bathing-place. A little slope, or watering-ground in the bank, brought them to the edge of the stream, where the bottom fell away into the fearful depths of the whirlpool, under the hanging oak on the other bank. Well do I remember the first time I ventured to swim across it, and even yet do I see, in imagination, the two bunches of water flaggons on which the inexperienced swimmers trusted themselves in the water.

About two hundred yards above this, the boreen, which led from the village to the main road, crossed the river, by one of those old narrow bridges, whose arches rise like round ditches across the road, presenting a high mound, long, uneven, and often dangerous—an almost impassable barrier to horse and car. On passing the bridge, in a northern direction, you found a range of low thatched houses on each side of the road; and if one o'clock, the hour of dinner, drew near, you might observe columns of blue smoke curling up from a row of chimnies, some made of wicker creels plastered over with a rich coat of mud—some of old, narrow bottomless tubs—and others, with a greater appearance of taste, ornamented with thick, circular ropes of straw, sewed together like bees' skeps, with the peel of a briar; and many having nothing but the open vent above. But the smoke did not alone escape by its legitimate aperture, for you might observe little clouds of it bursting out of the doors and windows; the panes of the latter, being mostly stopped at other times with old hats and rags, were now left entirely open for the purpose of giving it a free escape. Before the doors, on right and left, was a series of dunghills, each with its concomitant sink of green, stagnant water; and if it happened that a stout-looking woman, with watery eyes, and a yellow cap hung loosely upon her matted locks, came, with a chubby urchin on one arm, and a pot of dirty water in her hand, its unceremonious ejection in the aforesaid sink would be apt to send you up the village with your finger and thumb (for what purpose you would yourself perfectly understand) closely, but not knowingly, applied to your nostrils. But, independently of this, you would be apt to have other reasons for giving your horse, whose heels are by this time surrounded by a dozen of barking curs, and the same number of shouting urchins, a pretty sharp touch of the spurs, as well as for complaining bitterly of the odour of the atmosphere. It is no landscape without figures; and you might notice, if you are, as I must suppose you to be, a man of observation, in every sink as you pass along, a "slip of a pig" stretched in the middle of the mud, the very beau ideal of luxury, giving, occasionally, a long, luxurious grunt, highly expressive of his enjoyment; or, perhaps, an old farrower, lying in indolent repose, with half a dozen young ones justling each other for their draught, and pouncing her belly with their little snouts, reckless of the fumes they are creating; whilst the loud crow of the cock, as he confidently flaps his wings on his own dunghill, gives the warning note for the hour of dinner. As you advance, you will also perceive several faces thrust out of the doors, and, rather than miss a sight of you, a grotesque visage peeping by a short cut through the painless [sic] windows—or, a tattered female flying to whip in her urchin that has been tumbling itself, heels up, in the dust of the road, lest "the jintleman's horse might ride over it;" and if you happen to look behind, you may notice a shaggy-headed youth, in tattered frize, with one hand thrust indolently in his breast, standing at the door in conversation with the inmates, a broad grin of sarcastic ridicule on his face, in the act of breaking a joke or two upon yourself or your horse; or, perhaps, your jaw may be saluted with a lump of clay, just hard enough not to fall asunder as it flies, cast by some raggid gorsoon from behind a hedge, who squats himself in a ridge of corn to avoid detection.

Seated upon a hob at the door, you may observe a toil-worn man, without coat or waistcoat; his red, muscular, sun-burnt shoulder peering through the remnant of a shirt, mending his shoes with a piece of twisted flax, called a lingel—or, perhaps, sewing two footless stockings (or martyeens) to his coat, as a substitute for sleeves. In the gardens, which are usually fringed with nettles, you will see a solitary labourer, working with that carelessness and apathy that characterize an Irishman when he labours for himself,—leaning upon his spade to look after you, and glad of any excuse to be idle. The houses, however, are not all such as I have described; far from it—you see, here and there, between the more humble cabins, a stout, comfortable-looking farm-house, with ornamental thatching, and well glazed windows--adjoining to which is a hagyard, with five or six large stacks of corn, well trimmed and roped, and a fine, yellow, weather-beaten old hay-rick, half cut; not taking into account twelve or thirteen circular strata of stones, that mark out the foundations on which others had been raised. Neither is the rich smell of oaten or wheaten bread, which the good wife is baking on the griddle, unpleasant to your nostrils; nor would the bubbling of a large pot, in which you might see, should you chance to enter, a prodigious square of fat, yellow, and almost transparent bacon tumbling about, be an unpleasant object;—truly, as it hangs over a large fire, with well swept hearth-stone, it is in good keeping with the white settle and chairs, and the dresser with noggins, wooden trenchers, and pewter dishes perfectly clean, and as well polished as a French courtier.

As you leave the village, you have, to the left, a view of the hill which I have already described, and, to the right, a level expanse of fertile country, bounded by a good view of respectable mountains, peering decently into the sky; and in a line that forms an acute angle from the point of the road where you ride, is a delightful valley, in the bottom of which shines a pretty lake; and a little beyond, on the slope of a green hill, rises a splendid house, surrounded by a park, well wooded and stocked with deer. You have now topped the little hill above the village, and a straight line of level road, a mile long, goes forward to a little country town which lies immediately behind that white church, with its spire cutting into the sky, before you. You now descend on the other side, and, having advanced a few perches, look to the left, where you see a long, thatched chapel, only distinguished from a dwelling-house by its want of chimnies, and a small stone cross that stands on the top of the eastern gable; behind it is a grave-yard, and, beside it, a snug public-house, well white-washed; then, to the right, you observe a door apparently in the side of a clay bank which rises considerably above the pavement of the road. What! you ask yourself, can this be a human habitation?—but ere you have time to answer the question, a confused buzz of voices from within reaches your ear, and the appearance of a little "gorsoon," with a red, close-cropped head and Milesian face, having in his hand a short, white stick, which you at once recognize as "the pass" of a village-school, gives you the full information He has an ink-horn, covered with leather, dangling at the button-hole (for he has long since played away the buttons) of his frize jacket—his mouth is circumscribed with a streak of ink—his pen is stuck knowingly behind his ear—his shins dotted over with blisters, black, red, and blue—on each heel a kibe—his "leather crackers," videlicet—breeches, shrunk up upon him, and only reaching as far down as the caps of his knee; having spied you, he places his hand over his brows to throw back the dazzling light of the sun, and peers at you from under it, till he breaks out into a laugh, exclaiming, half to himself, and half to you, "You a jintlemen! no, nor wan of your breed never was, you procthorin' thief you!" You are now immediately opposite the door of the seminary, when half a dozen of those seated next it notice you.

Oh, Sir, here's a jintlemen on a horse! masther, Sir, here's a jintleman on a horse that's lookin' in at us, wid boots and spurs on him!"

"Silence!" exclaims the master; "back from the door, boys rehearse ; every one of you rehearse, I say, you Boeotians, till the gentleman goes past!"

"I want to go out if you plase, Sir."

"No, you don't, Phelim."

"I do, indeed, Sir."

"What ! is it afther contradicting me you'd be? don't you see the "porter's" out, and you can't go."

"Well, 'tis Mat Meehan has it, Sir, and he's out this half hour, Sir. I can't stay in, Si—iphfff—iphiff—— ;" and, with a face of apparent distress, he makes his legs change places, throwing them across each other by way of giving an illustration of his motive.

In the mean time the master puts his head out of the door, his body stooped to "half bend,"—a phrase the exact curve which it forms, I leave for the present, to your own sagacity—and surveys you until you pass. That is an Irish hedge school, and the personage who follows you with his eye, a hedge' schoolmaster. His name is Matthew Kavanagh; and as you seem to consider his literary establishment rather a curiosity in its kind, I will, if you be disposed to hear it, give you the history of him and his establishment, beginning, in the first place, with—

THE ABDUCTION OF MAT KAVANAGH,
THE HEDGE SCHOOLMASTER