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A hedge school (Irish names include scoil chois claí, scoil ghairid and scoil scairte) is the name given to an educational practice in 18th and 19th century Ireland, actually most centuries, so called due to its rural nature. It came about as local educated men began an oral tradition of teaching the community. With the advent of the commercial world in Ireland after 1600, its peasant society saw the need for greater education.
While the "hedge school" label suggests the classes always took place outdoors (next to a hedgerow), classes were sometimes held in a house or barn. Subjects included primarily basic Irish language grammar, English and maths (the fundamental "three Rs"). In some schools the Irish bardic tradition, Latin, history and home economics were also taught. Reading was generally based on chapbooks, sold at fairs, typically with exciting stories of well-known adventurers and outlaws. Payment was generally made per subject, and brighter pupils would often compete locally with their teachers.
While Catholic schools were forbidden under the Penal laws from 1723 to 1782, no hedge teachers were known to be prosecuted. Indeed, official records were made of hedge schools by census makers.  The Penal laws targeted education by the main Catholic religious orders, whose wealthier establishments were occasionally confiscated. The laws aimed to force Irish Catholics of the middle classes and gentry to convert to Anglicanism if they wanted a good education in Ireland.
Hedge schools declined from the foundation of the National School system by government in the 1830s. James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin preferred this, as the new schools would be largely under the control of his church and allow a better teaching of Catholic doctrine. He wrote to his priests in 1831:
|“||[The Roman Catholic bishops] welcomed the rule which requires that all the teachers henceforth to be employed be provided from some Model School, with a certificate of their competency, that will aid us in a work of great difficulty, to wit, that of suppressing hedge schools, and placing youths under the direction of competent teachers, and of those only.||”|
Fernández-Suárez (see below) has found that hedge schools existed into the 1890s and suggested that the schools had existed as much from rural poverty and a lack of resources as from religious oppression. Marianne Eliott also mentions that they were used by the poor and not just by the Catholics. While the hedge schools were unfunded, the national school system set up from 1831 was ahead of school provision in England at that time. After 1900, some historians like Daniel Corkery tended to emphasize the hedge schools' classical studies (in Latin and Greek), but while these studies were sometimes taught (based on a local demand), they were not always common to every school. The tradition of hedge schools has been continued in foreign lands such as Southern China, Quebec and Coolock in Dublin to name a few.
- Yolanda Fernández-Suárez, "An Essential Picture in a Sketch-Book of Ireland: The Last Hedge Schools", Estudios Irlandeses 
- JRR Adams, The Hedge Schools and popular education in Ireland. Chapter 5 in Irish Popular Culture 1650-1850 edited by J Donnelly & K Miller, Irish Academic Press 1999, ISBN 0-7165-2712-X
- National Archives materials on the start of the National Schools in 1831
- Marianne Elliott, The Catholics of Ulster, Penguin 2001, at pp.179-181.