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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, particularly in 18th and 19th century Ireland, so called due to its rural nature rather than being held outdoors. 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 took place outdoors (next to a hedgerow), classes were normally held in a house or barn. Subjects included primarily the reading, writing and grammar of Irish and English, and maths (the fundamental "three Rs"). In some schools the Irish bardic tradition, Latin, history and home economics were also taught. Reading was often based on chapbooks, sold at fairs, typically with exciting stories of well-known adventurers and outlaws. Payment was generally made per subject, and bright 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, such as that in Clare. The Penal Laws targeted education by the Catholic religious orders, whose wealthier establishments were sometimes 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 the British government in the 1830s. Most of the Catholic bishops preferred this, as the new schools would be largely under the control of the Catholic Church and allow better control of the teaching of Catholic doctrine. James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin wrote to his priests in 1831:
|“||The Roman Catholic bishops] welcome the rule which requires that all the teachers are 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.||”|
A study of hedge schools by Yolanda Fernández-Suárez of the University of Burgos found that hedge schools existed into the 1890s, and suggested that the schools 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.
After 1900, historians such as 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 taught in every school.
Fernández-Suárez quotes a Board of Education inspector visiting a school in 1835:
|“||Amazed at the skill of the twelve-year-old boys in reading the new books, and considering the possibility that they were reciting from memory, I invited one of their number to read me a passage from the gospel of Saint Matthew. Evidently the child misunderstood me. He searched in his satchel until he found his tattered book, stood up, and proceeded to read me the account of Christ’s passion—in Greek (Local Ireland & Others 1999).||”|
In popular culture
Brian Friel's play Translations is set in a hedge school, and its subject is the defence of Irish culture against a dominant and aggressive colonisation.
William Makepeace Thackeray's Irish Sketch Books contain various references to hedge schools.
William Carleton, who got his own early education in hedge schools, wrote many comedic accounts of them for the English audience, including The Hedge School.
- In Fernández-Suárez' study quoted as 'From the papers of the Archdeacon of Fern' (correctly Ferns).
- 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.