Under the Penal Laws of the 18th century, Catholic schools were forbidden. To ensure that their children would receive an education, the people of rural Ireland turned to wandering scholars who taught in what became known as Hedge Schools. Sometimes classes took place in the shelter of a ditch. More commonly however, a temporary structure would be created from wooden poles and bracken, with straw and reed thatching.
With a turf fire in the centre, the children would gather in their makeshift schoolhouse to learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic; but these schools also provided a much broader education. Many Hedge School Masters taught Latin and Greek, History and Geography and shared with the children the rich culture and heritage of their own native land. As well as poems, folklore and stories from the Irish tradition, some also taught music and often there would be dancing lessons from a travelling ʻDance Master’.
With the setting up of the National School system in the early 1830s, the Hedge Schools went into decline. However their earlier widespread popularity is clear from a Commission of Inquiry report in 1826 which stated that, of the 550,000 pupils enrolled in all schools in Ireland at that time, 403,000 were in Hedge Schools.