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19.2.20 Hedge Schools

woman's work
Ardfert Cathedral, co. Kerry

Latin has often been a colonial language, from Julius Caesar’s wars in France, to the genocidal conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese in ‘Latin’ America, to British imperialists quoting Virgil in India. But in at least one case it has been a language in which members of a colonized community expressed and asserted themselves amidst an unfair status quo. In Ireland between the end of the seventeenth and the start of the nineteenth centuries, a large part of the population faced discrimination under the Penal Laws, laws which banned Catholics from owning land, from voting, and from setting up their own schools. Faced with this discrimination, communities took education in their own hands, and a network of informal, road-side schools sprung up around the country. These were the hedge-schools, best positioned out of sight of local authorities ‘beneath the sunny side of a hedge’, and run by schoolmasters who offered instruction – for a fee – in a whole range of subjects, including, in certain cases, Latin and Greek. Schoolmasters travelled the country, acting as important conduits for news and learning, and even for rebellion: Cork man Micheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1839) is known to have carried messages for the United Irishman disguised as poor wandering scholar.

Kerry, in particular, was a place where hedge-school classics thrived. Scholars from across the country coming to Faha for the ‘Munster diploma’ in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew; students of John Casey’s school up the road in Ardfert playing ‘captus’, a game in which two students would take turns to compose lines of Latin verse, and victory was achieved when one could decline the adjective ‘captus’ before the other could finish; a man called Eugene O’Neill defending himself in Latin in a Tralee courtroom, 1808. Latin’s place in the hedge-schools is sometimes best attested by those who felt bemused, annoyed, or threatened by it. Our youth should be hammering at the anvil than at bog Latin (Joseph Taylor, Kenmare agent of Lord Shelbourne, 1773). I do not wish to see children [in Ireland] educated like the inhabitants [of Munster], where the young peasants of Kerry run about in rags with a Cicero or Virgil under their arms (Robert Peel, House of Commons, 1826).

So here we have Latin as a language of poor, rural, and disenfranchised communities. And while this picture is easily romanticized and exaggerated, it is rooted in fact. Noting the scepticism of recent scholarship on the matter, Laurie O’Higgins nevertheless contends that ‘eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland was unique in Europe for significant popular study of the Classics. By “significant” I do not mean large numbers overall, but sufficient to constitute a pattern, to make a mark, and create a memory in the wider culture.’

As is often the case, it’s a work of art that really brings history to life. Brian Friel’s Translations takes as its subject an Irish-speaking community in Donegal in 1833, as British soldiers arrive to map the area and set about translating local place names from Irish into English. The action centres on a hedge-school where it’s Latin, Greek, and Irish that are the living languages, while English is a strange and foreign tongue. Friel’s directions state that his characters’ verbatim quotations from Homer, Virgil, and Ovid should be ‘in no way pedantic’, and much humour is drawn from how they each play with and enjoy the ancient languages. But this enjoyment is contrasted more and more with his characters’ increasing desperation as their world implodes, and it is to Friel’s great credit that he does not romanticize or soften that implosion. All the Homer and Virgil in the world can’t, it turns out, put bread on the table, keep people in their homes, or stop the march of English across Donegal. Suddenly the play is speaking to every society caught between empire and autonomy, between past and future, between the local and the global. ‘Remember’, says Hugh the schoolmaster to Lieutenant Yolland, in a fleeting moment of clarity, ‘that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact.’

Note: This post was inspired by Antonia McManus’ The Irish Hedge School and its Books, 1695–1831 (Four Courts Press, 2006), from which I’ve taken the historical details above. I also quote from p. 6 of Laurie O’Higgins’ The Irish Classical Self. Poets and Poor Scholars in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Oxford, 2017). Brian Friel’s Translations was published by Faber and Faber in 1981 and is widely available.