An Englishman’s view of the Irish peasantry

According to many observers writing between 1770 and 1820, Irish country folk had a lively cultural life and a thirst for education, despite their often extreme poverty.

The English agriculturalist Arthur Young toured Ireland in the 1770s and wrote a detailed account of what he saw. Though he stayed in the houses of the gentry, he was much taken with the poor.

He wrote with sympathy of their plight under the landlords’ tyranny, and admired their character: ”The circumstances which struck me most in the common Irish were vivacity and a great and eloquent volubility of speech; one would think they could take snuff and talk without tiring till doomsday. They are infinitely more cheerful and lively than anything we commonly see in England.”

He continued: “their hospitality to all comers, be their own poverty ever so pinching, has too much merit to be forgotten. Pleased to enjoyment with a joke, or witty repartee, they will repeat it with such expression, that the laugh will be universal.”

Young also remarked on the popularity of dancing: “Dancing is so universal among them that there are everywhere itinerant dancing-masters, to whom the cottars pay sixpence a quarter for teaching their families. Besides the Irish jig, which they can dance with a most luxuriant expression, minutes and country dances are taught; and I even heard some talk of cotillions coming in.”

The people’s passion for education was widely remarked on by gentry and officials. The penal laws prevented Catholics from running and teaching in schools, so makeshift “hedge schools” sprang up all over the country to meet the demand. They were held in rough-and-ready premises and the people paid the teacher - who might be a man or a woman - in cash or in kind.

Arthur Young wrote that hedge schools were “everywhere to be met with”, and that schools for adult men were also common. By the mid-1820s, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 children were being taught in hedge schools.

The teachers were poor scholars, who might also be poets and scribes, copying manuscripts for collectors. They might supplement their income by labouring. Often they had a reputation for being over-fond of drink and women.

The curriculum varied. In his book The Hedge Schools of Ireland, PJ Dowling writes: ”The very least that was taught...included reading, writing and arithmetic. Other subjects found their way into the curriculum according to local needs and the qualifications of the teacher: history, geography, book-keeping, surveying and navigation. Latin and Mathematics were commonly taught; sometimes Greek; and in Irish-speaking districts instruction in all these subjects was given in the vernacular.”

But the peasantry were evidently keen to learn English, the language of officialdom. An observer wrote in 1806 that even “amidst some of the wildest mountains of Kerry” he had come across English schools, and had seen “multitudes of children seated round the humble residence of their instructor with their books, pens and ink, where rocks have been supplied in the place of desks and benches.”

The novelist Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan) wrote a romantic description of a school run by Tadhg Ó Coinnialláin in Connacht. Speaking “with a brogue that beggars all conception,” he told her: “The Irish is the finest and loftiest tongue in the world: the English can never come near it, and the Greek alone is worthy of being compared to it.”

Tadhg said he had 50 pupils, including five girls. He explained “that the head class were in Homer, and did not pay for their tuition, as they assisted him to teach the the rest; that all boys of the name O’Conolan were also taught gratis, and the rest paid according to the means of their parents.”

Sydney Owenson described visiting the school: “The lyceum of this Connacht sage, is a miserable cabin on the side of a very desolate wood. The sound of our horses’ feet brought a number of his young disciples to the door, clad I in a drapery light and frugal as Philosophy herself could dictate; for neither the Greek sandal, the Roman perones, nor the Irish brogue, secured their naked feet from the damp earthen floor of the academy.

“The next moment Thady himself appeared in all the majesty of pedagogue power: his hair, dress and manner were all admirable....his low clumsy figure, clerical tonsure, rubicund face; his wrapping coat, according to the old Irish custom, fastened with a skewer, the sleeves unoccupied, and the collar of his shirt thrown open; combined with his Greek and Latin quotations, his rich brogue, and affected dignity, to render him a finished character.”

Courtesy of the Southern Star