Englishmans 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 peoples 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
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 OConolan 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