Running barefoot to their dreams...

Grass between your toes: barefeet at a rural school in Co Clare in the 1950s.

Grass between your toes: barefeet at a rural school in Co Clare in the 1950s.

Sometime in the 1880s my grandfather, Philip O’Gorman, left his home town of Littleton (An Baile Beag ), north Tipperary, and walked into Galway. He must have been very well educated because his first job was reading the Dublin newspapers in two pubs in High Street. The Dublin papers arrived on the afternoon train. Then, surprisingly, he got a good job as an assistant librarian in the university. Surprisingly, because at the time it was a predominantly a Protestant institution. From there, he rented a small shop in High Street, established the Galway Printing Company, and cycled around Connemara getting orders for small printing jobs. These were later dispatched from the Claddagh quays to be delivered or collected from the small harbours all along the coast.

I don’t tell this story in any boastful way, although my grandfather was an amazing man; but I was puzzled to know where he got his education. I spent an enjoyable day in his old home, now long owned by the welcoming Ryan family. My grandfather’s people had a small farm, and, attached to their home, a little dark shop that sold everything from boot laces to sweets. But what really intrigued me was the absence of a secondary school in the village. Yes, there is a fine looking national school, built 1922, long after my grandfather had left to seek his fortune in the world. Seán Mac Sweeney, the retired principal of the renowned ‘Tech’ on Fr Grifin Road, told me that he had to have been educated in a ‘hedge school’.

Bardic tradition

Hedge schools (Irish names include scoil chois claí, scoil ghairid, and scoil scairte ) were a testament to a people’s craving for learning after the Penal Laws outlawed Catholic education at the end of the 17th century. While the ‘hedge school’ label suggests that classes took place out-doors, classes were more regularly held in a house or barn, but may for a while have been held in a sheltered field, before more suitably accommodation could be provided. Subjects included basic grammar, English, and maths; indeed the rudiments of literacy and numeracy. But in many cases children required a classical education too. In some well known ‘hedge schools’, the Irish bardic tradition ensured that Latin, history, and home economics were also taught.

Brian Friel’s excellent play Translations - set in Co Donegal in 1833 - opens in a hedge school. This particular school is located in an unused barn. Hedge school masters carried with them a tradition and a reverence for Greek and Latin, which they liked to share it with their students, who if we are to accept the literature of the time, conversed with each other in the language of their school. In Friel’s play Máire arrives with a can of milk (as payment ), tired from a day’s harvesting. She is greeted by fellow pupil Jimmy, the local genius..

Jimmy: Esne fatigata? ( Are you tired? )

Máire: Sum fatigatissima ( I am exhausted )

Jimmy: Bene! Optime! ( Good! Excellent! )

Hedge schoolteachers were sourced by a village or a community; and such was the value placed on education that teachers were offered handsome inducements including a ‘free house, free turf and free milk, a rood of standing corn, 12 drills of potatoes and a salary of up to £42 a year’. By 1833, however, the hedge school days were officially numbered with the introduction of the national school system. But there is evidence that they continued well into the 1890s.

The Young Irelander John O'Hagan's verse gives us the romantic image of the hedge schools that we Irish cherish:

Still crouching 'neath the sheltering hedge,

Or stretched on mountain fern,

The teacher and his pupils met feloniously to learn.

Social divisions

However, we get a more realistic view of rural education during the early decades of the last century in Michael D Higgin’s memories of a gifted teacher and a poverty-ridden childhood in a two-teacher school in Newmarket-on-Fergus, in nearby Co Clare. His teacher was William Clune, whose brother Conor, the Volunteer, had been shot before the founding of the State.

William Clune appeared to have carried within his soul many of the gifts and talents that we imagine are associated with the ancient hedge-school teacher*; but I must not forget the harsh realities of the time. ‘He was a man who loved the wonder of children, and he had some extraordinary ideas, which I am sure couldn’t be proved. He had an idea for example, that if you tried hard enough and used your concentration, you could go back through not only your own memory, but other people’s memories to remember an Irish word. There was not one person who came into his schoolyard from any background, with shoes or without, who wasn’t respected as a carrier of wonderment. It was the central value of his pedagogic technique.’

‘We all went barefooted to school at the time, not because we didn’t have shoes or boots, but because that was what was done. It was before tarmacadam, and I remember the sensation of the chippings on your feet as much as I remember the beet dropping off the backs of lorries - beet which we could then eat.’

Michael resents people romanticising the school children and their bare feet. ‘I know the experience of grass between your toes and I know that a fern will cut you, and I know where butterflies gather, and I know about mosses. I can remember all these sensations very clearly, but I also remember when my aunt and uncle’s house was caving in and youngsters going past the house saying: ‘We haven’t broken windows in our house’, and firing stones at the old couple and their nephews who were living inside. I remember the quiet cruelty of it, and it is dishonest of people to take the quietness, and richness and complexity of natural settings, and use them as a mask for the cruel social divisions that prevailed in rural Ireland.’

I do not know the name of my grandfather’s school teacher; but both he and Michael Dee, who in 29 years as a TD for Galway, has delivered more than most politicians, and who speaks loudly and passionately for those who are struggling; were very fortunate to meet such inspiring people. I am sure those teachers showed them as children that despite the difficulties of the time, they could achieve their dreams.


* Again I am leaning heavily on John Quinn’s The Curious Mind - 25 years of radio programmes, published shortly before Christmas by Veritas, and on sale €12.95


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