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Hedge schools: Education under the Penal Laws

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

It is difficult to comprehend the efforts made by the Catholic and non-conformist people in Ireland to educate their children in Ireland in the 18th and 19th century during British rule. 

From about 1695 there were strict laws in Ireland which banned Catholics and other ‘non-conforming’ religions such as Presbyterians, from establishing schools.

Under the penal laws in place at the time only children of Anglican faith were allowed to be educated at school.

A goup of schoolchildren in Co Galway in 1932.
Copyright UCD. Courtesy

It was for this reason that small informal, illegal schools, known as Hedge Schools, were set up to educate the children of Ireland. They were called ‘scoileanna scairte’ in Irish.

The schools provided rudimentary primary education to varying age groups from young children to students of eighteen or nineteen years of age.

All age groups were taught by the same teacher and children working on farms during the day attended Hedge Schools in the evening. Hedge Schools were to become the only means of education for the native Irish until the penal laws were repealed.

In these schools the children were taught along the hedgerows and sometimes in the farmer’s house or barn.

Lessons consisted of reading, writing and arithmetic and were often taught using rote or repetition.

Teachers often lodged in the farmer’s house and the students paid a modest weekly sum to the teacher.

In 1782 the repealing of penal laws meant that the Hedge Schools were no longer illegal.

Many of the schools moved to larger buildings and they remained as private schools, some up until the 1880s.

In 1831 primary education came to Ireland enabling children to attend school free of charge.

A National Board of Education was formed and the government provided grants for school buildings and teachers’ salaries thus ending the existence of the Hedge School.


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