During the Penal Laws in Ireland - in particular during the 18th century - the Catholic church was oppressed and public ceremonies involving Catholic clergy were banned. Many Catholic churches had also been either destroyed or put to use by the Protestant Church during the period following the Battle of the Boyne (1690).
Nonetheless, Irish Catholic remained faithful to the celebration of the Mass and two new traditions emerged: the Mass rock and the Station Mass. Catholics gathered in the open countryside at a designed spot marked by a rock to celebrate Mass. Usually, the priest arrived in disguise and placed the sacred vessels on the rock while assigned locals kept a look-out from vantage points in the landscape from where they could see any approaching English militia.
The Irish countryside is still littered with these Mass rocks and they are still considered to be special sacred places. The alternative venue for Mass was in people's homes. Word was put about locally that Mass would be said in a particular house on a particular day. The neighbours would gather for what was often the only opportunity to be at Mass for a long time. Because it was not safe for the priest to carry sacred vessels or vestments with him on his journeys, these were taken care of by the local people. They passed the "Mass kit" from house to house as it was needed.
This Mass became known as the "station Mass" because of the random movement from place to place. In some areas, some houses became known locally as regular venues for Mass and became known as Mass houses. More of these emerged as the Penal Laws were repealed but the Catholic community still did not have resources to build enough churches. Gradually, during the first half of the 19th century, churches were built across the countryside to replace the Mass houses.
The Hedge Schools emerged out of the harshness of the infamous Penal Laws, passed between 1702 and 1719. One of the first of the Penal Laws specified that "no person of the popish religion shall publicly or in private houses teach school, or instruct youth in learning within this realm...." One commentator on this Penal Law said that "It was not merely the persecution of a religion, it was an attempt to degrade and demoralize a whole nation." A law so unjust as this pleaded to be defied and the Irish of the 18th century were equal to the challenge.
It was not that there were no schools in Ireland open to Roman Catholic children that led to the Hedge Schools. The English government sponsored schools but the majority of the Catholic population refused to use them. The government schools were clearly intended to proselytize and to Anglicize Ireland. As late as 1825, the Protestant hierarchy petitioned the King, saying "amongst the ways to convert and civilise the Deluded People, the most necessary have always been thought to be that a sufficient number of English Protestant Schools be erected, wherein the Children of the Irish Natives should be instructed in the English Tongue and in the Fundamental Principles of the True Religion."
The Irish who could afford the Hedgemaster's fee sent their children to Hedge Schools where Gaelic brehons, storytellers and musicians secretly taught Irish history, tradition, and told tales of the Irish children's ancestry. Popular history places these schools under ruined walls or in dry ditches by the roadside. Some lessons, no doubt, were taught in the shadow of a hedge while others were taught in barns. Some schools even had names, such as the Moate Lane School where Edmund Rice, founder of the Irish Christian Brothers, received his education. Some were even more comfortable than the state sponsored Diocesan and Charter schools and held to a higher standard of instruction, including classical training in Ovid and Virgil.
The hedge schools remind me a little of our contemporary home schools, which, of course, are not so rustic and not forbidden. It is amazing what determined Catholic parents can do when they place their children's faith above everything else, with God's help. Share