THE WORKS OF WILLIAM CARLETON.
TRAITS AND STORIES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY
THE HEDGE SCHOOL.
There never was a more unfounded calumny, than that which would impute to the Irish peasantry an indifference to education. I may, on the contrary, fearlessly assert that the lower orders of no country ever manifested such a positive inclination for literary acquirements, and that, too, under circumstances strongly calculated to produce carelessness and apathy on this particular subject. Nay, I do maintain, that he who is intimately acquainted with the character of our countrymen, must acknowledge that their zeal for book learning, not only is strong and ardent, when opportunities of scholastic education occur, but that it increases in proportion as these opportunities are rare and unattainable. The very name and nature of Hedge Schools are proof of this; for what stronger point could be made out, in illustration of my position, than the fact, that, despite of obstacles, the very idea of which would crush ordinary enterprise—when not even a shed could be obtained in which to assemble the children of an Irish village, the worthy pedagogue selected the first green spot on the sunny side of a quickset-thorn hedge, which he conceived adapted for his purpose, and there, under the scorching rays of a summer sun, and in defiance of spies and statutes, carried on the work of instruction. From this circumstance the name of Hedge School originated; and, however it may be associated with the ludicrous, I maintain, that it is highly creditable to the character of the people, and an encouragement to those who wish to see them receive pure and correct educational knowledge. A Hedge School, however, in its original sense, was but a temporary establishment, being only adopted until such a school-house could be erected, as it was in those days deemed sufficient to hold such a number of children, as were expected, at all hazards, to attend it.
The opinion, I know, which has been long entertained of Hedge Schoolmasters, was, and still is, unfavorable; but the character of these worthy and eccentric persons has been misunderstood, for the stigma attached to their want of knowledge should have rather been applied to their want of morals, because, on this latter point, were they principally indefensible. The fact is, that Hedge Schoolmasters were a class of men from whom morality was not expected by the peasantry; for, strange to say, one of their strongest recommendations to the good opinion of the People, as far as their literary talents and qualifications were concerned, was an inordinate love of whiskey, and if to this could be added a slight touch of derangement, the character was complete.
On once asking an Irish peasant, why he sent his children to a schoolmaster who was notoriously addicted to spirituous liquors, rather than to a man of sober habits who taught in the same neighborhood,
"Why do I send them to Mat Meegan, is it?" he replied—"and do you think, sir," said he, "that I'd send them to that dry-headed dunce, Mr. Frazher, with his black coat upon him, and his Caroline hat, and him wouldn't take a glass of poteen wanst in seven years? Mat, sir, likes it, and teaches the boys ten times betther whin he's dhrunk nor when he's sober; and you'll never find a good tacher, sir, but's fond of it. As for Mat, when he's half gone, I'd turn him agin the country for deepness in learning; for it's then he rhymes it out of him, that it would do one good to hear him."
"So," said I, "you think that a love of drinking poteen is a sign of talent in a school-master?"
"Ay, or in any man else, sir," he replied. "Look at tradesmen, and 'tis always the cleverest that you'll find fond of the drink! If you had hard Mat and Frazher, the other evening, at it—what a hare Mat made of him! but he was just in proper tune for it, being, at the time, purty well I thank you, and did not lave him a leg to stand upon. He took him in Euclid's Ailments and Logicals, and proved in Frazher's teeth that the candlestick before them was the church-steeple, and Frazher himself the parson; and so sign was on it, the other couldn't disprove it, but had to give in."
"Mat, then," I observed, "is the most learned man on this walk."
"Why, thin, I doubt that same, sir," replied he, "for all he's so great in the books; for, you see, while they were ding dust at it, who comes in but mad Delaney, and he attacked Mat, and, in less than no time, rubbed the consate out of him, as clane as he did out of Frazher."
"Who is Delaney?" I inquired.
"He was the makings of a priest, sir, and was in Maynooth a couple of years, but he took in the knowledge so fast, that, bedad, he got cracked wid larnin'—for a dunce you see, never cracks wid it, in regard of the thickness of the skull: no doubt but he's too many for Mat, and can go far beyant him in the books; but then, like Mat, he's still brightest whin he has a sup in his head."
These are the prejudices which the Irish peasantry have long entertained concerning the character of hedge schoolmasters; but, granting them to be unfounded, as they generally are, yet it is an indisputable fact, that hedge schoolmasters were as superior in literary knowledge and acquirements to the class of men who are now engaged in the general education of the people, as they were beneath them in moral and religious character. The former part of this assertion will, I am aware, appear rather startling to many. But it is true; and one great cause why the character of Society Teachers is undervalued, in many instances, by the people, proceeds from a conviction on their parts,