John Cunnigham Page 1 3/24/2016
“Times will never be good till poor men leave off whiskey and poor women tea” – A look at Fermanagh’s Early Formal Education from a social perspective.
John McEvoy in his Statistical Survey of Tyrone writes in 1802 “When children are able to perform any sort of work, such as herding of cattle, they are then taken from school.” Children provided a major part of the labour force in the 19th century. Their labour and the income it provided were vital for the family’s existence thus education was for those who could afford it, both in paying for it and in the loss of income which the child’s labour could have generated. The purpose of this article is to get some idea of early education in Fermanagh, the motives of those providing it, the means of delivering it and some thoughts on its impact.
Today education is seen largely in terms of fitting out children for jobs in later life. However the early providers of formal education just over two hundred years ago saw education principally and, especially for the masses, as a means of saving their souls. In a sense they were being educated for the next world rather than this world and concern was often expressed lest the masses be educated above their station in life. “The Church of England, like most denominations, has claimed the right to supervise education in the interests of perpetuating the faith.” [i] The same can be writ large over Irish education.
Formal education in Fermanagh probably begins with the establishment of the Fermanagh Royal Free School now usually referred to as Portora Royal School. By order of the Privy Council in 1608, Royal Schools were to be established as free places of education in connection with the confiscated lands of Ulster, “for the education of youth in learning and religion” After a brief sojourn in Lisnaskea the school was built near the present Enniskillen Cathedral c 1643. It was moved to Portora in c1777 and educated both Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. However, in 1891, the Roman Catholics took their half of the endowments to educate their own children separately. Why this was necessary is unclear since many Catholics went through Portora to become priests and even bishops e.g. Rev. Edward Kernan, bishop of Clogher 1824-44 and native of Enniskillen was educated at Portora.
An act of 1709 made it an offence, punishable by immediate transportation, for any catholic to teach school publicly or privately. This act was not repealed until 1792. All teachers other than those of the Established Church were proscribed under the Penal Laws. This applied to Catholics and Presbyterians alike and a list of illegal Catholic Schools in Clogher shows that in 1731 there were 14 illegal Popish Schools in the Diocese of Clogher with 4 Popish Schoolmasters in the town of Clogher (Tyrone), 3 in Clones and Galloon, 2 in Cleenish and one each in Monaghan Town, Donagh, and Magheraculmoney. [ii] In 1779 Presbyterians were officially allowed to become teachers and in 1782 Catholics were likewise allowed. In 1733 The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in Ireland got a Royal Charter to solicit funds and build schools to educate poor Protestants and proselytise poor Catholic children. [iii]
Protestant and Catholic religious buildings were often the focus of early education. James Murphy, Bishop of Clogher, 1801-1824 writes in 1814 of the building of “upwards of thirty good chapels … within these twenty eight years and there are two more on hands at present.” [iv] These chapels were typically a square slated house unadorned apart from a set of the stations of the cross inside and a bare earthen floor without seats or pews. The people often gathered inside the chapel to gossip, exchange news and do business before the priest arrived to say mass. The building also functioned as a meeting place for clergy and laity and for catechism teaching. In addition, “Where ever there was a chapel the school was held in a chapel. The scholars made basses of straw and sat on them and wrote on their knees. They kindled the turf outside and brought it inside and put it in a hole to heat the scholars.” [v]
The revenue of the parish priests of Clogher varied according to the wealth of their parishioners and their own private property which they inherited from their families. Of the 36 Parish priests in 1800, four or five had slightly more than £100, four less than £50 and the rest earned between £60 and £90. They were relatively well off. On the other hand the curates eked out a miserable existence. They got their “keep” from the parish priest which was invariably miserly or from a special collection of the parish. Curates frequently had to seek additional income and often this was through education. Fr. John Keenan who was curate in Glasslough in 1814 was unable to live without the profits he derived from running a school.[vi]
It is a misconception to think that Ireland, especially Roman Catholic Ireland, in the late 18th and early 19th century was largely a society of oral culture. Books were common and often locally produced in Ireland and they were freely available through the travelling chapman. Hundreds of chapmen roamed the towns, villages and countryside selling ribbons, needles, toys, combs, mirrors, stockings, knives, scissors, coloured pictures, pepper, cloth and small items of clothing and a wide range of chapbooks. Ballad sheets and the printed last speeches of criminals were also sold. These men generally followed a regular route and built up a knowledge of what did and did not sell therefore the books they carried for sale represented the tastes of his customers. The smaller variety of chapbook were known as sheet books where a single sheet of paper was folded to make a booklet of 16 or 32 pages and which generally sold for 1 penny. Those for children were about 5 ½ inches by 3 ½ inches and contained from 4 to 24 pages and depending on illustrations and quality of cover sold from a few farthings to a shilling and they were sold in thousands. One Enniskillen chapman was Lauturnal Hudson who lived in Eden Street.
These books were a weird and wonderful collection of which we find evidence in the report of the Commissioners of Education in 1825. Henry Cook, a Presbyterian schoolmaster of County Derry tells the Commissioners of only three school-books used, Manson’s Primer and Spelling Book and Fenning’s Universal Spelling Book but goes on to list 14 other books used in schools including Valentine and Orson, Irish Rogues and Raparees, Chineese Tales, Lilliputian Magazine, Seven Champions of Christendom and Destruction of Troy and History of Captain Freney, a robber to name a few. A further selection of school texts which he came across in his education is given by the writer, William Carleton. These included The Battle of Aughrim, the Forty Thieves, Robin Hood’s Garland (a Garland was a book containing several ballads), The most pleasing and delightful history of Reynard the fox and the Garden of Love. [vii] The Lilliputian Magazine and the Youth’s Instructor were two of the most popular childrens’ books in the 18th century and mentioned as such to the Commissioners in their report of 1825 as being popular in the Hedge Schools. The former was subtitled, The young gentleman and lady’s golden library, being an attempt to mend the world, and contained stories, jests, riddles and songs. It was published in London in 1752 and subsequently a Belfast edition appeared in 1775. This edition omitted all illustration, substituted a prayer instead of the original preface and had prayers and hymns added to it. The Youth’s instructor had a similar content and had local editions published from 1768 to 1780. Similar books were the foundation of early school education in Fermanagh.
The demand for the ability to read increased in the 1700s with the arrival of newspapers in Ulster. There had been papers in Dublin from the late 1600s but the first in Ulster was the Belfast Newsletter in 1737. It began as a single sheet printed on both sides and then rose to a four page format which it held for over a hundred years. The Northern Star, 1792-1797, the organ of the United Irishmen, was also published in Belfast and eagerly read for its political content in the period up to the 1798 Rebellion. Its presses were wrecked by the Monaghan Militia in 1797. Thomas Paine was one of the great influences on the United Irishmen and others and between March 1791 and February 1792 he published numerous editions of his Rights of Man, in which he defended the French Revolution against the attacks by Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. But it was more than a defence of the French Revolution it was an analysis of the roots of the discontent in Europe and which he attributed to arbitrary government, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and war. It was originally priced at 3 shillings but despite this it sold 50,000 copies in a few weeks. Later it appeared in a 6d edition and was read and quoted by almost everyone. Developments like these provided powerful incentives for adults as well as children to learn to read. The Belfast Newsletter reckoned that about six people read each of its editions and the reality may have been many more for any paper or pamphlet. The paper would have been read aloud in an inn and by the fireside, debated over and re-read many times until it physically disintegrated.
Religious literature was a steady seller for the itinerant chapman. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress sat easily in any religious camp but most were by popular nonconformist authors. Common Prayer books, the Protestant Dissenter’s catechism and Bibles sold well. From the 1790s onward a new form of religious work came to be sold or given away in Ireland – the religious tract. These were aimed at the poor by their social and economic betters who no doubt felt themselves to be their moral and religious betters also. The literary entertainment of the lower classes was seen to be a source of corruption to them and religious tracts were intended to counteract these and dispose them to “honesty, sobriety, industry, cleanliness and submission to the laws, instead of the contrary vices to which they were accustomed to be stimulated by their former course of reading, are truly incalculable.”[viii]
There is little to suggest that any of the books so far listed should be seen as a source of corruption to the lower orders but appearances could be deceptive. Much of the literature was escapist and set in far away places or in a chivalric style which allowed naughty bits to be written and immediately condemned after the little bit of titillation had been recounted. (See today’s popular newspapers). The Works of Aristotle, the famous philosopher, was a creation of an anonymous hack or hacks and had nothing to do with the famous philosopher of that name and was a straightforward sex book concerning procreation. It was full of totally errant sexual information such as how to beget a male or female child or how to foretell the sex of children. However, even a book such as the Seven Champions of Christendom containing tales of St. Patrick, St. David, St. George etc has satyrs dragging fair maidens away by the hair, saints resting themselves on their ladies’ fair bosoms and a staked out, naked, virgin, about to be raped by three deformed Moors. Even the most innocent sounding of titles, The most pleasing and delightful history of Reynard the fox, and which Carleton had read at school had its coarse humour. In the story King Lion has sent Sir Tybert , the cat, to bring Reynard the fox to court but Raynard has tricked the cat into a trap set by Martinet, the priest. Followed by Dame Jollocks, his wife, the priest and his son run down the stairs when the trap is sprung during the night and attempt to beat the life out of the cat “… which the cat perceiving, and finding what danger he was in, taking a desperate leap between the naked priest’s legs, with his claws and teeth caught hold of his genitals, and brought them clean away which made him a perfect eunuch, this Dame Jollock seeing, cried out most piteously, and swore she would rather have lost ten years offerings, than one small morsel of those precious jewels …. “ [ix]
The report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry in 1824 revealed that almost 400,000 children attended 9,352 pay schools in Ireland which are more popularly but largely inaccurately known as hedge schools. Some may have literally been held behind a hedge in the summer months but the reality of Irish weather dictates that this could not be done in the rain and cold of most of the year. They had their biggest attendance in the warmth of summer, were half attended in the heavy work periods of Spring and Autumn and almost deserted in the cold and frost of Winter. The more usual term for these schools in the Belleek area of Fermanagh was barn schools which more properly reflected the premises in which the schools were conducted although the term Hedge School was still used. In the 1824 Commissioners report Conagher school in Inishmacsaint Parish was conducted in an excavation in a turf bank covered with scraws. This school house had been erected at a cost of 6 shillings but it seems to have been popular as its master, James Timoney, was earning £15-10-0 per year. There were 19 schools in Fermanagh specifically mentioned as being carried on in barns.
Most school buildings in Fermanagh were described as indifferent, bad or very bad. The exceptions are therefore all the more interesting. (The school names are spelt as in the 2nd report of the Commissioners of Irish Educational Inquiry.) In Clones Parish, Ahadrumsee school cost £120 and Clogh £150-£200 and was held above a parish stable. Rabbit Island school in Drumkeeran Parish cost £44 and in Cleenish Parish, Belnalick School cost £22 and Skea was built for a princely £250 by its patron, Mr. George Hazzard. In Devenish Parish, Kilcoo School cost £32 and was built by Major Dunbar and Ely Lodge School cost £100 and was built by the Marquis of Ely. In Enniskillen, Portora Royal School, was estimated to have cost £4000, Windmill Hill School in Enniskillen cost £35 and was built by the master, Hugh Mc Guire. The Moat School in Aghalurcher Parish was two stories high, contained two school rooms and five private apartments and cost £500. In Derryvullan Parish, Tamlagh School cost £35 in Irvinestown the Erasmus Smith School was in a good two story slated house which had cost £300. In Magheracross Parish, Ballinamallard School cost £100. In Enniskillen many of the schools are indicated as being held in a room in a lodging house. There are 28 schools in Fermanagh described as “Bad” or “Very Bad” but it is impossible to say what exactly this means alongside the description, “a mere hovel” or how might one classify the 38 school houses built of sods or having mud walls.
In some accounts hedge schools have been highly praised as places of great learning where the teachers passed on their knowledge of Latin and Greek to those who would then go to the Continent to become priests. Since this was forbidden under the Penal Laws such education brought considerable risks to the teacher and the school was protected by a pupil or pupils on lookout. By June 18th, 1666 all Irish schoolmasters had to take the Oath of Allegiance and from the Penal Laws of 1695 after September 7th nobody other than those of the Established Church could open schools in Ireland or send children to school in Europe. The enduring image is as portrayed in these lines.
….crouching ‘neath the sheltering hedge,
Or stretch’d on mountain fern,
The teacher and his pupils met
Feloniously to learn.
Lord O’Hagan: The New Spirit of the Nation. P16
This rather daring and romantic view of education of the time is a contrast to other accounts where the schools are conducted in squalor and educational anarchy. A single teacher might well be struggling with a hundred or more pupils crammed into a thatched hovel dug into a roadside hill. The truth usually lies somewhere in between as most schools were private initiatives and lasted as long as there were enough pupils paying to make it economically viable. Simon Macken, the Fermanagh scribe and schoolmaster is earning £80 per year according to the 1825/6 report. He taught in a room in a lodging house and most of his pupils were Protestant although he was a Catholic. His fees were obviously high and most other teachers were earning around £10 per annum. Most schools were quasi-parochial schools that had to charge fees to survive. The 2nd Report of the Commissioners of Education 1826 records 240 schools in Fermanagh which include Portora Royal School, the Vaughan Charitable Charter School near Kesh, a Classical School in Maguiresbridge run by the Rev. James Ewing and a night school in Enniskillen. In this number only eleven schools were free schools and the rest pay schools. One of the free schools was the school inside Enniskillen Jail. Of those listed as Master or Mistress of the schools 102 were Protestant and of these 4 were Presbyterians and the remaining 138 were Roman Catholic making a total of 240. There were 20 female teachers and 220 male teachers. Three schools were listed as having both a male and a female teacher and two of these were apparently husband and wife or brother and sister. One pair were not related at least according to their names.
Six of the schools were conducted in Church, Meeting House or Chapel. Cunnin School in Drumkeeran Parish, Farnaconnell in Boho Parish, Mitchell Chapel School in Derryvullen Parish and Coa School in Magheracross Parish were all in Roman Catholic Chapels. On Main Street, Enniskillen a school was held in the ruinous Vestry Room of the Presbyterian Meeting House and leased by the Roman Catholic schoolmaster, Michael Sharkey. The school room for Castle Balfour School was held in the porch of Lisnaskea Church of Ireland. The school income for the Master or Mistress of the institution varied enormously from the incredible £1,300 of the Rev. Andrew O’Beirne of Portora Royal School to £3-10-0 which Charles Kerrigan got for teaching in a cow house in Glencart School in Inishmacsaint Parish. Many of the salaries are marked “not ascertained” but leaving out the Portora Headmaster’s salary the rest of the teachers earned about £10 per annum.
The vast majority of schools were attended by both Established Church and Roman Catholic children in Fermanagh in the mid 1820s. Only 8 were attended solely by Roman Catholics and only 10 by Protestants alone. However none of the religious bodies were content with this situation. By every means possible they tried to develop their own sectarian school system and by the end of the 20th century were overwhelmingly successful in this. Whether this has been to the benefit of Irish society is a matter for individual judgement.
One aspect of education generally overlooked in early education is the role of the Sunday School movement. From the appendices to the Annual Report 1817 p33 comes this indication of their development in Fermanagh. “Corlave, County Fermanagh (near Kesh) 13th June, 1816. At first we found it hard to get on; the children were hard to govern, but upon receiving the Hints (Hints were advice on how to run a Sunday School)[x] from you, it enabled us to strike out a much better plan, and we have order and prosperity now. During the Winter I had often thought about dismissing the school till 1st of March, but seeing the willingness of the children to come through the frost and snow barefooted, and some of them having very little clothing on them, so that seeing the children so united to the school we thought it best to teach on.
Initially there was much cooperation between Protestants and Roman Catholics “to ensure that the poor of any background should receive the kind of help offered by the Sunday Schools.” [xi] Many pupils and even some teachers were Catholics and Catholics often helped towards the cost of school buildings. By 1830 such support was disapproved of by the Catholic Church and in some cases parents were asked to remove their children. From the 1835 report “A great number of Roman Catholic children attended the school until lately, when many of them were withdrawn, owing to the interference of the priest, who has been lately appointed to the Parish. Several of the parents in the neighbourhood have refused to obey these orders and I have reason to believe that all the bibles and testaments granted by your society are studied at home by those families, even those who have been withdrawn.” [xii]
The Sunday School classes consisted of reading the Bible, the Testament only, reading lessons in spelling books 1&2, spelling words of many syllables, fewer syllables, hearing the alphabet or monosyllables. The price list from “Hints for Conducting Sunday Schools” 1822 shows that Bibles cost 2s-2p, Testaments 6p, Spelling book No1, 1p, bound in linen 2p, spelling book No 2, 2p and bound in linen 3p. The invaluable “Hints” itself cost 2 shillings. Prizes were given at the Sunday Schools and these included Bibles or Testaments, plain useful clothing, the privilege of being allowed to borrow books from the Sunday School Library, admission to a weekly school, probably in the evening when arithmetic was taught, a recommendation to the Gentry for service or a testimonial on leaving school to help gain employment. These were powerful incentives to learn and an interesting mix of present and future benefits.
The growth of Sunday Schools in England and Ireland was spectacular. In 1780 Robert Raikes opened the first Sunday Schools in Gloucester. He was the evangelical proprietor of the Gloucester Journal and became the foremost publicist for the movement. He saw himself as leading a great social rescue campaign by getting street urchins to come to his schools. He claimed dramatic results. He said that the urchins became church-going Christians, they acquired a respect for rank, property and good order and he boasted that for the first time in living memory no case was waiting to be tried at Gloucester Court Assizes. Some of these early Gloucester Sunday Schools seem more like correctional institutions than schools. In 1863 an old attendee at these early schools recalled “some terrible bad chaps went to school when I first went … I know the parents of one or two of them used to walk them to school with 14 lb weights tied to their legs … to keep them from running away. Some were sent to school with logs of wood tied to their legs or were strapped all the way there. The children did not want to spend their one free day of the week in a classroom but of greater interest is the attitude of parents who were showing such ruthlessness in trying to get their children some form of education.
Many thought it very dangerous to educate the lower orders at all as it would only make them discontented, disrespectful of their betters in terms of property and position and ultimately harder to govern. The usual diet of those of the lower orders who could read were “Chap Books” filled with tales of blood and guts, highwaymen etc but in addition Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” sold in large numbers in the 1790s and were read by those who had been taught to read in the Sunday Schools. Many pointed this out to the promoters of education. To refute these unsettling ideas and to form a bulwark against seditious ideas one notable lady, Hannah Moore, and her friends began to produce “cheap repository tracts” in 1795 which was a new form of literature. These were moral tales and ballads attractively illustrated and resembled the traditional reading material of the masses, the chap books. They had a vast circulation for their time and about 2 million were sold or given away in one year. The aim of the Sunday School and of the Tracts were to teach religion to poor children disguised in the garb of the chap books.
Some assessment of the hunger for learning to read can be seen in the 1825 Sunday Schools Report. One particular Sunday School mentioned in the 1825 report was set up by a benevolent and pious man. He assembled the children in a room in his own house and when that apartment became too small for the numbers who crowded into it, he was obliged to adjourn to his hay-yard where he collected the classes under the haycocks. Pitying the little ones who came without shoes or stockings in the frost and snow he used to desire them to pull out the hay until it reached their knees and so to keep themselves warm. In another case “Yesterday, Sunday, the ground was deeply covered with snow, yet, just at daylight, 105 young people assembled in the schoolroom at Dungiven. A great many of these had come more than two miles in the moonlight, and several of them were without shoes.” [xiii]
The overwhelming emphasis on religious and moral education in time provoked a reaction. Henry Dunn, secretary to the British and Foreign School Society wrote in his influential “Principles of Education” in 1838, “For the absurdities of those who would confine the education of the labouring classes to religious instruction alone, I am not responsible. I have no sympathy with notions so narrow and selfish. He went on to add that Religious education could only succeed if children were taught to live in this world as well as the next. [xiv]
The provision of Catholic education was felt increasingly necessary on account of the activities of Protestant proselytising educational organizations and probably in competition to the Sunday School movement. These included the Kildare Place Society, the London Hibernian Society and the Association for the Discountenancing of Vice. They provided finance for teachers’ salaries and books and equipment for the school provided the children were read the Authorized Version of the Bible. Under the heading of Societies, Associations etc. with which the school is connected the Commissioners in their 1824 report notes that 15 Fermanagh schools were being aided by the Kildare Place Society, 7 of them in conjunction with the London Hibernian Society who additionally aided 50 schools on its own and one in conjunction with the London Female Society. The Association Incorporated for Discountenancing Vice and Promoting the Knowledge and Practice of the Christian Religion founded in 1792 aided 3 Fermanagh schools and the London Female Society for educating the female poor of Ireland one school at Spring Grove, Roslea.
Proper school books as we might term them today came with the Kildare Place Society. This society, the Society for the Promotion of Education in Ireland, founded in 1811 and named after the location of its headquarters, produced its first book in 1813. This was the Dublin Spelling Book followed shortly after by the Dublin Reading Book. They were first produced as large wall charts with 60 of the former and 100 of the latter being considered suitable for a school of 2/300. Their tone was moral and religious; exhorting social improvement, “Times will never be good till poor men leave off whiskey and poor women tea.” was exhorted in “The History of Richard Mc Ready, the Farmer Lad” p28 from an early Kildare Place Society book. This society eventually lost its Government grant in 1831 but it was the working model for the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland.
A landmark was reached in Irish education in 1931 when the Government set up a fund to provide national schools. The Commissioners of Education were willing to supply low cost books, contribute towards desks and other school equipment, provide money towards teachers’ salaries and most handsomely of all to contribute two thirds towards the cost of erecting a new school. It was hoped/expected that the schools would cater for all religious denominations in the local community and lists of Protestant and Catholic clergy and laity generally accompanied an application especially where both communities were fairly balanced on a religious basis. Many Protestant clergy opposed the national school system but their laity was conspicuously in support of it as seen in their signatures of support. Access for all clergy to the school had to be guaranteed and permission given for parents to exclude their children from religious education. The local contribution of one third of the cost of the school building was generally accepted in the form of labour and materials. Religious education was usually undertaken on a Saturday or after official school hours that were solely given to lay instruction. There were to be no devotional objects on display in the school.
Building a school was generally a community activity. The landlord frequently gave the site free and the building was erected by voluntary labour. Farmers lent horses and carts to transport sand and stones and often a small quarry was opened nearby to raise the building stone. The site of the school was governed by the closeness of suitable building material and often built adjacent to a small stream. Toilets were built over the stream to provide the “flush” in these rudimentary ablutions. Funds came occasionally from bequests but more usually from the preaching of charity sermons, chapel gate collections and pew rentals in the chapel.
School equipment was of the most basic kind. They frequently had no desks and planks on stones were common for sitting on or seats borrowed from the nearby chapel. Thatched roofs often leaked and generally the school had a mud floor. The fire was often in the centre of the floor with a hole in the roof acting as a chimney. In the winter the children took turns to cluster about the fire and then rotated with those furthest away from the heat. School lunch was often a potato or two pushed into the hot coals until cooked. Frequently the building of new chapels by Catholic communities put school building plans on hold or curtailed the education then provided. Bantry Free School was forced to dismiss the school mistress while the community paid for the new church and left the schoolmaster to teach 150 boys and 100 girls. [xv]
The Commissioners of National Education introduced books on domestic and vocational training as time went by. Boys were inculcated in farming and girls in domestic economy. In 1842 the 9th Report of the Commissioners pointed out that the vastly greater part of Irishmen relied almost entirely on small holdings for a livelihood, “which exhibit proofs of the worst possible cultivation and scenes of appalling want.” Another innovation was the introduction of Geography books intended for the children of the poor. These were factual books rather than exciting and full of lists of town, rivers and the location of industries. Exposure to even minimal geographical information must have had an influence on emigration especially when allied to the influence of emigrant letters. One of the major reasons why so much geography, tales of the animal and vegetable kingdom etc came to dominate school texts was the unsleeping suspicion of the religious groups. The National System produced a Third Book of Lessons with a story of a young girl tempted to steal some grapes for her sick mother. She successfully resisted the temptation but tells a woman who tells her not to worry as God will forgive her. The Catholic authorities objected saying that she should have been advised to confess to a priest.XV1
Arising from these Geography books came many of the national stereotypes which are still alive and well today and can still be seen in the popular British press. From the point of view of self-confident Victorian Britain others were judged – Britain and British behaviour of course being normal. It would be hilarious if it were not so serious and the consequences so pervasive down to the present day. The Irish were lively and clever but ignorant, formerly given to drink but latterly one of the soberest nations in Europe. The Lowlanders of Scotland were steady, industrious and literate while the Highlanders were poor, intelligent and banded themselves together in clans. The Welsh were fond of music (apparently their only saving grace) while the Belgians were lively, talkative but hot-tempered. The Dutch were sedate and slow but contented and hard-working while the Swedes were brave and honest. For their sins (and how did they manage to offend Victorian Britain?) the Lapps were ignorant, cowardly, indolent and dirty but harmless while the Russians were proud but less ignorant and barbarian than they had been in the past. The Germans were contented, quiet and industrious and the Italians indolent but clever and ingenious. [xvi]
The building of Workhouses with the coming of the Irish Poor Law System provided Fermanagh pupils with five new schools. Three of these were in Fermanagh at Irvinestown, Enniskillen and Lisnaskea while Clones and Ballyshannon, at either end of Fermanagh catered for large areas of the county also. Boards of Guardians were, however, sometimes reluctant to spend money on even the most basic equipment such as writing slates. Occasionally, it was even questioned whether pauper children even needed to be taught basic literacy. In 1839 the Guardians of Pershore Union decided that “it is quite unnecessary to teach the children in the union workhouse the accomplishment of writing” However, they were forced to change their minds in 1844 when the Parish Apprentices Act demanded that “pauper apprentices be able to read and write their own names unaided”. The quality of the education provided in workhouse classrooms varied considerably, but in some cases was probably better than was available in other types of school. Teachers were paid £5 p.a. plus food and lodgings and preference was given to young unmarried males.
In the early days of education in the 19th century virtually anyone could become a teacher if sufficient parents were willing to pay him or her to teach their children. Widows with a smattering of education could take up teaching and crippled soldiers or sailors might try their hand also. Many young Irishmen began their teaching career as “poor scholars”. They learned all they could at their local school and then travelled with their satchel of books on their backs to other schools of repute to learn more until they felt they had sufficient knowledge and skill to found their own schools or take over from someone else. During this time they had to eke out a precarious existence probably teaching the children of the house they lodged in as payment for their keep. Lady Chatterton met some poor scholars on her tour of Ireland in 1838 and described them as “that interesting race who feed their minds with the crumbs of learning that fall from the hedge schools, and their bodies with the stray potatoes they pick up in the farmhouses.”
Some teachers had training in model schools such as those set up by the Kildare Place Society and later the National Model School system but individual teachers often set out their own stall in printed broadsheets or in advertisements in the local papers. All undertook to teach the 3 Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic and the fees for these were fairly standard. However those who claimed an ability to teach Mathematics or Surveying for example could well demand four or five times the quarterly rate demanded for the more mundane subjects. The rote learning system lent itself to arithmetic and especially tables and with such success that another writer claimed that arithmetic was the “Irishman’s hobby.” [xvii]
Teachers’ pay depended on the prosperity of the locality and the standing and appreciation of the teacher’s knowledge in the area but it was still a struggle to get the fees from the parents. The coming of the National School system was seized as a golden opportunity by all clergy but particularly the Catholic clergy to have schools virtually built free and to have teachers paid for them. The applications for aid often show that the local priest wished to overthrow the local pay school with his own National school where he would be in control as he wasn’t necessarily so in a pay school. On the other hand the existing school and schoolmaster and school very often simply became a National School. The community now benefited by not having to pay fees directly to the teacher or indirectly through church gate collections etc. “When eventually the priest did control Irish schools, secular education did not change, for while the priest who was invariably the school manager too, saw to it that his children had proper religious instruction he displayed complete indifference to what went on otherwise.” Xviii
Down until recent times the annual visitation of the Diocesan Religious Inspector to schools was a much feared feature of school life for both pupil and teachers. Regardless of ability children were forced (in Catholic schools from personal experience) to learn off by heart great and largely unintelligible chunks from the old Green Catechism – clerical gobblegook. Liberal and indeed excessively liberal amounts of corporal punishment were administered in the run up to the feared exam which took over the whole school curriculum for months before the event. Invariably the teacher has been blamed for the corporal punishment but few of the pupils made the connection that it was being imposed at the imperious behest of, and full knowledge of the clergy.
The salary grant to National School teachers was supposed to augment the teacher’s income from fees but the difficulty in collecting them got even worse when this new government grant became available. The National School grant was soon taken to be the teacher’s salary and payment of fees disappeared with a subsequent considerable lowering of teachers’ incomes. Often the priest undertook to finance a number of free places in the school but this too often provoked trouble when the teacher never received the promised fee money. The vast majority of teachers were poor, but poor in common with most of their community, and their income was often supplemented by eggs, potatoes or chickens donated by grateful or expectant parents – expectant in the sense of expecting much from the teacher teaching their children.
Not a lot is known of the early methods of teaching but oral repetition was the main method employed especially in the early stages. This repetition was called “rehearsing” and was still employed down to recent times where children learned their tables in a sort of sing-song fashion. Many would still approve of this learning by repetition despite its numerous detractors but it certainly worked. Before regular school readers were developed each child read to the teacher from whatever books were available. As we have seen these spanned a very broad spectrum indeed. Children read aloud to the teacher and to themselves and each other and the result must have been bedlam to listen to, when all were chiming together. Visitors often commented unfavourably on the books they found the children reading but this paled beside the burning desire of most children to learn to read and the parents pride in their children mastering this skill which few of them had themselves. Down to the recent past it was still a matter of scorn to refer to someone who was so illiterate as never gotten beyond the Third Reading Book.
As time went on and emigration grew letter writing was the only means scattered families could communicate and it was vital to have a skilled reader in every house. Otherwise the postman or a neighbour had to be employed to read the important letters from England or America. Reading the letter was often a social occasion for all the neighbours or the focus of the ceiling group who came to the house at night. The letter might be read several times to make sure all the news had been gleaned from it and then the news would be talked over for hours or even days after as the information the letter contained wafted through the whole community.
Latin and Greek were taught in some of the hedge schools to prepare boys for entrance to university and ecclesiastical colleges on the Continent. Sir James Caldwell of Castle Caldwell, near Belleek, wrote in 1764: “In order to qualify the children for foreign service, they are all taught Latin in schools kept in poor huts, in many places in the southern part of the country.” The hedge schools have some share in the decline of the Irish language as do the National Schools when they came into being but it is far too simplistic to blame the schools as there were many other factors at work. English was the language of the fairs and markets and of currency. Those who wished to emigrate or go to England for the harvest all needed English and parents wanted their children to have this skill. There was active discouragement of Irish in schools and many a child was severely dealt with for their inability to converse, write and figure in English but like many another thing in schools, then and now, it was thought to be for their own good. The only common books in Irish were the Bible and some devotional books. Priests in Maynooth from areas of the country where Irish was still strong had to take Irish as a compulsory subject.
The National Schools were even more influential in reducing the use of Irish as the whole curriculum and the means of instruction were all in English and most importantly it was in English that the School Inspectors examined the children. Correct answers given in Irish were of no use especially since few Inspectors had any Irish themselves. The decline in the speaking of Irish can be seen from about 2 million in 1830 to less than one million in 1871.
The majority of hedge schoolmasters and his successors were looked up to in the local community for apart from teaching the local children he wrote letters for their parents, made wills, supplied advice on legal and other matters, arbitrated in disputes and generally occupied an important role. He taught the children their religion and organised the local choir and acted as master of ceremonies at dances and concerts. Next to the local landlord, the minister and the priest he was the most important local personage. In essence he was by far the more approachable of the four and his influence was often as powerful as any of them. A favourite pastime of the locals after church was to stand around in hearing distance of the teachers as they discussed the news of the day at the same time giving a virtuoso performance of the English language full of big words and florid sentences.
Much has been said of the hedge schoolmaster’s shortcomings. It is alleged, often with truth, that he was fond of drink to excesses, he was harsh with his pupils, his attainments were little or nothing, that he was nearly as ignorant as his own scholars, that he spread disaffection to constituted authority especially that of the landlord and sometimes also that of the priest or minister, his morals were questionable and he was the centre of rustic iniquity according to many. Most of these failings/sins were widespread in any local community but always apparently more worth of note in the schoolteacher than the rest of the local population. One writer described the hedge schools as “receptacles of rags and penury, in which a semi-barbarous peasantry acquired the rudiments of reading, writing, Irish History and High Treason.”
In 1872 a system of Payment by Results was introduced partly to increase the meager pay of teachers and partly to increase their efficiency. The Commissioners of Education were well aware of the fact that most teachers were not making a living wage but said they had no objection to teachers having other jobs so long as they taught school during the prescribed hours. This meant that many teachers farmed, ran shops, took private pupils, surveyed land or even mended watches to increase their income. Poor pay was one of their main grievances but others included the power of arbitrary dismissal by the local manager generally the local priest or minister, the lack of any system of pensions and the difficulty of getting accommodation close to the school they taught in. Payment by Results had been brought into English Education ten years earlier by Robert Lowe, the vice-president of the Committee of Council on Education. This “enlightened” individual declared that if elementary education was not efficient, it would at least be cheap and that if it was not cheap, it would be efficient. Then as now much of education was ruled by people who knew very little about it at a practical level.
Catholic controlled primary education in Fermanagh began with the purchase of a former mill near the East Bridge. The building was converted to a primary school and Dean Boylan invited Mother Mary Joseph Jones the Superior of the Convent of Mercy in Sligo to open a branch house in Enniskillen. She brought five Sisters of Mercy with her and in June 1856 under the Commissioners of Education in Dublin opened the school. By December 1856 the roll call was 382. This development was welcomed by the Impartial Reporter 12th June 1856. “In the beginning of the week a female school was opened in the building at the East Bridge known as ‘the nunnery’. It is under six ladies of the Order of Mercy and already numbers more than 200 girls. To collect the wanderers of the back streets and give them any amount of education and moral training that may tend to preserve them from the dangers of a garrison town is an enterprise that we are sure Christians of all denominations and shades of opinion will regard with respect and good wishes. If a truly religious feeling be imparted and morality in after life assured, the children and parents of children will have cause to rejoice.”
Secondary education for girls was still some years away.The Christian Brothers had a secondary school at the East Bridge for boys in the 1870s and after they left the town there were several attempts to set up another Catholic boys’ secondary school. St. Michael’s Intermediate School was opened in 1903 under the Presentation Brothers. There were very few local Catholic boys at Portora at this time. It is also thought that the numbers of Catholics at Portora in the pre-1860 period (i.e. before the date of the earliest surviving Portora roll books) is sometimes exaggerated because people assume that if someone from Enniskillen went to Maynooth or another university at that time that they must have gone to Portora as it was the only secondary school in town.Of course many of the private schools educated people for university exams, as indeed did the primary schools, as can be seen from William Carleton’s works. Seamas McCanny (to whom I am indebted for this information on Enniskillen schools) in his article in the Spark some years ago traced a number of Simon Macken’s pupils (mostly Protestants) to Trinity College.
The early promoters of education in Fermanagh, echoed indeed by the words of the Impartial Reporter above, as elsewhere in Ireland, were mainly interested in promoting moral and religious improvement. The government eventually provided money but the big religious groups largely cornered this public finance to promote their own interests. There is a great stream of condescension running through early education and even up to the present day. In it is the assumption of social and religious groups that they know best for their assumed social and religious inferiors. Nobody asks the poor lest they be disabused of their assumptions. The Rev. William Foster, curate of Monea, writes in 1816 that every parent that is able sends their children to school but he adds, “The children of the poor, who have not clothes to go to school, remain at home uninstructed and unemployed; and when they come to such an age, as to be able to assist their parents, they are generally sent to labour.” It has ever been thus.
[i] The Social Content of Education 1808-1870 – A Study of the Working Class School Reader in England and Ireland. J. M. Goldstrom Irish University Press p 11
[ii] An Encyclopaedia of Irish Schools 1500-1800 by Robert E. Ward. Mellon Studies in Education Vol. 25. The Edwin Mellen Press Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter. p170.
[iii] Ibid from chronology of Irish Schools p22.
[iv] Clogher Record 1968 James Murphy, Bishop of Clogher, 1801-24 by Revd. Seosamh O Dufaigh, M.A. pp 452/3.
[v] Ibid Andrew Cox of Clontibret talking in the 1890s Clogher Record 1968 p 422.
vi Ibid Clogher Record 1968 p 453.
[vii] The Printed Word and the Common Man – Popular Culture in Ulster 1700-1900 J.R.R. Adams. Institute of Irish Studies 1987 pp 14-15
[viii] William Magee, A Sermon preached before the Association for Discountenancing Vice (Dublin, 1796), pp 71-2. The method of dispersal of these Tracts was to be through the gentry and clergy and from them to shopkeepers, peddlers and hawkers for sale.
[ix] Op cit. The Printed Word and the Common Man pp 52-53.
[x] To School Without Shoes” by Helen Clayton. A Brief history of the Sunday School Society for Ireland 1809-1927.
[xi] Ibid p17.
[xii] Ibid p19.
[xiii] Ibid p23 1825 Report.
[xiv] Op cit The Social Content of Education 1808-1870 p 109.
[xv] The Development of the National School System, 1831-40 by Mary Daly pp 153-4.
[xvi] Report of the House of Lord’s Committee to inquire into the practical working of the system of National Education in Ireland, p474, 1854, (525), XV, part 1, 1
xv11 Op cit, The Social Content of Education 1808-1870 p ?
[xvii] Glassford. Tours in Ireland p 66.
Xviii Op cit, The Social Content of Education p109.