Article MT042

For Want of Education:

The origins of the Hedge Schoolmaster songs

It is generally acknowledged that the quality of Irish Gaelic folksong lyrics is unusually high.  The reasons for this, however, have seldom been examined.  Understandably: many of the factors contributing to the excellence of Irish folk poetry are complex and can only be understood within the context of an equally complex social and political history.  Irish folksong in English, on the other hand, is often regarded as inferior to Gaelic folksong.  Yet it shares with the Gaelic repertoire the same complex origins, and in some cases poetic excellence, in at least one specific genre: the songs of the hedge schoolmaster.

This group of songs reflects influences in language and style that existed partly as a result of an important social and intellectual phenomenon of the eighteenth century: the disintegration of the Gaelic aristocracy and the compression of Catholic Irish society into what was, if not as Daniel Corkery would have it, 'a single peasant class' at least a more condensed, less rigidly defined social order than the one which preceded it.  On an artistic plane, this resulted in the convergence of the formerly distinct categories of aristocratic and folk or popular literature.  On an educational level, it contributed to the development of a highly democratic system of instruction known as the 'hedge school'.  Since many eighteenth-century Irish poets were at some time in their lives also hedge schoolmasters, these two developments were not unconnected; and both played a role in the generation of a new song type which tradition itself attributes to the hedge schoolmaster.

I have, in fact, found only a few references that positively indicate such an origin.  For example, P W Joyce in his Old Irish Folk Music and Songs attributes a song called The Cottage Maid to one 'Larry Dillon of Tipperary, a noted and successful classical teacher of the early part of the last [nineteenth] century.'   Similarly, Ulster song collector Sam Henry attributes Mudion River to a certain Master Mullan, ''The Big Master', an itinerant schoolteacher.'   Elsewhere, Henry credits another song, The Flower of Gortade, to a man named Kane, who lived near a noted hedge school in Co Derry and who, although not a schoolmaster himself, seems to have been profoundly affected 'by the proximity of so much learning.'   Many of the songs are of broadside origin - judging by their uneven quality, often the work of penny sheet hacks; still others are obviously the product of brilliant parodists.  More importantly, however, all the songs included in this category exhibit one or more 'literary' features which reflect the influence of the classical and Gaelic traditions.  And all share in the inheritance of learning left by the hedge school.

According to Patrick Dowling, the hedge schools - while in existence for some time before this period - first 'took root' in the early part of the eighteenth century.  The schools and corresponding 'city academies' arose, at least in part, to take the place of both lay and clerical schools suppressed first under Cromwell, and later more harshly under the Penal Code established during the reign of William III.  First introduced in 1695, the Penal Laws proscribed any form of Catholic education, thus effectively destroying any legal means of education for a predominantly Catholic native population.  Furthermore, many of the hereditary families of teachers (and poets) had by this time, like their patrons before them, fled to the continent.  After the passage of the Penal Laws, the remaining Catholic schools under the charge of religious orders also closed as the bishops and regular clergy were compelled to leave the country.  Thus, as Dowling observes:

The work of education was ... left mainly to the lay schoolmaster who was daring enough to risk his liberty in order to teach.  Schools were set up in remote and mountainous districts where danger of detection was least likely to be incurred, and where instruction might be carried on without serious or prolonged interruption.
The schools derived their name from the practise of conducting classes out of doors (to avoid implicating a local householder) in the shelter of a hedge or a grassy bank which served to obscure the teacher and his pupils and thus protect them from discovery.  Even later, when the laws were less strictly enforced and classes were routinely conducted in a hut or outbuilding, most people still referred to these rural academies as 'hedge schools'.  School terms were seasonal, occurring mainly during the summer and early autumn, and were subject to interruption at times when the demands of farm work kept children at home.  Because of this desultory schedule many schoolteachers were more or less itinerant.  Schoolmasters received their wages from the parents of each pupil, and for this reason hedge schools were often known as 'pay schools'.  The number of these schools increased greatly during the latter part of the eighteenth century, and they became so well-established that even after the abolition of the last of the Penal Laws in 1829 and the subsequent establishment of national schools, many continued well into the mid-nineteenth century.

The hedge schools placed great emphasis on the 'three Rs', and in the majority of schools these were probably the only subjects taught.  Knowledge of arithmetic was held in such high regard that schoolmasters frequently followed their signatures with the epithet, 'Philomath'.  Some schools, however, offered a much wider spectrum of subjects and attracted pupils with professional ambitions.  Latin and Greek, for example, were crucial to both legal and clerical studies, and many schoolmasters advertised themselves as classical instructors.  Irish language and (where it was offered) Irish classical literature were also popular subjects, and initially Irish was the usual medium of instruction.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, many schools placed as much or more emphasis upon the teaching of English, which had by that time become the favoured language of commerce.

The hedge schoolmaster has acquired nearly as much traditionality as the songs with which he is credited.  We know very little, in fact, about him, which is small wonder in view of the transient and semi-covert nature of his profession - and, indeed, in view of his ubiquity.  We find him variously depicted as an erudite scholar, an inflated pedant, and (particularly in the case of his female counterparts) a mere child-minder.  There is probably truth in all three views, for it is likely that the quality of instruction varied greatly from one school to the next.

There were, however, a number of schoolmasters whose qualifications were beyond reproach; at least one even received the offer of an honourary degree from the University of Dublin.  Another testimony to the quality of instruction offered by at least some hedge schools lies in the distinction of many of their one-time scholars.  Novelist William Carleton, mathematician James Thompson, Charles O'Conor of Belanagare (who read Ovid at the age of ten), Patrick Lynch, and Eoghan Rua Ó Súillabháin all received instruction in hedge schools.  Furthermore, the numerous reports by 'outside observers' on the standard of education in Ireland - particularly Munster - during this period were often highly favourable.  According to Arthur Young, writing in 1776:

Hedge Schools, as they were called (they might as well be termed ditch schools, for I have seen many a ditch full of scholars), are everywhere to be met with ... every child of the poorest family learning to read, write and cast accounts.
Dowling cites an anonymous writer in 1776 relating that the poor, ragged boy in Co Kerry who held his horse was 'well-acquainted with the best Latin poets'; and an Englishman of the same period described having met and conversed in Latin with two 'indigent schoolmasters' of the same county.  More ambivalently, Dr Smith (in his 1756 History of Kerry) wrote:
It is well known that classical learning extends itself, even to a fault, among the lower and poorer kind in this county; many of whom, to the taking them off more useful works, have greater knowledge in this way, than some of the better sort, in other places.
One factor which might account for the presence of at least some highly qualified hedge school teachers is the continuance of hereditary learned families, remnants of the dispossessed bardic tradition, some of whom may have turned to hedge schoolmastering to gain a livelihood.  How many of the major poets of the time had any connection with these hereditary families is unclear; but those who worked as schoolmasters, like Donncha Rua MacNamara, Brian Merriman, and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, must have had a profound effect on the communities in which they taught.

Notwithstanding the presence of such genuine scholars in the ranks of these pedagogues, the popular image of the hedge schoolmaster remains less than entirely flattering.  He is frequently portrayed as a conceited pedant, inclined to drink, and ludicrous in his use of the English language.  The accuracy of these characterisations is debatable; but the final item, the hedge schoolmaster's use of English, bears some discussion, as English is the language in which the Philomath composed his songs.

In The Deserted Village, Goldsmith presents a typical depiction of the hedge teacher's inflated verbiage: his schoolmaster utters 'words of learned length and thundering sound' to amaze 'the gazing rustics ranged around.'  The nineteenth-century Irish novelist William Carleton paints a similar picture of his own schoolmaster, Pat Frayne, whom he characterises in his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry as the loquacious Mat Kavanagh.  In one scene from a chapter called 'The Hedge School', Mat awakens with a hangover and, begging for a drink of water, exclaims: "I'm all in a state of conflagration; and my head - by the soul of Newton, the inventor of fluxions - but my head is a complete illucidation of the centrifugle motion, so it is."

While this outrageous speech is obviously a caricature, there is a basis for it in fact, for it reflects a practise also employed in Protestant schools of the time: the use of Latin as a medium for teaching English.  Latin had long been important in both the monastic and bardic schools and was, therefore, a logical tool for this end.  This practise, along with the schoolmaster's desire to impress his community and thus attract students, probably explains the highly Latinate flavour of his English vocabulary.  It is, in any case, one of the most marked characteristics of his songs, as illustrated by this verse from The Colleen Rue:

Kind sir, be easy and do not tease me with your false praises most jestingly;
Your dissimulation and invocation are vaunting praises alluring me.
I'm not Aurora or the goddess Flora, but a rural female to all men's view,
That's here condoling my situation; my appellation - the Colleen Rue.
This song reflects another distinguishing mark of the hedge schoolmaster song: the prolific and sometimes grandiloquent use of classical or learned allusion.  Again, as Akenson points out, classical knowledge of any kind would have been highly respected by the schoolmaster's community, and the use of learned allusion was yet another way in which he could display that knowledge.  Of course, some must have felt a strong temptation to indulge excessively in this kind of rhetoric - with humorous results.  Dowling quotes from a political speech in which Waterford schoolmaster James Nash delivered this fanciful challenge to Erin's enemies: "Let them come on, let them come on; let them draw the sword; and then woe to the conquered! - every potato field shall be a Marathon and every boreen a Thermopylae."

Some writers have found the hedge schoolmaster's liberal use of allusion and luxuriant Latin vocabulary distasteful, or at best simply ludicrous.  Frank O'Connor derisively describes the language of The Colleen Rue as 'Babu English'; while P W Joyce, observing that the schoolmaster composers knew English 'only imperfectly,' prefaces his transcription of The Cottage Maid with the remark that though many of these 'effusions' are 'absurd,' he feels compelled to include several as examples of 'this class of Anglo-Irish song.'   Dowling more tolerantly describes the hedge schoolmaster's language as a mixture of 'audacity, humour, and pedantry':

In the flow'ry month of May, when lambkins sport and play,
As I roved to receive recreation,
I espied a comely maid sequester'd in a shade,
On her beauty I gazed with admiration.
Had Alcides seen her face before Dejanira's grace,
He would ne'er be consumed in the cedars:
Nor would Helen prove the fall of the Grecian leaders all;
Nor would Ulysses be the Trojan invader.
Yet there is a whimsical genius in this kind of 'effusion' - as well as a strong element of play.  Moreover, many of the songs possess an underlying tone of self-mockery that belies their apparent ponderousness.  Certainly In Praise of the City of Mullingar is pure parody:
Ye nine, inspire me, and with rapture fire me
To sing the buildings, both old and new,
The majestic court-house, and the spacious workhouse,
And the church and steeple which adorn the view.
There's barracks airy for the military,
Where the brave repose from the toils of war;
Five schools, a nunnery, and a thriving tannery
In the gorgeous city of Mullingar.
Surely the composer of such a song must have been fully aware of its humour while at the same time savouring its 'audacity'.  Singers, at any rate, display such awareness.  Once, when I witnessed the formidable Len Graham - the trace of a smile on his lips - performing The Flower of Gortade, I could not help noticing the relish with which he delivered the lines:
Oh, were I as Homer that prince of the writers,
Who sang of Athenians and Spartans of old.
Could I paint with the skill of a Roman inditer
The fame of this fair one can never be told.
Penelope, Venus, Diana and Flora,
Whose beauty and chastity never can fade,
Fair Helen, Lucretia and famous Aurora;
Even these wouldn't equal the Flower of Gortade.
This penchant for classical allusion in Irish lyrics is not peculiar to the repertoire of the hedge schoolmaster.  It is characteristic of - and may in part have been a borrowing from - an eighteenth century poetic form whose influence is apparent in a number of hedge schoolmaster songs: the Gaelic aisling.

Aisling or 'vision' poetry is a form with an ancient lineage, put to novel use by the Irish poets of the eighteenth century as a vehicle for expressing political disaffection and Jacobite sympathies.  Gerard Murphy, in his article on aisling poetry, discusses three distinct sub-groups of the genre.  The first, which dates back to at least the eighth century, is the 'love' or 'fairy' aisling, which, Murphy notes, 'occurs at every stage of Irish literature.'  In this aisling, the narrator, while lying either asleep or newly wakened on his bed, is visited by a fairy woman, who enraptures him with her beauty.  In the second group, the equally ancient 'prophecy' aisling, the man, again asleep on his bed, receives a prophetic vision (often of success in battle), which may or may not be delivered by a woman.  The third group, the 'allegorical' aisling, did not emerge as a distinct genre until the eighteenth century, and its origins remain a matter of speculation.  Murphy suggests that it could either have developed from the older Irish aisling types, or - judging by the existence of an analogous thirteenth century Latin poem composed in France - could have existed as a 'sub-literary' European form for some time before its emergence into the Irish literary mainstream.  Seán Ó Tuama argues that the form was largely derived from medieval French models - particularly the reverdie.

But whatever their origins, these 'new' aislingí depict an encounter not unlike that of the love or prophecy aislingí.  However, the spéirbhean ('woman from heaven') they present is typically neither fairy nor mortal, but an allegorical personification of Ireland; also, unlike the fairy aisling, she appears to the sleeping poet not as he lies on his bed, but most often, as Murphy notes, 'in outdoor surroundings, beneath trees, or on a hillside, or beside a river.'  The poet questions her, asking if she is any one of a number of mythological beauties - Venus, or Deirdre, or Helen, or Cearnait.  She reveals herself to be none of these but rather crownless Ireland awaiting the return of the Stuart king, then prophesies success for the Jacobite cause.  Not all eighteenth-century aislingí follow this pattern precisely.  For example, some neglect the dream premise or the interrogation; others employ the basic framework but possess no allegorical or political connotations; still others retain the allegory, even the Jacobite allusions, but omit the final prophecy.  But whether more or less to type (the pattern most closely associated with Eoghan Ó Súilleabháin), the eighteenth century aisling was indisputably a well-established and much-exploited genre.

Daniel Corkery asserts that aislingí were 'the popular songs of the period.'  Seán Ó Tuama concurs that on the basis of what has been preserved in oral tradition 'it would seem that it was the aisling which made most impact on the popular mind.'  He adds, 'Much of this, one suspects, is due to the fact that many eighteenth-century poets began to reach a much wider audience by writing their lyrics to well-known musical airs.'  It is possible that these songs were disseminated partly through the 'courts of poetry', which sustained the poetic tradition after the dissolution of the bardic schools.  These literary assemblies or 'courts' sometimes convened in taverns or other community gathering places, where poets 'recited their compositions, exchanged manuscripts,' and, conceivably, sang their songs.  But whatever the means of transmission, aislingí, along with other 'poems of the dispossessed', entered the popular song tradition, irrevocably influencing both the quality and style of Irish folksong.  This influence must have extended to English, as well; for as English became increasingly prevalent, how could those acquainted with both languages resist imitating in the new tongue the poetic forms and styles of the old?

Political aislingí in the English language usually follow the allegorical aisling form fairly closely, with all the political significance intact - though often without the specifically Jacobite overtones.  These songs we know mainly from broadside manuscripts, e.g., The Patriot Queen and Erin's Green Shore:

One evening of late as I strayed, by the banks of yon clear silver stream,
I sat on a bank of primroses, where quickly I fell into a dream,
I dreamt that I met a young damsel, her equal I ne'er saw before,
She sighed for the wrongs of her country, as she strayed upon Erin's green shore. 
More common in tradition are songs in which the political and allegorical elements are conspicuously absent, but which share with the aislingí two distinguishing features.  The first is the descriptive opening, in which the narrator - again in an outdoor setting and now wide awake - ventures forth in the early morning or evening and encounters a woman of supernatural beauty.  The second feature is the narrator's interrogation of the woman, in which he imputes to her mythological status, following the formula which D K Wilgus has dubbed 'the goddess routine':
Are you Aurora, or the goddess Flora, Artemidora, or Venus bright,
Or Helen fair beyond compare, whom Paris stole from the Grecian sight?
Or, more outrageously,
Are you any of these dames who agreed to strip,
For Paris to view them on Ida's hill,
Where Vulcan's fair bride obtained the golden prize,
Which caused jealousy, spite, and dire revenge?
According to this formula, the woman denies divine origin; and afterwards, as Wilgus observes, 'the narrative can branch into almost any conceivable plot variation.'  Frequently, however, the action progresses no further, and the song ends in a rhapsodic tribute to the maiden's beauty.  Ó Tuama prefers to call such non-political songs in Gaelic reverdies léannta ('learnéd reverdies'), believing the 'goddess routine' to be not a hallmark of the aisling, but rather an independent poetic device sometimes included in both the reverdie and the aisling but integral to neither form.

I have dwelt upon the subject of the aisling and its near relations because so many of the hedge schoolmaster songs reflect their influence.  Even songs like The Star of Sunday's Well (O'Lochlainn 258-59) and The Flower of Gortade, which are neither aislingí nor reverdies léannta but rather catalogues of deities quoted to extol the virtues of some female subject, share with them a form of 'the goddess routine'.  Still others, like Lough Erne's Shore, come closer to being straightforward reverdies:

One morning as I went a fowling, bright Phoebus adorned the plain,
It was down by the shores of Lough Erne I met with this wonderful dame.
Her voice was so sweet and so pleasing, these beautiful notes she did sing,
The innocent fowl of the forest their love unto her they did bring.
Yet another song, Sheila Nee Iyer, is surely a brilliant parody of the hedge schoolmaster aisling.  In the first verse, the poet meets Sheila and asks her if she is 'Flora, or Aurora, or the famed Queen of Tyre?'   In reply, she tells him her name is Sheila Nee Iyer, and bids him to:
Go rhyming rogue, let my flocks roam in peace,
You won't find amongst them the famed Golden Fleece,
The tresses of Helen, that goddess of Greece,
Have hanked round your heart like a doll of desire,
Be off to your spéirbhean, said Sheila Nee Iyer.
Since a number of established poets were also hedge schoolmasters, it is tempting to ask whether they themselves could have contributed to the hedge schoolmaster repertoire - particularly in the case of the schoolmaster aisling.  This is possible but highly unlikely because it is almost certain that the recognized poets - those who saw themselves as carrying on the centuries-old bardic tradition - wrote exclusively in Gaelic.  Given the circumstances of the times, it is far more probable that it was the less glorious schoolmaster-versifier or 'poor scholar' (journeyman schoolmaster), who, being acquainted with the aisling and the reverdie léannta and proud of his English as well, should have imitated these forms in that 'non-literary' language.

Another possible native literary influence on the songs of the hedge schoolmaster is Gaelic verse forms.  The question of literary influences on the verse structure of traditional Irish song is an area of considerable uncertainty owing to the dearth of information about pre-seventeenth century non-bardic verse forms.  The older, 'classical' forms were invariably syllabic, while the 'new' amhrán (song) forms which emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were written in what are commonly called 'accentual' or 'stressed' metres.  Although similar in many respects to the bardic forms, these were much freer in regard to such matters as syllable count and rhyme.  Many believe that these metres were not new at all, but had existed for some time as 'sub-literary' forms employed by less prestigious versifiers, and perhaps by folk poets as well.

One accentual/syllabic metre which may have had such a history is the form known as ochtfhoclach.  This metre evidently dates from at least the twelfth century, making its earliest known appearance in a medieval manuscript of the Táin Bó Cúailnge.  In ochtfhoclach mór, perhaps the form's original configuration, each stanza consists of two quatrains possessing three six-syllable lines followed by a five-syllable line.  Rhyme is assonantal.  The three six-syllable lines end in rhyming di-syllables (stressed followed by unstressed, of which only the stressed syllables must rhyme); and the two five-syllable lines end in single, stressed syllables which rhyme with each other.

Most scholars agree that the corresponding accentual/ syllabic metre which emerged several centuries later, while far less rigid in syllabic count, is essentially the same form.  In the early-modern period, however, a more typical stanza of ochtfhoclach mór consists of three seven-syllable lines combined with a six-syllable line.  The Boys of Mullaghbawn illustrates this pattern in English (with allowances made for supernumerary syllables):

Now to end my lamentation we are all in consternation
For want of education, I now must end my song,
Since without hesitation we are charged with combination
And sent for transportation from the hills of Mullaghbawn.
The closely related ochtfhoclach bec metre also enjoyed considerable popularity in Gaelic poetry after the seventeenth century.  This form is twice the length of ochtfhoclach mór, consisting of four quatrains, each comprised of three phrases of five syllables and one of four syllables (again, the syllable count is approximate).  The quatrains, however, are condensed into longer lines so that the total number of lines per stanza is still eight:
Kind sir be easy / and do not tease me
with your false praises / most jestingly;
Your dissimulation / and invocation
are vaunting praises / alluring me.
I'm not Aurora / or the goddess Flora
but a rural female / to all men's view,
That's here condoling / my situation
my appellation / the Colleen Rue.
Zimmerman suggests that ochtfhoclach could have entered the Anglo-Irish folksong repertoire via continental or English 'tail-rhyme' models.  However, since he seems to equate the form with tail-rhyme in general, his definition of ochtfhoclach is far too broad; and while Ó Tuama points out earlier analogues in Latin and French, the form has few if any true counterparts in English folksong.  Furthermore, both its early appearance in Irish literature as well as its prominence in post-seventeenth century Gaelic verse strongly suggest native rather than foreign influence on the Anglo-Irish repertoire.  Its obscure history makes it impossible to ascertain from what level, literary or popular, it ultimately derives.  However, the form occurs so frequently in hedge schoolmaster songs that I am inclined to believe that it was they who first adapted it for use in English-language songs in imitation of the Gaelic poets with whom it was so popular.

There is another class of hedge schoolmaster song which, like the aisling, reflects influence from more learned spheres than many are used to associating with folk tradition.  This is the song of moral disputation, analogous to the conflictus - a poetic debate between allegorical figures - of medieval Latin tradition.  One example of this genre, The Banks of Dunmore, contains elements of the aisling/reverdie pattern, i.e., an encounter with a woman of exceptional beauty, followed by an elaborate physical description.  Here, however, the resemblance ends, and the song becomes a dialogue between the maiden and the narrator in which she defends the Catholic faith and ultimately converts the erring poet.  A Discussion between Church and Chapel presents a more ponderous apology for Catholicism in the form of a debate between a Protestant Church and a Catholic chapel.  The Song of Temptation from Paddy Tunney's capacious repertoire, depicts a heated moral debate, crammed with biblical allusions and didactic phrases, between a well-read temptress and her staunchly virtuous opponent.

I have not yet found any Gaelic models for such songs, but it is certainly possible that some schoolmasters would have been familiar enough with the Latin conflictus to be able to imitate it in English.  And since the schoolmaster in collaboration with the local priest frequently provided the religious instruction for the community, it would hardly be surprising if he had used religion or morality as subjects for song.

Yet another sort of hedge schoolmaster 'effusion', the local praise poem or geographic encomium, can be traced to the bardic practise of eulogising the property of a noble patron.  Thus we find such compositions as Castlehyde, a song which celebrates the splendours of the property of a certain Mr Hyde, which stood on the Blackwater, near Fermoy in Co Cork.  Castlehyde also illustrates a convention usually associated with the aisling: the image of the rose and the lily as rival hues.  In aislingí, however, this image is used to describe the spéirbhean's complexion rather than a landowner's garden!

The richest groves throughout this nation and fine plantations you will see there;
The rose, the tulip, and sweet carnation, all vying with the lily fair.
The buck, the doe, the fox, the eagle, they skip and play by the riverside;
The trout and salmon are always sporting in the clear streams of sweet Castlehyde.
A common feature of this sort of composition is the catalogue of the poet's many (and often exotic) ports of call, followed by a declaration that all are inferior to the subject of his song.  Thus in Old Arboe, a song in praise of a spot near Lough Neagh in Co Tyrone, the narrator avers:
I've travelled France and I've travelled Flanders and all the countries beyond the Rhine,
But in all my rakings and undertakings, Arboe, your equal I ne'er could find.
My course I've taken to Indian oceans, to the shores of Cana and Galilee,
But in all my rakings and undertakings, Arboe, your equal I ne'er did see.
Of course, such songs were as ripe for parody as the 'hedge school aislingí' and gave rise to such burlesques as The City of Mullingar and Mudion River.  In Mullingar the mockery is apparent and pervasive; but in Mudion River - on the surface a somewhat flowery, yet straight-forward song of praise - the fun of the old song is that, in the words of an old Agivey man, 'Mudion' s nae mair than a good sleugh'' - in other words, a ditch!

Obviously, not all hedge schoolmaster lyrics possess equal merit as poetry.  Some are intentionally (or unintentionally) humorous; some are merely charming; but the best are highly expressive works of poetry.  And whether or not all such songs were actually composed by schoolmasters, all share his well-established style; a style which, while capable of descending to the ridiculous, could also rise to the sublime, as in the exquisite Estersnowe:

At twilight in the morning, as I roved out upon the dew,
With my morning cloak around me intending all my flocks to view,
I spied a lovely fair one, she seemed to be a beauty bright,
And I took her for Diana or the evening star that rules the night.
As we have seen, hedge schoolmaster songs reflect influences of higher artistic and intellectual spheres than are usually associated with folk poetry: specifically, the classical and medieval Latin traditions, as well as the Irish poetic tradition.  The channels through which these influences were transmitted existed as a result of a profound social and political upheaval which greatly diminished social and intellectual distinctions within the native population.

The hedge schoolmaster himself emerges as an emblem of this intellectual democratisation.  Highly respected for his learning, he was often at the very centre of community life, frequently acting as general scribe, lawyer, religious instructor, political organiser, and repository of tradition - a resource of 'Everything ... that the needs of a community would demand, and much that would add to its intellectual store.'  Unallied to either the bardic or monastic educational systems, he was truly 'of the people', whether himself a product of a hedge school, a poet turned schoolmaster, or a member of a scholar family with an ancient intellectual heritage.  He was distinguished from the rest of the community only by his learning in an age when schoolmasters and poets alike might also of necessity be farm labourers.  New poets rose from the community, and the songs of the poets became the songs of the people.  The 'courts of poetry', at first the refuge of a dispossessed literary elite, became increasingly identified with the community and ultimately its highest expression.  'The national literary tradition had become,' in Dowling's words, 'the heritage of the tiller of the soil.'

It is thus that in the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish folksong traditions, one finds lyrics of great beauty and distinction; and whether composed by well known poets like Eoghan Rua, by hedge schoolmasters, or by 'tillers of the soil', all reflect the richness of a tradition moulded by extraordinary circumstances and infused with the genius of an entire people.

Julie Henigan - 19.8.99

This article first appeared in Ulster Folklife No 40 (1994): pp 27-38

Article MT042

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