How do we sum up this phase of education?
The bards were a professional class serving the needs of the aristocratic chieftains. They were men of letters trained in a polished literary medium. They discharged their function much in the same manner as a journalist or a PRO person would today. They were chroniclers, public officials, essayists and keen satirists at times, catering for a privileged class. But who catered for the educational needs of the ordinary folk? We don't know. Other professionals were the Brehons in law and the Medicals, but none are known from this area.
Next major changes.
After the Reformation, in the mid 16th Century, the Protestant clergy were encouraged to open parochial schools and pay teachers of English but although reinforced with Penal Laws in 1696, there were only 200 operating by the end of the 18th Century. Irish poetry remained vibrant for two more centuries. Courts of poetry replaced the Bardic schools. We have the fine poets of the Sliabh Luachra area, especially Aodhgan O'Rathaille and Eoghan Rua O'Suilleabhain in the 17th and 18th Century.
One characteristic of their poetry, is the sense in which wounded pride persists and the hope of restoration was embodied in a new type of poem called the Aisling. The poet, in a state of trance, had a vision of a beautiful speirbhean who promised hope. Gile na Gile and Mac an Cheannai are two fine specimens from the pen of Aodhgan. Courts of poetry survived into the latter half of the 18th Century.
Hedge schools operated from the beginning of the 18th Century in defiance of the Penal Laws. They were so called because the masters convened the pupils on the sunny side of the hedge of a secluded field. Many of the above mentioned poets were Hedge School teachers e.g. Eoghan Rua O'Suilleabhain in Knocknagree, Edward Walsh in Cullen and Millstreet, Liam dall O'Heifearaain in Tipperary, etc.
In the latter half of the 18th Century, as the Penal" Laws became more relaxed or were not as stringently implemented. The schools operated more openly in farmhouses, barns or in the schoolmaster's home, if it was of reasonable size. Usually they provided a basic education in the 3Rs. Learning was by rote as books and materials were scarce and these Hedge Schools had to be financially self subsistent. Teachers received a weekly stipend for the task, either a small fee or reward in kind, from the parents. Despite the difficult conditions under which they operated, they had a varied curriculum. There is no one model that applied. Although hidden away and run on an ad hoc basis, it is estimated that that there were 9,000 in Ireland by 1824 with 300,000 pupils.
There are varying accounts of what they were like. Some writers stress the humble and clandestine nature of the enterprise and the heroic efforts of the teachers to provide basic skills in literacy and numeracy. Other accounts harp on the low standards of education and the subversive attitude of teachers.
In any evaluation there are two facts that we need to keep in mind:
Firstly, during the early stages of the Penal laws Catholics were prohibited from conducting schools or sending their children abroad for education, thus leaving them with no educational provision whatsoever.
Secondly, Catholics were an impoverished class and endured great hardship.
The 18th Century is regarded as the era of Protestant ascendancy. The Protestant landlords grew rich and built large residences on their estates. By 1778 only 5% of Irish land was in Catholic hands even though they constituted 75% of the population, which was approaching five million by 1800. Tenant farmers struggled to pay their rent and to also pay tithes to the established church, to which few of them belonged.