Hedge school classicists

Interference from England began with the Norman invasion in 1169 and intensified in the 16th century when Ireland’s importance grew on account of its position in relation to Atlantic trade routes. The Tudor subjugation was secured when Henry VIII announced that he was King of Ireland in 1541. Ireland was thereafter under the minority control of the Protestant landholders; after the rebellion of the United Irishmen, supported by French troops, was suppressed in 1798, the Acts of Union 1800 incorporated the island into the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. More than a century of colonial persecution was to be inflicted upon the Catholic majority until the Irish Free

State was founded in 1922, leaving only the six counties constituting Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, where they remain today. The picture of the Irish emanating from mainstream England throughout this history took classical expression in the Greek prose composition that won the prestigious Gaisford Prize at Oxford University just before Independence, in 1921. Christian Fordyce produced a pseudo-Herodotean account of the allegedly backward people of Ireland, on whom the rudiments of civilisation were imposed by British imperial administrators under their English monarch, basileus; these governors, ‘satraps’, are favourably likened to the provincial overlords of the Great King of Persia himself.27

Ireland is the only territory in our study where aspects of the knotty relationship between social class and Greco-Roman antiquity have previously been treated to a book-length study, Laurie O’Higgins’ The Irish Classical Self: Poets and Poor Scholars in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (2017). She argues that Irish people’s sense of identity, crafted by learned Catholics who moved easily between their own island and Continental Europe, embraced traditional Irish saints and folklore but also ‘an international past. Their story belonged with that of ancient Israel, the Scythians, the Greeks and Romans. It was part of a venerable and capacious human story’.28 She reassesses the hedge schools, brought to widespread notice by Brian Friel’s play Translations (1980), set in 1833, featuring the hedge school of Ballybeg, County Donegal, where Greek and Latin were spoken as well as Gaelic. It was believed that most hedge schools disappeared after many of their teachers died or emigrated during the terrible famine of 1845 to 1849.29 After Irish Independence in 1922, hedge schools soon passed into nostalgic legend.30 But they certainly existed, held in temporary structures beneath the shelter of a hedge or in barns.

Anecdotal evidence claimed that hedge school pupils had often learned chunks of Latin and even Greek poetry off by heart, and O’Higgins argues that this was no fantasy.31 The Baron Coquebert de Monbret, a French diplomatic agent in Ireland between 1789 and 1791, had noticed schoolmasters in Galway earning less than £5 a year, ‘who teach Latin and Greek very well to the young people’.32 Thady O’Conolan (1780-1854) of Sligo, who insisted that he had studied Homer and Virgil as well as Philosophy and Mathematics at a hedge school, later converted to the Protestant faith and by 1807 was running a school with 50 pupils who could attend when they were not cutting turf. They read Homer and Virgil from single battered copies that were shared around; the younger children studied the popular chapbook Seven Wise Masters of Greece}1 O’Conolan regarded Greek as the only language as beautiful as Irish.34

Classics books were smuggled in through Irish ports alongside devotional literature. Where there was even a semi-literate community, only one copy was needed, to be shared by loan or recitation. The 1685 ledger of Samuel Helsham, a Dublin bookseller, includes inexpensive Latin textbooks such as the Sententiae Puerilies (maxims for children).35 The explosion in the size of the population in the 18th century led to the development of education as an industry, demonstrated by advertisements: John Fleming, Drogheda printer and bookseller, announced in 1772 that his stock included ‘Classical, school and history books’.36 The poet Antoine O’Raifteiri (Anthony Raftery, 1779-1835) studied classical languages at school and possessed a small English book about the ancient gods entitled Pantheon, probably the English edition of Pomey’s The Pantheon, repeatedly reprinted since 1694.37 Patrick O’Neill of Owning, County Kilkenny, ran his family’s farm in 1780 from the age of 15, but constantly enlarged his private library with classical lexica, a Latin Horace, Martial and Ovid’s Heroides, a Greek Iliad and Plutarch’s Lives in translation.38 Lower down the socio-economic ladder, hornbooks, chapbooks, broadsides and editions aimed at schools all included substantial classical material—elementary vocabularies, Aesop, extracts from Ovid or versions of Homer; The Famous or Renowned History of Hector Prince of Troy included an exciting illustration of the combat between Hector and Ajax in Iliad VII (Figure 10.2).39 The writers of chapbooks were often themselves lower-class; the fee was less than a shilling a time.40

the tbfte Deft ructions ot L-fty* . • %

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he i’d ncainll him inch a inip,l>r.v, and unoiiml weapon, tore up a hup/ , y I

roots /whereupon Htclcr threw bis R' ckey inftrument witbprcat violence, but the Other

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FIGURE 10.2 ‘Hector vs. Ajax’, from Anon. (1700b) The Famous or Renowned History of Hector Prince of Troy, reproduced by courtesy ofThe British Library.

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