Journal Volume 4 2004
Lead, Kindly Light? Education and the La Touche Family (continued/1)
The ancient, respected, secular Bardic Schools dated back to pre-Christian times. Instruction was given, in the native tongue, on Irish language, history and the Brehon law. According to a statement prefacing the Clanrickarde Memoirs (published in 1722), the Bardic Schools survived “till the Beginnings of the Trouble in 1641”. These “truly National Schools”, as O'Curry called them, closed down for good only when their patrons had become landless, penniless or exiles. The decline of the Bardic Schools had probably started in Tudor times, but it was Cromwell's distinctive campaigns that finally brought about their closure (Dowling).
Of course, measures had already been introduced to educate Catholics to the liking of the English Parliament. Henry VIII decreed that Parish Schools should be set up to introduce the English language to the Irish-speaking natives. Then in 1570 Elizabeth I's Parliament passed a law requiring there to be a Free School in every diocese, all schoolmasters to be English and with the education being along Grammar School lines. In Charles I's time there were new schools of Royal Foundation, again of the Grammar School type and privately endowed Classical Schools. It had been the intention for these latter to have been free schools, and all of them expected to admit free scholars, but by the early nineteenth century, the Board of Education reported that nearly all of them were pay-schools. (The Board condemned the majority of Parish and Diocesan schools as failures and the Royal Schools as not much better.)
What system there had been in the mid seventeenth century fell into disarray under Cromwell's leadership with the forced migration of very many people. The situation was made more difficult with the accession of William III and the introduction, by successive Parliaments, of the Penal Laws which forbade any education whatsoever for Catholics. By now the state of native learning had probably reached its lowest depths.
However it is worth digressing here to mention that “out of the ashes”, so to speak, some of the land confiscated from Catholics after the Rising of 1641 had been bought from Parliament for a "modest price" by a charitable London merchant named Erasmus Smith. From accrued revenues he was able to fund the building, in 1669, of three free Grammar Schools. The value of the revenues increased so much in the eighteenth century that, by the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Erasmus Smith Foundation had been able to endow more than a hundred English-type schools in Ireland. One of those was the school at Windgates, near the top of the hill between Greystones and Bray. Opening in 1820, it received an annual Erasmus Smith grant of £20 (equivalent to about £1,000 today), with additional financial support from local benefactors. No doubt it was well known to, and visited by, Elizabeth La Touche who had a great interest in education. It ceased being a school as recently as 1954 because of falling numbers and is now a private residence: Ampang Lodge.
The passing of the Penal Laws did not stop the schooling of Irish-speaking Catholics. “The suppression of all the ordinary legitimate means of education” brought Hedge Schools into being (Dowling). The first Hedge Schoolmasters were probably those referred to in the middle of the seventeenth century as “the Popish Schoole Mastrs who taught the Irish youth trayning them up in Supersticion, Idolatry and the Evil Customs of the Nacion". And the numbers of Hedge Schools grew rapidly with the increased enforcement of the laws against education in the early part of the eighteenth century. This was partly due to a huge increase in the population and the gradual relaxation of the failed Penal Laws after 1782. But their overriding success was really due to the Catholics themselves who were determined to have their children instructed. There was a Hedge School at Kilmashogue near Marlay, Rathfarnham, the country seat of David III.