Situated on the Southern end of Churchtown is the townland of Ballygrace. Part of this townland is over five hundred feet above sea level. The view from this point is immense – Churchtown parish, Ballyhea, Ballyhoura mountains, the maze of fences, Flannery’s Quarry, Pat O’Connor’s wood, Jim Curtain’s rock, Ballyhea church and parts of Coolcaum. The grove of trees at Leap, the windmill, the fine trees at Burton Park and the fences and fields, the whole network were the sweat and energy of the generations before us that created this beautiful labyrinth. May they last forever and stand up to the biggest bulldozer ever built.
Many of the fences are covered with hedges, bushes and trees. Offering shelter to the man and beast when winter breezes blow. The songbirds need protection for nesting. Wild life needs the security of trees and fences to survive. Hedges were part of the education of our forefathers. The defeat of the Irish in the battle of Kinsale in 1601 brought an end to the national order of society which combined with the monastic tradition and provided an education system in Ireland, second to none. Then the tide of Anglicization swept through the country-side. For over the next hundred years the education of the nation’s people was left out in the cold. It was totally neglected.
But some Irish scholars – poets continued to operate even though the Irish social order gradually disintegrated all around them. These are the people who have been responsible for much of the rich flavour of the literature, folklore and musical heritage we now enjoy. They handed down history, Gaelic love song, lullabies, laments, drinking songs and work songs which survived and were passed on. Much of this work was carried on behind the hedge.
Before 1831 the English Government unsuccessfully sought to anglicise the Catholic Irish through a subversive school system. The Board of Commissioners of National Education formed a school building programme. (The use of the word ‘national’ was misleading)
Reports from the countryside were not good: falling attendance, no sympathy between the teacher and children, children usually Catholic and teachers Protestant. Then the Irish set up their own system – the ‘hedge school’ and these flourished throughout the countryside. In my townland of Ballygrace a ‘hedge school’ operated. The name of the teacher was Master O’Connor but little is known about him and his family. He taught two days in the week. It seems that he was not from the area.
The parents of the scholars paid him and it is said that if some person could not pay him, he took food in return. English was the main language taught to avoid the attention of the Government bodies. But music, especially traditional music, was handed down, Gaelic love songs, laments, drinking songs, and work songs were passed on.
The subject of arithmetic did not feature much. The system worked well as the compulsory aspect of attendance was not adhered to. Many of the people worked at their own skills, and farming was the main area of employment. Those who attended the hedge school were self-motivated scholars.
Slate was used as a blackboard and the writing was done with quills. The structure was a simple out-house for cattle in the winter. The roof was thatch. It contributed to the education of some of our forefathers in Churchtown. One scholar that probably attended would be my late boss, Boss Murphy. It was overlooking his ancestral home.