Lurgan School Registers
As the 19th century dawned, Lurgan had little by way of formal education. Information is, predictably, scarce, but Bradshaw's Directory for 1819 does list three school teachers:- Thomas Alien, Samuel Taylor and Thomas Warren. Two of these we can identify from later references. Taylor ran a school in South Street (now Queen's Street), and Warren was master of the Erasmus Smith School in Back Lane (now North Street). Of Alien we know nothing.
The Lurgan Free School was established by Lord Lurgan (the Right Honourable William Brownlow) in 1786, which provided education for the children of tenants on the Brownlow Estate, regardless of religion. A number of meetings were held during August 1786, to lay the 'Plans of a School for the Education of poor Children in the Town and Neighbourhood of Lurgan'. The school was to be paid for by an annual subscription from the Brownlow family, an annual charity sermon at Lurgan Parish Church and liberal subscriptions from the wealthy citizens of Lurgan. The children would be taught free, so that they might be able to read and be 'instructed in the Principles of the Christian Religion'.
It was the late 19th century that saw the development of formal education in Lurgan and a significant move away from the less organised hedge schools of previous times.
A hedge school (Irish names include scoil chois claí, scoil ghairid and scoil scairte) is the name given to an educational practice in 18th and 19th century Ireland, so called due to its rural nature. It came about as local educated men began an oral tradition of teaching the community. With the advent of the commercial world in Ireland after 1600, its peasant society saw the need for greater education.
While the "hedge school" label suggests the classes always took place outdoors (next to a hedgerow), classes were sometimes held in a house or barn. Subjects included primarily basic grammar, English and maths (the fundamental "three Rs"). In some schools the Irish bardic tradition, Latin, history and home economics were also taught. Reading was generally based on chapbooks, sold at fairs, typically with exciting stories of well-known adventurers and outlaws. Payment was generally made per subject, and brighter pupils would often compete locally with their teachers.
In 1787, a boy was born in Lurgan of humble parents his name was Samuel Watts. In later years Watts prospered to such an extent that he was able to endow a Grammar School in his own home town. Speaking at the opening of that school, Watts friend, John Hancock, said, Mr. Watts, in early life, knew the hedge- schoolmasters, and the mode of education and darkness that then spread over the land." We can thus infer that in the 1790s Lurgan, in common with most other provincial towns in Ireland, had its share of hedge-schools. These were not always open air establishments as is sometimes assumed. The hedge-schoolmaster held classes wherever there were children, be that in the open air, or in a barn, or even in a church hall. It is also sometimes assumed that the hedge-schools were the schools of the Roman Catholics, suffering at this time under the iniquitous Penal Laws, Again this cannot be strictly true, since Watts and his family were staunch members of the Established Church. (There is an enthralling account of a hedge school in Benedict Kelly's book on William Carleton). The one thing all hedge schools had in common was that all pupils had to pay a small sum, usually weekly, for their instruction. The Hedge-school masters were often men of intellect and ability, but there were also many half-illiterate charlatans who used their 'education' as an alternative to begging.
Hedge schools declined from the foundation of the National School system by government in the 1830s. James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin preferred this, as the new schools would be largely under the control of his church and allow a better teaching of Catholic doctrine. He wrote to his priests in 1831:
"[The Roman Catholic bishops] welcomed the rule which requires that all the teachers henceforth to be employed be provided from some Model School, with a certificate of their competency, that will aid us in a work of great difficulty, to wit, that of suppressing hedge schools, and placing youths under the direction of competent teachers, and of those only."
The few school registries we have available have been donated to us by Martin McGoldrick and we thank him once again for all of the work he has done for this website. This is by no means a complete list of all school children in Lurgan, but we hope we can build on this and eventually provide a comprehensive database. If you have any school registers that you would like to share, we would be pleased to add them here. Click on a link on the right hand menu to view a register.
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