Irish Lay Schools

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER VII....continued

3. Lay Schools.

It has been sometimes asserted that, in early times in Ireland, learning was confined within the walls of the monasteries; but this view is quite erroneous. Though the majority of the men of learning in Christian times, were ecclesiastics, secular learning was by no means confined to the clergy. We have seen that the monastic schools had many lay pupils, and that there were numerous lay schools; so that a considerable body of the lay community must have been more or less educated—able to read and write. Nearly all the professional physicians, lawyers (or brehons), poets, builders, and historians, were laymen; a large proportion of the men chronicled in our annals, during the whole period of Ireland's literary pre-eminence, as distinguished in art and general literature, were also laymen; lay tutors were often employed to teach princes; and, in fact, laymen played a very important part in the diffusion of knowledge and in building up that character for learning that rendered Ireland so famous in former times.

It is true that the great body of the people could neither read nor write. But they had an education of another kind—reciting poetry, historic tales, and legends—or listening to recitation—in which all people, high and low, took delight, as mentioned elsewhere. This was true education, a real exercise for the intellect, and a real and refined enjoyment. In every hamlet there were one or more amateur reciters: and this amusement was then more general than newspaper-and story-reading is now. So that, taking education, as we ought, in this broad sense, and not restricting it to the narrow domain of reading and writing, we see that the great body of the Irish people of those times were really educated. There seems no reason to doubt that there were schools of some kind in Ireland before the introduction of Christianity, which were carried on by druids. After the general spread of Christianity, while monastic schools were growing up everywhere through the country, the old schools still held their ground, taught now by Christian ollaves or doctors—laymen—who were the representatives of the druid teachers of old times.

There were several classes of these schools. Some were known as "Bardic schools," in which were taught poetry, history, and general Irish literature. Some were for law, and some for other special professions. The Bardic schools were the least technical of any: and young laymen not intended for professions attended them—as many others in greater numbers attended the monastic schools—to get a good general education.

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