At the beginning of the nineteenth century the schooling of girls in Ireland was largely confined to the mixed pay schools or hedge schools of the period, both Catholic and Protestant, where students learned the 3Rs. These schools were privately run, outside of any state control, and very numerous - in 1824 they represented 9,352 out of 11,823 schools in Ireland.
The advanced subjects taught in some of these schools, such as Geometry, Bookkeeping, Navigation, and Languages were intended to help boys earn a living. The time spent by most girls in school was shorter then boys: usually just long enough to enable them to read and write. Only a minority of girls stayed on to learn Arithmetic or 'Accounts'.
According to William Carleton, himself a hedge-school master, the majority of girls who attended these schools were:
|... the daughters of wealthy farmers who considered it necessary to their respectability that they should not be altogether illiterate; such a circumstance being a considerable drawback, in the opinion of an admirer from the character of a young woman for whom he was about to propose - a drawback, too, which was always weighty in proportion to her wealth or respectability.
William Carleton, Traits and Stories of the Irish peasantry, London, 1843, p. 302.
Some hedge schools were run by women. William Carleton attended such a school run by a woman, Mrs Drumont, in Clogher, Co. Tyrone, in 1800. She taught girls aged 5-18 years in a barn one year, and in a similar building in another town the following year, and also occasionally allowed young boys to attend her school.
Another feature of early nineteenth-century education in Ireland was the number of proselytising schools whose main aim was to make religious converts. They were run by various Protestant societies such as the London Hibernian Society, the Baptist Society and the Schools of the Association for Discountenancing Vice. Some landlords also ran such schools on their estates. This attempt to convert the Catholic Irish failed but it ensured that the denominational principle would become enshrined in Irish education as the Catholic bishops responded by providing alternative religious-run schools.
The State had viewed the hedge schools with suspicion as schools outside their control and as potential centres of subversion. It was decided that a State system of primary schools would help ensure political loyalty. This National School System was introduced in 1831, thus bringing to an end the mixed pay schools with their gender integration.
The original plan was that grants would be given to schools on the understanding that children of different religious beliefs would be educated together but with separate religious instruction from members of their own church. This did not materialise as both Catholic and Protestant churches opposed non-denominational education.