A tale of Two Centuries

A History of Drumbo Primary School
Co. Down

Dr. Christopher I. Reid





The story so far - - -

It is generally accepted that the notion of `popular education' came to Ireland with the advent of the Plantation during the early 1600s.

The two gentlemen who had responsibility for the Plantation in this part of Co. Down, namely James Hamilton, subsequently Viscount Claneboye, and Hugh Montgomery, later to be known as Sir Hugh Montgomery, were themselves students in Glasgow, and as historians relate, were "not unmindful of the cause of education." Viscount Claneboye, in his will dated 16th December, 1611 stated:

. . . for such profits as shall be made of my two parts or parsonage I do appoint the schoolmasters to be maintained as now I have appointed them ... and five pounds a year to be given to every one of them, out of the said Parsonage tithes, besides such monies as they shall have from the scholars for their teaching . . . "

A survey carried out in 1618-19 by Pynnar, recorded that:

" ... the people in quite a few of those districts planted by Scottish undertakers took a lively interest in education and included a school in their building programme."

Whether or not education had a foothold in Drumbo in these early days it is impossible to say, but there is ample evidence to suggest that the colonization of this area brought with it popular schools fashioned on the Scottish model. These would have been private pay schools and would not have received any encouragement or support from the civil authorities.

In the 1630s, owing to the influence of the Bishops, the control of the Established Church became much more rigorous and the co-operation which had existed between it and Presbyterians all but disappeared. By 1636 all ministers had to declare openly their conformity to the Established Church and by 1639, on the imposition of the Black Oath, all ministers were asked to report on the Presbyterians in their parishes. This was not an encouraging time for education or its development, as even after the 1641 rebellion and during the Twelve Years War, the period was described as a time when "all learning and convenient means for teaching the young had ceased."

During the mid-1640s an ordinance establishing Presbyterianism was ratified by Parliament and during this period parish schools began to flourish again. This development of education lasted until about 1661 when Charles II was restored to the throne. At the time of Charles II restoration the Established Church regained its former powerful position in the government of the country. The Irish Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity in 1665 which indicated that "every schoolmaster keeping any public or private school and every person instructing or teaching any youth in any house or private family as a tutor or schoolmaster shall subscribe the declaration or acknowledgement following." The penalty for non-subscribing was the loss of the school.

"I A.B. do declare that it is unlawful upon any pretence whatsoever to take arms against the King
 . . . and that I will conform to the liturgy of the Church of Ireland as it is now by law established."

The above is followed by another section of the Act which required every schoolmaster or tutor to take the oath of allegiance, and supremacy, before permission to teach would be given by the Bishop.

It is a matter of historical fact that at this time, Presbyterian ministers supplemented their income by starting, or continuing, a school in their parish. The Presbyterian minister, in Drumbo, at the time, was Henry Livingstone who was an avowed critic of the Established Church. He had been evicted from his church in Drumbo in 1661 for not submitting to ordination by a Bishop. There is no evidence which suggests that there was a school in Drumbo as early as this but, looking at the evidence from other areas it is more than likely that there was. If this were the case, the school would have been lost because Livingstone. or any Presbyterian teacher, would certainly not have subscribed to the Act.

Presbyterians have always clung to the necessity of maintaining an educated ministry and because of the persecution they were experiencing at this time classical schools or academies, sprang up throughout the country. The first of these schools was founded by the Rev. Thomas Gowan in 1670 in Antrim. Mr. Gowan was the father of the Rev. Thomas Gowan (Jnr.) who was minister in Drumbo Presbyterian Church from 1706 to 1717.

Two reasons can be given for suggesting that there could have been a school in Drumbo at this time. Firstly, Gowan would have had first hand knowledge of the benefits of education, seeing his father at work in the school at Antrim. Secondly, the ministerial profession in the 18th Century was more respectable than lucrative and payment of stipend often fell in arrears. It was little wonder that ministers had to supplement their living by farming or teaching. Most of the schools they operated were conducted in the Session room or in the minister's own house. These little schools, or academies as they were sometimes called, were necessarily fleeting, but valuable work was done in them.

Probably the earliest reference to education and to there being a `school' in Drumbo was made in 1785. The Rev. James Malcom who was minister in Drumbo Presbyterian Church had a son by the name of Andrew, and among the Malcom MSS there is a reference to Andrew Malcom and to the fact that "he was educated privately in the neighbourhood of Drumbo and Lisburn." Whether or not his father was the teacher is not recorded.

It is more than likely that any education that had been available up to this time in Drumbo was conducted in the Session House connected with the Presbyterian Church in the village. Certainly the following advertisement for a teacher for Drumbo school, in July 1796, would confirm this.
An early advertisement for a teacher in Drumbo in 1796. Second Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry 1824

The 18th Century, witnessed rigorous enforcement of the laws against education and rendered teaching a dangerous calling. This would appear to be the reason why popular education, through Hedge Schools, became prominent. The Hedge School owes its origin to the laws against education and its name to the practice of keeping school under the sunny side of a hedge. These were pay schools and, in many cases, through their great love of learning, parents were prepared to pay for the education of their children more than their limited circumstances would permit.

Because the law forbade schoolteachers to teach they were compelled to give instruction secretly. The law also penalised householders who allowed teachers to use their premises, so the teacher was forced into a remote spot out of doors, weather permitting. Therefore, the sunny side of a hedge or bank, which hid the school from the eye of a passer-by, would have been chosen. Sometimes a pupil was put on the look out for the approach of a stranger or of a person who might be judged to be an informer. If such a person appeared, the school dispersed for the day; but it would always meet in some place else the following day. In this way the Hedge School became the recognised channel for surreptitious education in country districts where:

" . . . crouching `neath the sheltering hedge, or stretched on mountain fern, the teacher and his pupils met, feloniously to learn."

During the winter months the schoolteacher moved from place to place living upon the hospitality of people, earning some money by turning his hand to farm work or, if he dared, by teaching the children of his host.

Later, when the laws against education were somewhat less strictly enforced, school was held in a cabin, a barn, the home of the schoolteacher, or any building that might be given or lent for the purpose, but the name "Hedge School" still remained until well into the 19th Century.

The first official reference to a Hedge School in Drumbo can be found in the Second Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry. This census of schools was taken in 1824 and reported on in 1826-27, and gives the following information about the school in Drumbo.

We know, from church records, that the Session House was not very spacious. It would only have been designed for about twenty men in which to hold meetings. To have forty or more children in it all day would have been very cramped, although, attendance was not compulsory and was very irregular. Even though the census return gives an average attendance of forty children it can be assumed that there could have been up to twice this number on the register. However mean the school building, and however great the bodily discomfort of both teacher and pupils, the atmosphere in the Hedge Schools was very much work related. The people wanted education for their children and they ensured that they got it.

Sketch of the session House in which the first school was held.

The willingness of the people to make sacrifices for the education of their children, and their co-operation with the schoolteacher were undoubtedly factors which helped the Hedge Schools to flourish. The schoolteacher had to take what he could get; any shelter was better than none, and what was obtained was usually given freely.

There are no records to inform us where James McKee, the teacher at the time, came from, but the surname McKee is a name with a long history in this area. Whether he came from the area, or to the area, is unclear. The position of the hedge schoolteacher was very tenuous and he was liable, at any time, to be deposed by a younger and and more able teacher. When a pupil had learned all that his local teacher had to give, he issued a challenge to the teacher to meet him in a contest of knowledge before competent judges. If defeated, the pupil would remain under his old teacher, but if victorious, he would go on to another school where he would continue his studies. Again a contest would take place with his new teacher; and once again, if victorious he would move on to another school. In this way the pupil increased his stock of general information, acquired real knowledge, and became more subtle in the art of argument and debate. After a year or two the pupil would return home to his old school and again challenge his first teacher. If victorious, the pupil would then take over the school and the teacher was compelled to move on to another district. This may well have been how James McKee arrived in Drumbo! From all accounts McKee must have been held in fairly high esteem by the people, because records show that he was also the teacher in the school at Carr at the same time. Whether McKee had assistants to help him run the two schools or whether they were only open on certain days of the week cannot be said with any degree of accuracy. His social standing among the people whose children he taught would have been remarkably high. The people would have regarded him as one of themselves, but different in the respect that he was a man of some learning. They regarded him as a friend whose counsel was sought in difficult circumstances and whose decisions in important matters carried weight. No function of consequence, wedding, baptism or harvest home took place at which he was not a prominent figure. Although his social prestige was immense, his income from all sources was small. At this time, James McKee had an annual income of 20 pounds from the children in Drumbo. He would have been charging parents about 2 shillings per quarter for reading lessons, Is. 8d per quarter for spelling and between 4 shillings and 7 shillings for arithmetic for the same period. In the majority of Hedge Schools at that time reading, writing and arithmetic were the only subjects taught and, for the children who attended them that was about all they needed.

Very little is known of the system of teaching in the Hedge Schools, although, a member of the Commissioners of the Board of Education in 1825 complained of the "mechanical and laborious methods by which the memory is exercised" adding that "the understanding and moral powers of children" seem to have no claim upon the teacher's attention. However, the kind of text-book used in the schools is a fairly good indication of the teaching methods employed. In some text-books which have survived there are examples of lessons in `The Elements of Spelling' which cite "the most common and general sounds of the letters, which children should be habituated to, before they enter into the various changes of sound which the same letters should have." The books also advance the theory that "spelling came before reading. It is a fine thing to know how to read; but we must know how to spell first! We cannot read until we can spell." After the children had recited long lists of words and which they were expected to master came the hope "now that I have learned to spell better; I hope I shall be able and may read better now." Much of the work done was by oral repetition, or rehearsing, and reading was done by what might be termed the individual method for each child. This meant each child reading to the teacher from whatever book was available; there was no such thing as an individual reading book. Some of the books read were simple stories, fairy tales and some were full blooded biographies of highwaymen and others that were not at all suitable for children or young people to read. Children brought from home whatever book they could find or was given them; and any alleged harm these books did to the children was more than compensated by their success in learning to read.

The teaching of arithmetic appears to have been more structured and systematic. Text-books of the time indicate - rules being clearly given, followed by two sets of examples; the first of which consisted of carefully graduated problems while the second contained more difficult questions. The books also showed correlation of arithmetic with other subjects such as Chronology, History and Mechanics. The author of the book had much faith in its application as he concluded: "I rely upon the event of any trials that may be made upon boys of the higher and lower classes in Ireland, in which I am certain it will be found that not only the common, but the higher parts of arithmetic are better understood and more expertly practised by boys without shoes and stockings, than by young gentlemen riding home on horseback, or in coaches, to enjoy their Christmas idleness."

Discipline was thought to be severe in the Hedge Schools. "The obligation to silence, though it may give the master more ease, imposes a new moral duty upon the child." James Nash who was an old hedge schoolmaster told his friend Thomas Meagher: "My school is below there, and I flog the boys every morning all round to teach them to be Spartans." The extent of the punishment which Nash administered is not known, but, like most other schoolmasters of his day, he would evidently take no excuses for the neglect of study.

The working of the Hedge Schools at that time is described in records kept by a teacher of his day's work: "Our school begins precisely at ten o'clock in the morning for we cannot begin earlier, as many of the children come from a distance. Every child must be in his seat by that time. I then open the school by reading a Psalm or Hymn. After that, they all repeat a task to me, of grammar or spelling, and then a lesson in classes, for I have them all classed together according to their several abilities. About twenty of the children write on paper with quills, twenty on slate and twenty on sand. After writing they all have a lesson, and a task of scripture verses which they commit to memory. The labour of the day is concluded by reading a Psalm and making a few remarks of a religious nature, suitable to the subject, and adapted to their capabilities, to which they listen with great attention."

This fairly unstructured form of education continued in Drumbo up until 1840; despite the introduction of a National Education Board throughout Ireland in 1831 and the building of a new schoolhouse, in 1836 in Drumbo, at a cost of 97 pounds paid by local subscription.

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs record the attendance of 63 pupils in Drumbo in 1836; 40 of whom were male and 23 female; and all Protestant. 23 of the pupils were under ten years of age, 1 was over fifteen and 1 over forty. The "master" was a Presbyterian.

It may be that this new school was a replacement of a previous one. Evidence for this comes from an Ordnance Survey Map of 1834, which clearly shows a National School in Drumbo on the site of the proposed school to be built in 1836.

The National Education Board, set up in 1831, was an attempt to co-ordinate the education of young people and one "which requires that all teachers henceforth to be employed be provided from some model school, with a certificate of their competency, will aid us in a work of great difficulty, to wit, that of suppressing Hedge Schools and placing youth under the direction of competent teachers, and of those only." The salaries of the teachers were to be paid by the Board who were also to be responsible for the compiling and publication of school books. Grants were also to be given for the building of school houses, and combined denominational applications were to receive preference. There was to be no reading of the Scriptures during the time set apart for secular instruction, and the clergy were encouraged to instruct the children of their denominations at suitable times.

Sketch of the National Schoolhouse in Drumbo which was built in 1836.

The National Education Board was strongly opposed by members of the Established Church who regarded proselytism as a duty. They objected to "the exclusion of the Scriptures and the admission of a priest" into the schools to give religious instruction; and they accused the Board of "establishing Popery and promoting infidelity."

Presbyterian opposition was even greater. They held that the whole Bible, and not just extracts from it, should be the basis of National education; they objected to the Board's control over schools and teachers, and their restrictions as to school books; and they highly disapproved of allowing separate religious instruction to be given to Catholics. They even resorted to violence to close National Schools and they sought to make the education problem a political issue. As soon as the new system was announced by Lord Stanley, meetings were held in almost every town and village in Ulster. The people were led to believe that the Government were about to send round the police to take possession of their Bibles. Soon after these meetings gun clubs were established for the purpose of "furnishing the peasantry with the guns to defend their Bibles." The opposition in the North was particularly vigorous. Ministers who connected their schools with the Board were persecuted by their congregations and were nicknamed `New Board Ministers'. Schools were damaged both inside and outside. Crosses and `Ps' were painted on doors and windows and many ministers were exposed to violence.

As a consequence, many schools, including Drumbo, were withdrawn from the Board and the Presbyterians proposed setting up a system of Scriptural and Presbyterian education for themselves.

The continued opposition to the National Education Board on the part of Anglicans and Presbyterians soon obtained for them a number of concessions, among which were that no clergyman of another denomination could enter their schools and, that no child should be excluded from religious instruction should that child wish to attend. In 1840, the Presbyterians withdrew all opposition to the National Education Board because by this time all their demands were conceded; they were then to become the most ardent supporters of the Board. So on 9th April, 1840 the following application was made by the Rev. Adam Montgomery, Patron of Drumbo School, for readmission to the National Board of Education.

"The name of this school is Drumbo. It is situated in the townland of Drumbo and is adjoining a place of worship. Post town Belfast. Distance five miles and a half to the North. It was founded in eighteen hundred and thirty six (6) and build by private subscription. The house is twenty seven feet by seventeen in the clear, and nine feet high on the side wall; it is built of stone and lime, roofed with slates and well fitted up with desks. It is all in one room and wholly employed for the use of the children. It is held by lease, rent free - I may mention that our lease is in preparation only as the ground was held by a subtenant and he had arrangements to make. The school is under the management of a committee - chosen by the parents of the children. Patron the Rev. A. Montgomery.

The times for reading the Scriptures and catechetical instruction are so arranged as not to interfere with or impede the scientific business of the school and, no child whose parents or guardians object is required to be present or take part in these exercises; and no obstruction shall be offered to the children of such parents receiving such instruction elsewhere as they may think proper.
The school opens at ten and continues till three - summer and winter. In both summer and winter it is held during six days of the week. The school is open on all days of the week to the public of all denominations, who have liberty to inspect the registry, witness the mode of teaching and see that the regulations of the school are faithfully observed - that no persons except members of committee and officers of the Board are permitted ex officio to interfere in the business or management of the school.

The books used are provided by the children and of the usual character employed in teaching; and the Scriptures and Westminster Catechisms are used also.

The number of children in attendance is forty one - of which twenty-three are males and eighteen females. There is a register kept in the school and a report book will be kept. The children pay for reading 3d per week; for writing and accounts at the rate of three and nine pence per quarter, and for English grammar and geography at the same rate. A number of poor children (8) are also in attendance and taught gratuitously and others at low rates.

The aid requested is in addition to a grant of books the sum of �8-0-0 per annum to pay for the education of the children of poor parents, many of whom are unable to send their children to school; and whatever gratuity the inspector of the Board may report the teacher so deserves."

Signed on behalf of the school.