Hedge Schools developed out of the severity of the infamous Penal Laws, passed between 1702 and 1719 under English rule. These penal laws were imposed in an attempt to force Irish Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept the reformed Christian faith as defined by the English state established Anglican Church and practiced by members of the Church of Ireland. As late as 1825, the Protestant hierarchy petitioned the King, arguing that in order to convert and civilise the Irish, a number of English Protestant Schools should be built where native Irish Children “should be instructed in the English Tongue and in the Fundamental Principles of the True Religion".
Attendance at Hedge Schools was subject to paying the hedgemaster's fee but this was normally modest and even in the most humble of hedge schools students were taught classes in Irish history, tradition, and ancestry. While the "hedge school" label suggests the classes always took place outdoors next to or behind a hedgerow, they were also held in a house or barn. These illegal schools were to become the only channels of education for the native Irish until the middle of the nineteenth century.
While Catholic schools were forbidden under the Penal laws from 1723 to 1782, no hedge teachers were known to be prosecuted. Indeed, official records were made of hedge schools by census makers. The laws' main target was education by the main Catholic religious orders, whose wealthier establishments were occasionally confiscated. These schools were considered not just a place of education but an institution of the Catholic community living in Ireland at the time. They were maintained by the community who wanted their children educated and run by men for whom teaching was a vocation. Lessons in schools were taught through the medium of Irish, although the use of Irish was in rapid decline during the eighteenth century, something that could be attributed to the greater value of English at the fair or market.
A student of one of the Hedge Schools in Inishowen was Charles Macklin (c. 1697 - 1797), who of course, went on to become a famous actor and playwright in London. An Autumn School has been held in his honour in Culdaff every October since 1990.
The Penal Laws were gradually repealed, and the prohibition on Irish teachers was lifted in 1782. In 1832, State elementary schools considered fair and accepted by the Irish Catholic population were instituted, which resulted in the decline of the Hedge School system. Hedge Schools had done what was necessary to demonstrate that the Irish would defy laws designed to erode their culture and they highlighted the love of the Irish for learning.