12 April 2021
How a 300-year-old hedge school
in Clarina has been transformed
The Hedge School Cottage and Sailor’s Haggard are twinned visitor attractions in Newtown, near Clarina, Co Limerick, that tell the stories of ordinary fisherfolk and schoolchildren and the stories of country life in a bygone age.
The cottage was rebuilt in 2018 by volunteers from the local community without any grants. The house was originally built about 1750 and became a hedge school in the early 1800s. Records from 1826 tell of one schoolmaster, a Mr O’Shea, who had 45 pupils.
It was donated to the community by the Limerick historian, Dr Matthew Potter, curator of the Limerick Museum, and his brother Michael in memory of their uncle Michael Potter, and to commemorate their father John Potter and his brother Joseph.
Restoring the former hedge school was an immense undertaking for the Newtown Cottage Association. About 20 local volunteers worked tirelessly over two years to turn a tumbledown, overgrown house into the beating heart of the local area. All the work was done on a voluntary basis, with 90-year-old Peter Byrnes as the ‘clerk of works.’
Many of the men who worked on it were retired, and no money was spent on materials. Trees were cut out, the remaining walls were taken down and new footings were put in place. The house was rebuilt stone-by-stone before being thatched with reeds from the river.
The hedge school cottage was officially opened on Sunday 2 September 2018, and in a short space of time it became a hub for meetings and social gatherings and an attraction for visitors.
Outside, there is a boatshed with a boat built by Peter Byrnes, a dancing square, seating. Children from the nearby Ballybrown National School buried a time capsule in the garden, not to be opened until 2 September 2068.
The story began in 2015 with the Sailor’s Haggard, a triangle of land across the road from the cottage that was a gift from Peter and Nancy Byrnes. He was the last of eight generations of Shannon fishermen, and their livelihood came to an end when EU regulations put an end to all fishing in the lower Shannon.
The site was transformed into a memorial to past generations of fishermen who worked the tidal waters of the Shannon river, and the symbols of their work remain in the Sailor’s Haggard, opened on 27 September 2015.
Buoyed by the success of this project, the Newtown Cottage Association moved on to an even bigger project across the road at the former hedge school.
Michael McNamara and Ted O’Leary are the curators of the two-roomed, white-washed cottage. It has an old-style country kitchen, while the second room houses a collection of artefacts reflecting life and work in the area. For older visitors, in particular, the cottage, with its open fire and bastible oven, is very evocative.
The cottage has become a hub for meetings and social gatherings and an attraction for visitors. These include singers Louise Morrissey and Mary Byrnes, active retired groups, school groups and residents from a nearby nursing home.
Like other museums and public buildings, the Hedge School Cottage is closed to visitors at present because of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. But the Sailor’s Haggard is an open area and is a pleasant place to stop and enjoy the spring sunshine.