Quest for Knowledge…

Quest for Knowledge…

I am not a collector. I believe it has to do with running the archives of the Staten Island Museum. There were enough artifacts, documents, books, and photographs to last a lifetime, plus they were held in primitive conditions that probably took years off my life. (I am happy to report that we did move the collection to a new location in 2009.) But I do have one prized artifact. I have a rectangular piece of slate. It is not much to look at—if you do not know what it is. If you examine the accompanying image, you will see that four sides are beveled. One-hundred, two-hundred, and perhaps even three-hundred years ago that piece of slate had a frame. My mother, who gave me this piece of slate, informed me that the frame was for its protection. She believed the frame was made of some sturdy woven rush that had been collected in the old country. I assume the slate is valuable as an antique, but to me it is more valuable as an historic family artifact. It tells of an attempt to keep a population driven into the ground by ignorance. It tells of this people’s resilience and their rebellious nature. It tells of their quest for knowledge.

McHugh family slate that served as a “chalkboard” for a clandestine education in Ireland.

The rectangular piece of slate was used by one of my ancestors. in Ireland More than likely the person was a male child. Most importantly when he used this slate it was used to assist his efforts in learning his numbers, his letters, his catechism, and his language. A language that was, like education, forbidden. The man or woman who taught the child probably had a price on their head. This person was a schoolmaster—a dangerous person who could spread the gift of knowledge, thus encouraging thought, rumination, and self-improvement. The schoolmaster taught the children, and sometimes the adults, in, under, or behind an overgrown hedge, while one of the students stood lookout. Hence the name Hedge School.

Hedge school, Ireland, no date.

Learning was forbidden for Catholics in Ireland during the 1600’s, the 1700’s, and the early 1800’s. This ceased in 1829, when the Act of Catholic Emancipation ended the need for hedge schools. My piece of slate has not been dated. I assume that it was used by a McHugh family ancestor during the approximate 229-year period that I mentioned. The hedge school may have been located in County Fermanagh or in Glenfarne when my branch of the family relocated south into County Leitrim. When my grandmother Winnifred Keany McHugh gave it to my mother it had sat on the mantle over the kitchen fire for as long as my mother could remember. The simple slate piece was in a place of honor. I am now honored to have it as well.

Patsy McHugh (Belenets), Winnifred Keany McHugh, Rosemary McHugh (Salmon) Glenfarne, County Leitrim, Ireland, circa 1940’s.

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