The Hedge Revival: wisdom from the margins

(This article was originally posted on ‘The Art of Enchantment‘, Sharon’s blog.)

It’s a funny creature, the word ‘hedge’: like all the best words, it’s something of a shapeshifter. In one sense we use it to convey a boundary, something which closes us in. Think of the modern suburban hedge: regimented rows of neatly clipped, soulless leylandii; privet which has been so harshly treated that it forgets how to bloom. But in another sense, we use the word ‘hedge’ to indicate something quite different: the wild margins which surround the cultivated fields. Think now of the gnarly old hedgerows of Britain and Ireland: thick, richly flowering, berried hawthorn and elder, blackthorn and hazel. An abundance of food and shelter for wild things. Secret places, where treasure might be found, where birds might speak to you, and foxes sing to the stars. An ancient hedge is a place where anything might happen. A liminal place, where the wisdom of the wild margins is available to all. Hedge wisdom.

Hedge wisdom is on the rise. As our decadent, crumbling social, political and religious institutions continue to fail us, and as we watch the consequences of our own actions deplete, pollute and choke the planet, more and more people are looking elsewhere for answers — answers to the ever-more urgent question of how we should live now. People are looking to the wisdom which all the old stories tell us can be found on the fringes, in the forest, in the wild thickets of the ancient hedge.

The word ‘hedge’ has a wonderful and unique connotation here in Ireland, in the term ‘hedge school’, which has its roots here. Hedge schools date back to the seventeenth century, when the old indigenous Bardic schools had finally been choked out. Efforts were made by British invaders to force Irish children to attend schools which were designed to train them in the English language and customs, and the ‘true religion’ (Protestant Christianity). Rather than submit to such indoctrination, the Irish went back to the hedge, and created their own schools. No institutions, just a healthy respect for the old ways. Some classes might indeed have taken place outdoors next to or behind a hedgerow, but they were mostly held in bothies and barns. In 1655 Oliver Cromwell called them trainings in ‘superstition, idolatory and the evill customs of this Nacion.’ I’ll go for that.

They might have been ‘unofficial’, but the hedge schools were run by teachers rich in learning: sometimes wandering poets, or people who’d left behind their clerical training. These were teachers who understood the old ways of learning: teachers, more often than not, in the old bardic traditions of this island. The Bardic schools of Ireland had their origins in ‘prehistory’, and later co-existed with monastic (Catholic) schools all the way up to the sixteenth century. Their traditions were highly rigorous, and predominantly oral in nature; they were founded on a love of language, story and poetry, and on techniques of memorisation, recitation and repetition. In the Bardic tradition it was important to get the old stories and poems right, because they contained encoded wisdom. The hedge schools — community-based, usually informal and sometimes quite spontaneous — were the natural successors to the Bardic schools during those long decades of discrimination and oppression.

(If you’re interested in the history, Brian Friel’s wonderful play Translations, set in a hedge school, covers the consequences of the loss of Irish language and traditions in the later transition to English-focused national schools.)

For many, many years now I’ve lived on the margins — the farthest wild edges of Scotland and Ireland. On the remotest western shore of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, where a winding road described as the longest cul-de-sac in Europe gave out into the mountains. In a green river valley in the far north-western hills of Donegal — and now even farther west, as we slowly complete our move to the beautiful hills and lakes of Conamara. I’m soaked in the wisdom of the margins, steeped in the myths and stories which spring from those liminal lands. Hedge wisdom seeps into the air I breathe every day. It’s all there is.

Those of you who have been following this blog will know that in returning to Conamara I am following my heart — following it all the way back to a home I never really left behind when I departed, twenty years ago now. But I am also following the lure of a house. An unlikely, neglected bargain of a house in a lovely hidden valley, with the beautiful mountains of Conamara as its northern backdrop, and a large lake to the front. (The house is hidden in those trees to the right, on the opposite of the lake, from which it’s separated by a small road and a field.) A unique and bizarre house: an unloved and rather delapidated 1970s bungalow with an unfinished, vaulted-roofed, mezzanined extension the size of a ballroom stuck on its side. And there in the garden beside it, its crowning glory, and the final sticky thread in this new web in which I seemed accidentally to have found myself caught: a ‘studio-chalet’ built for an artist. A teachín, a small house reconstructed on the site of the original old cottage.

The perfect setting for a hedge school.


It’s just two and a half months ago now since I found myself turning spontaneously, on a whim, down an unmarked lane, and pulling up in front of a house which appeared to be for sale. I stood outside it with my mouth open and a whole world of previously unimagined possibilities blossoming in my head. It had been on the market for over three years, so unlikely a prospect was it for the typical property-purchaser in Conamara. Three hours later, we made an offer on it; last Friday it became ours. On Monday, the builders moved in, and by the end of this month we hope to be installed in what in future will be known as An Teach Buí: The Yellow House. (I have the bright shade already picked out, and all I’m waiting for is a little spring weather.) Our Hedge School will be based in the teachín.

Like the originals after which it is named, it has a subversive intent. No institutions, no dogma, no prophets or preachers: just the wisdom of the hedge, and of the land. The wisdom which the wind blows down from the jagged peaks of the Conamara mountains, which the sea salts away in the vast network of rocky tidal inlets which characterise our coastline. Here, we will focus on myth, wild mind, and enchantment.

‘Myth’, because I am a mythologist, trained to Master’s level in the study of the original Celtic source material; trained in Celtic myths, beliefs, folklore, and folk ways. And because I believe that the re-mythologising of our places is one of the most important challenges we face today. More than that: it’s an act of radical belonging.

‘Wild mind’, because I am a psychologist whose focus has long been on lifting people out of the safe confines of their own heads, and connecting them back to the wild margins of the land — and to the Otherworld: the mundus imaginalis, the world of image and archetype which lies alongside our own.

And ‘enchantment’, yes, for sure. The kind of enchantment which involves a vivid sense of belongingness to a rich and many-layered world, a profound and wholehearted participation in the adventure of life. Enchantment is a natural, spontaneous human tendency – one we possess as children, but lose, through social and cultural pressures, as we grow older. I believe, though, that it is an attitude of mind which can be cultivated. The enchanted life is intuitive, embraces wonder, and fully engages the creative imagination – but it is also deeply embodied, ecological, grounded in place and community. Ultimately, to live an enchanted life is to pick up the pieces of our bruised and battered psyches, and to offer them the nourishment they long for. It is to be challenged, to be awakened, to be gripped and shaken to the core by the extraordinary which lies at the heart of the ordinary. Above all, to live an enchanted life is to fall in love with the world all over again.

That’s the wisdom of this particular margin; that is the focus of The Hedge School.

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