In 17th century Britain, the Protestant English settlers of Ireland had failed to assimilate the native Irish Catholics, and there was serious political and religious tension on the island. In 1641, native Irish landowners staged a rebellion against the English settlers and failed. A bloody, complicated, and chaotic series of events unfolded causing political, economic, and religious instability in the England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Oliver Cromwell is remembered by the Irish as one of the greatest villains of history. Using all of his political and strategic might, he stabilized the situation by enacting genocidal penal laws preventing Irish Catholics from practicing their religion, and he undertook aggressive land acquisition. The situation is remembered by the Irish a in similar way that we remember the Jewish holocaust of Hitler.
In The Hedge School, our setting is 100 years after Cromwell’s pillaging of Ireland. Cromwell very specifically took the lands of the native Irish Catholic ruling class and placed them into the hands of English loyalists. In our story, Padraic Fritzbrian is the descendent of one of those native Irish rulers whose land was stolen by Cromwell. The Fritzbrian family now rents a cottage on their family lands and pays the English lord exorbitant rent and taxes.
At this time, it was illegal to educate the Irish. There were no schools or tutors for Irish children. Or rather, there were no official schools. Like many villages in Ireland, Padraic’s had an all-weather hedgerow school hidden in the fields and complete with students taking turns as look-out while their peers memorized Cicero.
Padraic is a very likable and relatable character. He is morally principled and he is very bright, but he is a typical young boy who will stretch the truth to do what he believes is right. Frankly, that concerned me a bit in the early chapters. I was worried that this story would glorify deception or forgive a bit of moral relativism. My fears were unnecessary. It does take many chapters to get resolve on this point, but it is crystal clear that truth is not to be toyed with.
Throughout the story, the Fitzbrian’s give us a beautiful example of Christian family life. Not only is this family culturally Catholic, but they are devout as well. They are human and make mistakes but they are holy and governed by the gospel.
This story is very exciting. Full of intrigue, power-struggles, secrets, and anonymous freedom-fighters. Like any good Irish story, there is tension, adventure, faith, a wee bit of romance, and a celebration of family. This would be a beautiful family read aloud, but I confess, John Lee reads it vastly better than I can. The audio recording is spectacular. John Lee nails the accent, pronounces the names correctly, and adds texture to the story with his narration craft.
Non-Catholic friends have asked if this book is for Catholics only. Not at all. This book is a living history book, and so it does not avoid the very real history of its setting. Because the characters are Catholic, we have one who wants to go to seminary in France, we hear about midnight masses in secret, we appreciate the sacramental life of the characters. It is not, however, an overtly evangelistic book. Non-Catholics may appreciate this little look into the everyday Catholic life of the Irish in the 18th century in the same way that Christians of all denominations can appreciate Chaim Potok’s The Chosen or GA Henty’s The Cat of Bubastes.
I would say that these living history books from Bethlehem Books are very similar to GA Henty novels. Compelling and historical adventurous stories with clear moral principles.