Gaelic education had been provided by the bardic schools, but by the eighteenth century these had virtually disappeared. They were an institution of the pre–Christian Celtic world, originating in remote antiquity; similar schools were found in Scotland and Wales.59 Irish education in the eighteenth century was for the most part an inadequate and unstable hotchpotch of often well–intentioned and always inadequately financed schemes. Moreover, regional variations make it impossible to come to any valid conclusions about its overall impact on the population at any time during the century. In 1841, 72 per cent of the population were estimated to be illiterate, but there were wide regional differences, from an illiteracy rate of 23.7 per cent in largely Presbyterian Antrim, where literacy was required to read the Bible, to 80.5 per cent in Mayo.60 In the early years of the nineteenth century Carr reported that 'the instruction of the common people is in the lowest state of degradation.'61 A few years later Wakefield confirmed this judgement, declaring that 'the only thing connected with it, the remembrance of which gives me pleasure, is the desire manifest to obtain it.' However, many school teachers had been involved in propagating the revolutionary philosophies of the 1790s,62 and Carleton confirms that in the early nineteenth century there was a dearth of schoolmasters.63
Until the final quarter of the century, various penal laws gave the Established Church an official monopoly of education, and although the severity of the legislation was often mitigated by a mild application, the inconvenience of obtaining education remained. The most important of these restrictive acts were the 1665 Act of Uniformity, the 1695 Act to restrain foreign education, the 1704 Act to prevent the further growth of Popery, and the 1709 confirmation of the 1704 Act. The 1665 Act required that 'every schoolmaster ... conform to the Church of Ireland as it is now by law established ... take the oath of allegiance and supremacy' as well as obtain a licence from the Anglican bishop of the diocese in which he resided. The 1695 Act attempted to prohibit the education of Catholic children in Catholic countries overseas.
These two acts were strengthened and extended by the 1704 and 1709 Acts of Queen Anne. For instance, the 1704 Act required that a child suspected of having been sent overseas for their education should be produced within two months. The 1709 act endorsed the 1665 Act, decreeing firstly that Roman Catholic teachers would be considered clergy and 'incur all the penalties and forfeitures', and secondly that 'no person of the popish religion shall or may be guardian to, or have any custody of, any orphan.' Orphans were to be assigned to conforming relatives who were to ensure that the child was brought up a Protestant. These acts remained in force until 1782, and only after further Catholic Relief Acts in 1792 and 1793 could Catholics enjoy similar educational facilities to Protestants.