Well meaning though it may be, I’m against teaching history to promote a shared identity

The historian Tristram Hunt has given a cautious welcome in the Times to Michael Gove’s controversial plans for the history curriculum in England,  (£) a topic I raised last month. This is interesting because Hunt is also a Labour MP and pro-Labour reaction to the Gove proposals was generally hostile. Hunt writes:

At the heart of the controversy is the question of Britishness. Critics suggest that in a modern, globalised world, dominated by China and India, it is backward and wrong-headed to promote some updated version of “Our Island Story”. Surely, tomorrow’s citizens should study Benin and Bangladesh as much as Great Britain?

In fact, in a multicultural society where civic ties are weaker, it is more important than ever to put British history above other national narratives. And it is vital to do so within the classroom as the traditional levers for inculcating a sense of the past — extended families; churches and chapels; Cubs and Scouts; political parties — are atrophying. A cohesive society requires a sense of national identity developed through a sympathetic and reflexive account of the British past.

As a social democrat Hunt is not in favour of the old Whig  pageant- of- English- history version  which presented Britain as the greatest democracy in the world  while ruling  “the  greatest Empire the world has ever seen”, without acknowledging any contradiction between the two claims.  He supports concentrating on British rather than “global” history as a means of strengthening declining “civic ties”. The course of English (sic) history may allow for this approach. It is a story of growth and expansion which had finally declined by the time of the Second World War, a fairly natural stop, with the coda of the post war period.  (Leave aside the casual equation of English with British, a topic for another day).

Versions of history that argue for a plague on both houses, over- emphasise victimhood  at the expense of  struggle and deny the appeal of revolution wouldn’t be history at all. So  can history reinforce – or in our case – help build – “civic ties”?  Is a civic approach to teaching  history  valid or a distortion ? If it is valid, how could it apply to divided Northern Ireland?  Who is thinking about it for schools, where any respectable version is bound to challenge the foundation myths of both states of Ireland and the course of events in the north?  Or is it happening already, more or less the same for Protestants as Catholics?  If so why does it seem to make so little impact at grass roots level, even Slugger level?

I’ve come across a fascinating set of researches on the teaching of history in Northern Ireland in 2007 supported by the “inter-board history panel.” It’s introduced by its editor Alan McCully of the University of Ulster. We’re not doing badly it seems,. although there appears to be no attempt to reach agreement on history as an agent for  community building. That lack of agreement may  do less harm than any attempt – surely doomed – to impose a bland poilitically correct orthodoxy.  Tell them the stories red in tooth and claw, give them the few  triumphs and the many  tragedies and keep them thinking and talking to their fellow students and their peers across the divide.  Below I offer isolated extracts which are no substitute for reading the whole thing. Just like history itself.

(The) history curriculum as introduced in 1990 provided teachers with a remit to address the community divisions in Northern Ireland through history teaching (and was being portrayed as such to our foreign visitors) yet it was obvious that, at least among the local teachers represented, there was no consensus as to the appropriateness of this aim. It has been my view ever since a forum be created whereby the history teaching community in the province can engage in informed debate on the nature and purpose of their craft in a society emerging from conflict. Such a debate appears even more necessary at a time when in-service provision is gathering momentum for the introduction of the Pathways  curriculum that even more prominently emphasises a social utilitarian role for history in our classrooms. Otherwise, there is a possibility of teacher resistance to curriculum that even more prominently emphasises a social utilitarian role for history in our classrooms. .., and teacher resistance  to what may be perceived by some as a distortion of the discipline for social ends.

It is important to recognise and acknowledge the contribution of history teachers in Northern Ireland to providing their pupils with an objective view of history, especially the history of these islands, during those decades when civil unrest was at its most intense.

Over the last ten or so years, as Northern Ireland has moved from conflict to something better, the two main communities have not yet resolved their differences and have not yet arrived at a position where each has sufficient knowledge and understanding of the other’s cultural and historical traditions. In addition, the migration to Northern Ireland of people from other countries has created further concerns as evidence of racism has compounded the sectarianism that, for many, has been too characteristic of Northern Ireland society as a whole. The challenge and opportunity for education is considerable, and not least for teachers of history.

During the decades of “The Troubles”, there was an understandable desire that schools should provide pupils with a safe haven away from the tension and fear of the streets. Furthermore, many teachers of history were understandably uncomfortable in bringing to the attention of their pupils controversial and contested issues relating to British and Irish history, especially those issues which were central to each community’s perception of its own cherished past. Other imperatives now apply, not least the emergence of Citizenship in the curriculum, and there is a strong case to be advanced that teachers of history should be much more proactive in raising with their pupils sensitive and contested issues relating to the history, culture and traditions of the two main communities in Northern Ireland, not to proselytise or “to improve community relations” but to ensure that pupils have a better knowledge and awareness of how key events in Irish and British history are perceived by each community, and how the past continues to be interpreted on the streets of Northern Ireland.


Keith C. Barton, University of Cincinnati

Educators in Northern Ireland should be able to build on students’ historical interest and knowledge rather than thinking that they are “blank slates” when it comes to history or that their historical understanding is dominated by sectarian narratives. At the same time, educators may want to consider whether developing a shared sense of identity—one that transcends the community divide—should become an explicit goal of the curriculum.


Students’ criteria for selecting events as historically significant reflected the social context of history in Northern Ireland, but for the most part, their ideas were not simple reflections of either Unionist or Nationalist viewpoints.

Among students at both schools, the most common reason for selecting an event as historically significant was the extent of death or hardship involved (regardless of the community affected), and in many cases this was explicitly linked to the need for remembrance.


…more common among Protestant students, was the role of historical events in creating the demographic and political makeup of Northern Ireland; Catholics, on the other hand, were more likely to stress events that symbolised the need for rights, fairness, and equality. Finally, students from both schools often noted the importance of events that brought Catholics and Protestants together in the past or that had the potential for bringing about peace in the future. Girls, meanwhile, were more likely to emphasise themes of remembrance, cooperation, and inequality, while boys were more likely to refer to community conflict or the political and demographic origins of the state.

For educators who hope that historical study may contribute to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, the findings of this study are encouraging, because they suggest that young people are not overly committed to sectarian historical perspectives and that they apply their criteria of significance to members of both communities. Educators might capitalise on students’ ideas by studying the impact of political violence on both communities, and by highlighting instances of Catholic and Protestant cooperation in history.


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  • Brian,

    You have raised a number of interesting issues, but as long as most Catholics are educated at church-supported schools–those that we refer to in America as parochial schools–and most Protestants are educated at secular state schools there is no worry that large numbers of students of both communities will be exposed to a common history, bland or otherwise. Your discussion seems most relevant to the relatively small number of students who attend cross-community schools. These are probably mostly the children of Alliance supporters or non-voting parents from mixed marriages. A few may also be the children of the ruling elite who send their children to these schools for academic reasons and then do their best to correct any “false history” that they receive in school (or at least make them aware that this history is not the politicallly correct version and should be kept to themselves out on the street.)

  • Sounds like there are those who would like to manipulate the thinking of children. That is a dangerous row to hoe.

  • Kevsterino

    Critical thinking is so important when investigating history. Every source has to be examined for bias. Questioning conventional easy answers to questions that never seem to go away, trying to understand the prevailing mindset of the times can provide a lifetime of fulfilling education.

    I think most teachers teach history backwards. I guess I’m getting old and have seen too many times when popular myth overtook facts. I think we need to teach history to the young, but first need to teach them to never be content to only read one side of a story. That is if you want them to understand.

    If on the other hand you simply wish to indoctrinate, one side is enough. Anything more works against your aim.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    I’m afraid I may have lost your point somewhere along the way so apologies if I rebuild it as a straw man, that’s not my intention.

    With regards to potential blandness of common identity building, there are a few topics that could be addressed without any potential ‘lets get along together and hug’ baggage.

    For example, Dr Ian Malcolm (no, not Jeff Goldbloom) unleashed a tractor trailer load of facts regarding the history of Irish Protestants and their relationship Gaelic e.g. some where in his book it is speculated that over half of early Presbyterian planters spoke some form of Gaelic.

    We all know how certain parts of the unionist community react to anything written in Irish, the points within this book (assuming he’s not a Graham Hancock type figure) could potentially help take the sting out the Irish language controversy (yes, I’m aware Sinn Fein could play their part too but that’s another topic).

    That would potentially have soothed some of the rather more ‘excitable’ loyalist types in my history class with regards to their views on Irish rather than learning about the plague and great fire of London.

    Everyone knows about Irish soldiers in the British army but it is rather glanced over as opposed to being explored in great detail.

    Leading on from that could be a topic quite relevant to today in our age of the perception of ‘Irishness vs Britishness’, the topic of ‘Britishness with Irishness’. The formerly mentioned perception would have been at odds with many (if not most) of the Unionist ‘heroes’ of the past.

    To take into consideration your point about it’s relevance in the face modern immigration one could talk about the previous waves of immigration into Ireland, Flemmings, Gallowglass, Palatines, Huguenots or even (arguably) the ‘attempt’ to bring in Jews (well, their factories and money) to Ireland.

    I know this isn’t news to you or most people here but it would certainly be an eye opener for many students in secondary school, help dismantle some of the harmful perceptions and no more bland than what many students consider history to be anyway.

  • FDM

    A question which sprung to my mind when reading the article and comments was this.

    “Which community has the best grasp of the history of this region?”

    I think there was some insinuation of ‘false history’ being taught. In my experience a much wider charge of ‘history avoidance’ that could be levelled more effectively as a criticism.

    I think the past of this place is more challenging to those who ‘were in charge’, since responsibility and culpability can be much more easily left at their door. When you see the amount of cognitive dissonance that goes on in terms of current events, you can see the the reasoning for making efftorts to tone down the volume from the past as well by people with an agenda.

    Subsequently you see the prevalence of tangential elements of history in curricula which avoid[or tone-down] the painful elements of our collective past like a pestilence.

    I imagine most state educated children could tell you a little about this or that English King or Queen, but if you asked them who James Connolly was they wouldn’t have a notion.

    Remembering of course that James made it into the 100 Greatest Britains poll in 2002, placed 64. I know it was a populist list, but still to make it there after having been dead for three generations shows his remaining impact.

    A small example but you see the skew I am talking about.

    I hear the political arguments offered by the the rank and file from the streets and they are so threadbare, so skewed and more importantly so removed from actual historical events that they leave you cringing. The failure to teach kids the past ‘warts and all’ exacerbates our problems here.

    For instance if you asked the average fleg protestor “who started the troubles?”, I think the simplistic three letter abbreviation answer would be depressingly predictable.

  • ..“who started the troubles?”?

    I think your three letter answer is depressingly true.
    For the past 3 or 4 years, my bother has been a taxi driver in Belfast (a break from being a factory manager in the Far East). He has talked to many thousands of people, going often to the most “depressed” areas of the city. He discovered a few things – most people didn’t have much animosity against “themmuns”, for example, and that very few knew anything about the history of English/Irish relations apart from a small number of events such as the Battle of the Boyne. So he decided to write something about the history and took time out from the taxicab business. His first book (of a couple at least) was published in December and it deals with the events in the latter half of the 16th Century. It is called “Tyrone Triumphant” and is available from Amazon.co.uk
    He is finalizing the follow up dealing with the “Flight of the Earls” and the subsequent Plantation. I’m biassed, of course, but I think it’s a fascinating read.

  • Otto

    ““Which community has the best grasp of the history of this region?””

    “I imagine most state educated children could tell you a little about this or that English King or Queen, but if you asked them who James Connolly was they wouldn’t have a notion”.

    That’s a pretty creative imagination you have there. There weren’t any kings in my (80’s) O’ level (prod/state school) history.

    It was Home Rule bills => HoL reform => Rising => Civil War => social progress/contest in Ireland the 1950’s – girls at cross-roads vs Hydro projects.

    Separately WW1 & WW2, Russian Revolution, Boxer Rebellion => Mao, Missile Crisis. Can’t remember the rest. Got a B when that was an Ok grade.

    Is there even a difference in the history curriculum taught? They don’t sit different exams or have different examiners in different schools do they?

    If we want history to be a living subject we should teach the history of our own place. I’d go with the 250 years from 1560 to 1810 – what were the earls like, what exactly was the deal between O’Neill, Hamilton and Montgomery, how did that differ from the later plantation, what was the background of the people coming in – how was the whole thing informed by the reformation and suppression of religious freedom by church authorities in Scotland; the enlightenment, the European flowering of republicanism. Did the 1798 republicans die our, emigrate or revert to loyalism as liberalism and free trade became established through the Whigs in the empire? How’s all this written in our human geography?

    If we can teach the Rising we can teach all that. I don’t know the answer to any of it and I’m pretty sure the brains of people who attended catholic schools aren’t much better furnished. I’d say we’re all (deliberately) in the dark on a lot of the “who do you think you are” stuff.

  • …from 1560 to 1810..

    Around about 1560 is when my bother’s history book, Tyrone Triumphant, starts, just in case you are interested.

  • Otto

    There you go Joe. A text already.

  • FDM


    “That’s a pretty creative imagination you have there. ”

    Otto you describe your own personal experience of your history education and call that the defacto state of affairs across all the different state, faith and non-faith private schools across all the different curricula and exam boards that they are studying towards? Brave.

    However the evident ignorance of the people on the street wouldn’t seem to correlate with your experience.

    “Is there even a difference in the history curriculum taught?”

    Of course there are differences and I am surprised you didn’t realise that. When I went to history A-level you pretty much could pick and chose what periods of history you studied from the accepted list. You wrote your 5 essay style answers in the exam to 5 different questions posed from a list of twenty(???), covering different places/events/periods. Obviously the exam board also you are studyng with there are differences also. For instance I studied the French Revolution and Bonaparte really heavily as well as elements of WW2.

    “I’m pretty sure the brains of people who attended catholic schools aren’t much better furnished.”

    I will tell you honestly that I just don’t agree with that. Even at University when interacting with the talent of the other community they hadn’t a notion about their history, but they could tell me quite a bit about Henry VIII.

    I would bet money that if we asked East Belfasts finest young “Becky the Babe” with the integrated schooling to tell us a little bit about James Connolly she wouldn’t have a notion. Yet she would be quite willing to have an argument with you about how themmuns are destoying “Ulster” one flag at a time.

  • FDM


    The cousins and bedfellows of Ulster loyalism.

    Says it all really.

  • Otto

    I’ll take “brave” FDM. I’ll even accept reckless if you like as I’m not sure I give a shit whether I’m right or wrong about EVERYBODY – just pointing out that we used a book at my prod school to study modern Irish history that I guess wouldn’t be that different to the one being used in Catholic schools at the time.

    When did you learn about Connolly? 11-14, 14-16 or 16+? What was elective and what was core curriculum?

    I’m afraid I didn’t do history at A level. Sums and potions were more my thing.

  • Otto

    Could this be Becky’s integrated school?


    Assuming year 9 & 10 topics (click the drop-down) are studied by everyone before elections at GCSE it looks like Becky wouldn’t have any excuse not to know a bit of Irish history.

    Worrying obsession with Hitler at GCSE though. Maybe that’s why no-one can make a argument now without referencing him.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I was at a state grammar (mainly Prod) in the 80s and we were taught about Home Rule, 1912, Easter Rising, Independence and Irish Civil War for O Level, like Otto – we got plenty. The materials seemed to many of us written from a nationalist perspective, so we did exposed quite early to all that – and most of our history teachers were nationalists.

  • Riocard

    Excellent post, Brian. I all for teaching the tooth and claw of history, as the only way to get a grip on it. On that matter I must commend the Ulster Scots Agency. I was in their wee shop in Belfast a couple of weeks back, where I grabbed a couple of free historical pamphlets about the life of Saint Patrick, the Ulster Covenant and the Ulster Plantation. As a history-reading, left-leaning Irish republican gaelgeoir, I must say I found these pamphlets an-mhaith ar fad. Okay, the Unionist world view was maintained, but I don’t have a problem with that. Nonetheless these leaflets were beautifully produced, full of interesting details and remarkably fair in their analysis. I doff my hat to all concerned.

  • FDM


    I would have been aware of Connolly 11-14. Studied the socialist, republican and rising aspects of Connolly’s life 14-16 [as I recall, its fuzzy in there] and then 16+ as well for sure.

    In terms of core curriculum we followed themes more.

    Like socio-economic reasons for change and then took examples from all over the place. Examples being industrial revolution, french revolution, the great famine, the great depression and then would put that in the context of how it influenced change.

    I can recall we also studied many individuals Bismarck, Metternich, Garibaldi, Castro, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Lloyd-George, Baldwin, Chamberlain, Churchill, Bonar Law, Disraeli etc…

    We covered the collapse of the many houses and empires Hapsburgs/Ottomans/Bourbon/Romanovs, how this came to pass and again the river that ran through their demise.

    In terms of Irish history we studied the full gambit going all the back to the earliest human settlements through to the moden day [11-14]. The modern aspects we tried to put into a local social history context [14-16]. As students we would visit old folks homes and talk to them about their lives and experiences about what they experienced in the region between say 1930-present[then] from political, social, economic, jobs etc… points of view. Additionally we would pull in lecturers from UU and Queens on particular subjects, for instance revolutionary France and have an afternoon session with them going over their perspectives of that period.

    11-16 goodness knows how close we stuck to the curriculum but the same teacher managed to steer us all through O-level and A-level with applomb. In truth he was the best teacher I ever had by about 4 miles and breathing easily at the finish.

    I remember that time very fondly for this subject alone.

    Though I shovel through working life with equations…

  • BarneyT

    Start with, “The Protestant Irish Republicans….”. That might catch the attention. Questions might then emerge.

    I dont envy anyone trying to find a way through this. I raise the point of Irish Republicanism as its history is interesting and perhaps today it can present a few ironies that might trigger some level of interest and cause a level of examination.

    Imagine a wee east befast asking the question, “what do you mean the fenian was a protestant?”

  • Gopher

    Not that I am wishing to start a polemic over Irish History and its place in the world, but the first television image I remember was a B52 unloading over North Vietnam, that image appears to have left a deeper impression on my curiosity than footage from the same era of all the explosions in Belfast. Seeing American and French built Skyhawks and Mirage’s streak over the Sinai chasing Russian built Migs and armour in full colour resonated more than seeing images of disheveled men in snorkel jackets round a road block. Through television Vietnam and the Middle East were closer than events less than twenty miles away and infinitely more interesting.
    Unlike; it seems the other posters here,when I was at school in the mid seventies I was more bewildered as to why and how there were thousands of Cuban soldiers in Angola and a Colonel Callan on trial for his life than the reason for power cuts caused by some tedious local strike. School I thought would have given me answers but the three field system, nor the murder of Thomas Beckett could not supply them. Should the curriculum not be current and interesting for people like me?
    Thank god my father had equipped me with a library card from an early age so the Lockheed crisis could take me from the seventies through the highest scoring Luftwaffe ace to the Kammhuber line to area bombing, the arguments for and against and back to the present through the surrogate of nuclear weapons dropped on Japan to make sense of those Red Square parades and concepts like Polaris, MX, MAD and those other Cold War acronyms you were never taught, because meanwhile back at school you were learning (or being bored rigid) about the bubonic plague or something called a shadoof.
    I will not knock the education system for Henry VIII, having grown up seeing larger than life characters beamed to your living room like Henry Kissinger, Moshi Dayan, Idi Amin and Yassar Arafat the school just about grazed the the flesh that there was actually personality in History thanks to being told Henry had six wives. That was the salient fact imparted albeit unintentionally from the sterile curriculum.
    Martin Luther King and JFK were not two decades dead but the American West (that’s the bit without the American Civil War or Spanish-American or even Texas ie all the interesting stuff) was taught to a disinterested classroom by a teacher reading from a script. Seriously they got there money easy in those days.
    After the mind numbing boring “medicine through the ages” (Handy if you ever want to out bore Simon Schama) We finally got to Ireland in school and skirmishes along Boyne, Land reform, famine and emancipation, Home Rule and the Easter Rising. All very interesting I’m sure but by this stage of my young life I had read of Kursk, the Naval Arms Race, the Congress of Vienna, 1848, etc etc etc etc and understood scale and none interested me except where they conjoined real history. Meanwhile a Shah fell, America was humbled, Afghanistan was invaded and fundamentalism was born. In the UK a task force went to war against a Junta and history was unfolding before my eyes. n the classroom the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone just could not compete.

  • Ruarai

    “In fact, in a multicultural society where civic ties are weaker, it is more important than ever to put British history above other national narratives.”

    I completely agree with this statement. (On the assumption that ‘teaching history’ includes not simply conveying narratives but fostering the skills essential to evaluating the veracity, reliability and relevance of competing narratives.)

    Surely we can see that young people (like all people) ought to have some appreciation for and understanding of their history?

    Is cultivating an emphasis on certain values so abhorrent a thought? Shouldn’t British youths feel proud of Britain’s liberal traditions (and the struggles that shaped them), for all their shortcomings and contradictions? Shouldn’t British youths feel a sense of pride and indeed debt that they live in a liberal society based on individual rights; a society with a free press, with struggles towards gender equality and so on? Isn’t fostering this pride essential as a means of holding to account those in society, whether Islamists on the fringes or spooks and crooks at the heart of power, who represent a threat to such values?

    By all means allow British youths to reject these values but make them actively reject them rather than merely losing them through neglect.

    (I’ve never seen this as a left or right wing point since the very “rights” that ‘right wing British patriots’ boast about are generally the legacy of “left wing” struggles – there’s common ground here…)

    As for Ireland north or south, look: Since any credible understanding of Irish history assumes an understanding of British history – its influence and over-laps and particularly its ironies and contradictions, what’s the problem? One cannot hope to understand one without an appreciation of its relationship with the other.)

    My gripe is more with the disproportionate focus on political history. Where’s the focus on the history of technology and innovation? On gender? And countless other lenses that are arguably more important and relevant to today and the future?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    A lot of the posts here focus on people who are well educated, articulate and able to think for themselves.

    I doubt if many of the people here are going to take to the streets some day to lob projectiles at ‘themuns’.

    We all know that NI has bucket loads of these people, many of whom don’t care a fig for education and are content to base their prejudices on myth and sand-like foundations.

    Granted, no matter what they’re taught/told in school most of them will turn out as bad eggs anyway, but, there must be some chance that a ‘common identity’ orientated history or even an Irish ‘believe it or not’ theme may affect some of these people in their early teenage years.

    The general Protestant paranoia to Gaelic might be dampened some what if they were shown that there was a good chance that their ancestors spoke it.

    I never knew about the existence of Protestant (dissenter, whatever) Republicans till I left school and I’m from the same neck of the woods as where Roddy McCorley swung by his.

    Granted, it wouldn’t have converted us into fire breathing rebels, but at least at the age of 12 we wouldn’t have shut out the idea that Protestants could be Republicans, but by the time we were 16 this thought was very much entrenched.

    Magherafelt’s loyalist arch has a mugshot of Cromwell (no warts, curiously), they might not be too happy to have him up there if we were taught that his henchmen gave the Northern Presbyterians a good flogging too.
    A few eyebrows might be raised if we were all told that Owen Roe O’Neill relieved the English Garrison at Derry who were under siege from a Catholic Royalist force.

    So on and so forth.

    I’m prepared to give the A level history students the benefit of the doubt that they can figure things out for themselves, but I don’t have the same confidence in those who could some day be potential rock-lobbers.

    With that in mind I thoroughly advocate shoving some myth-busting down their throats for the first few years at school so that even if they only leave with one thing from their high school career that it may at least be the fact that “King Billy had Tims in his army at the Boyne so he did…”

  • Gopher

    “A few eyebrows might be raised if we were all told that Owen Roe O’Neill relieved the English Garrison at Derry who were under siege from a Catholic Royalist force.”

    I look forward to the day the War of three Kingdoms and 1690 is taught rationally in schools, but you would probably have to sack most teachers to achieve that and re-educate them from scratch

  • Viridiplantae


    I think the past of this place is more challenging to those who ‘were in charge’, since responsibility and culpability can be much more easily left at their door.

    Like the culpability for being Christ killers can be left at the door of David Baddiel and Maureen Lipman?

    We’ve enough problems with people blaming entire groups in the here and now such as blaming all Catholics for the actions of the IRA (“any taig will do”) or all Protestants for the actions of the UVF, when the actors are still alive, without dredging up genetic guilt concerning things that happened before anyone alive today was even born and attributing it to living people.

  • Reader

    FDM: I will tell you honestly that I just don’t agree with that. Even at University when interacting with the talent of the other community they hadn’t a notion about their history, but they could tell me quite a bit about Henry VIII.
    Isn’t it all about context? If you want to know why there’s a load of Prods knocking around the British Isles, then you study Henry VIII. If you want to know why there’s a union of crowns, then you study his offspring. And if you want to know why we all live in a Socialist Republic, you study James Connolly.

  • Thanks, Am Ghobsmacht, for some very interesting postings!

    “Magherafelt’s loyalist arch has a mugshot of Cromwell (no warts, curiously), they might not be too happy to have him up there if we were taught that his henchmen gave the Northern Presbyterians a good flogging too.”

    To be precise, considerably more Presbyterian planters of the Laggan army were slaughtered at the battle of Lisnagarvy in few hours by Old Nolls’ man in the north, Venables, that were killed in conflict with the Confederate Catholic armies during all the preceding years of the Confederate wars. The remainder of the planters narrowly escaped being moved elsewhere by the triumphant Cromwellians, who had little love for Scots Presbyterians either side of the narrow seas.

    And in the literature of 1688/9 a “Loyalist” is someone supporting James II, and that a Jacobite grenadier officer who served against the Enniskilleners and later among the Wild Geese was refused entry to Les Invalides because of his Protestantism. Alas, ç ira!

    If you have Irish, try “Aisling Ghéar” by Breandan Ó Buachalla for a new slant on a very hidden Ireland.

    “Worrying obsession with Hitler at GCSE though.” Been there, taught it! It’s to get everyone so scared that the Totalitarian Democracy (good article in Wikipedia, check it out) that we all have to endure looks really good, like the guy sitting beside the mad eyed wee runt with the toothbrush moustache at a Saturday night social.

    I’m all for a history that really means something to people, rather than a history that spoon feeds us social engineering agendas. Joe’s brother’s “Tyrone Triumphant” looks like the work of someone attempting to work with the sense that this is a long memory we all have, not the property of the social scientists, although I’d take up the issue that my namesake was Hugh O’ Kelly’s uncle (see Wikipedia again, Shane O’Neill and Phelim Caoch entries).

  • Kevsterino

    Being an history addict, this thread is a gold mine for me. It has already launched my attention on a half dozen tangents. Keep it up, folks.

  • Gopher

    Cromwell was quite a political animal and could keep his animosity in check when needed. He gave the Scots presbyterians a great deal of latitude despite his “enmity” of that “insolent sect” only really blocking assemblies because of their role in “past disorders” 10,000 troops and Monk off course helped religious tolerance in Scotland which caused them “so much happiness”. I always wonder would the troops have followed Monk and restored the Monarchy had he not been trusted by Cromwell and if he had not slaughtered the garrison and plundered Dundee.

  • I must declare an interest here for honesty’s sake, as information to the thread’s readers, just as the NI Councillors, MPs and MLAs never fail to do. Every time I accompanied my grandfater as he drove his Citreon Light 15 through Drogheda, he would stop and show me the tower on the mound. “Than man Cromwell hanged an ancestor of ours on that mound, for fighting for his king and country, an atrocity even in his terrible times.”

    Cromwell’s possible lack of animosity, Gopher, makes the atrocity of Drogheda even more obscene.

  • Coll Ciotach

    The push to divide the nationalist people from their compatriots south of the border has been going on apace by way of the school curriculum. The geography textbooks treat the south as a different country, all examples are six county based. It is a disgrace that Sinn fein have been in charge will this partitionist propaganda is being implemented

  • Gopher

    17th Century warfare I’m afraid Seaan, Monk did as bad to Dundee, Montrose to Aberdeen and Inchiquin, at Cashel. Monk restored the crown and Inchiquin converted and Montrose is now Quixotic. Cromwell is Cromwell, love, loathe or have a rational opinion on him take your pick.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Only some 17th century warfare, Gopher. While such levels of atrocity had become commonplace in the German wars, (such as the sack of Magdaburg that so haunted the beseiged at Derry in 1689) both Cromwell and Murrough the Burner pushed destructiveness on behalf of the revolutionary English parliament to levels previously unknown in Ireland. This is what has left, amongst we Irish, such an evil aura on Cromwell’s name through centuries, as the perpetrator of new levels of atrocity in a war that had scarcly been free of horror before.

    My grandfather was a decorated combat soldier and military historian on whom his nephew Michael Roberts cut his theories on the Seventeenth Century Military Revolution. So scarsely someone to name Drogheda such a singular atrocity without some reason…..

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Coll Ciotach

    Assuming you’re correct about how differences between the Northern and southern education,I still fail to see why this may be as important as having some sort of common ground between the Northern State and Catholic systems.

    By and large the consequences of singing from 2 different hymn sheets are potentially much more severe for the communities living in Northern Ireland than they are for nationalists living either side of the border.

    Before we start worrying about how different people in the Republic might view history I think it’s better to have a solid foundation of a few home truthes right across the board so that never again do I have to be subjected to assaults on my ears such as this little beauty from a Belfast man explaining ‘history’ to tourist on a bus as we crossed the Boyne on our way to Dublin:

    “Here’s where it all began, 900 years of oppression started, in 1690…”

    Obviously (hopefully!!) a very isolated case but a great example of why we need some sort of history for thickos/bigots/disinterested types/other (or indeed more emphasis on arithmetic).

    Again, I’m not necessarily advocating such subject uniformity for A-level students (or whatever they’re now called) but definitely for the little darlings who are fresh in the door of secondary school and where a lot of bigoted dogma can start to take root in their minds.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Don’t put much effort into an answer (if ye even feel compelled to retort, it’s mainly just my opinion on the matter, nothing ground breaking) as I’m off on a contract in a few hours.

    By the time I get back St Pat’s day will have happened and the papers and blogs will be full of accusations of policing double standards and God only knows what else…

  • FDM


    “Like the culpability for being Christ killers can be left at the door of David Baddiel and Maureen Lipman?”

    Anybody alive that was there that day? No they have been dead these 2000 years. Two millenia. I believe many of our own Pontius Pilates, Pharisees and zealots are very much still alive. Many of them have position, sport grand titles, hold medals and accolades for their part in murder, oppression and grand-scale sectarianism.

    “without dredging up genetic guilt concerning things that happened before anyone alive today was even born and attributing it to living people”

    Genetic guilt? Lets get the protagonists in front of a judge and jury and lets assess their guilt. But oh yeah “no HET”, “no more inquiries” were two of the clarion calls of the fleg protests.

    It seems a section of our population wants the past locked in a box and dropped somewhere off Mailin Head amongst the U-boat wrecks.

  • Gopher


    Was the the 80 years war in the low countries any different than the 30 years War? After all many captains on the numerous sides in Ireland had experience of both? Mechelen? Maastricht?or acouple of centuries later at Badajoz, Or how about the French civil wars of Religion?

    Michael Jones victory at Rathmines defined the nature of the coming phase of war. With no manoeuvre capability left the Royalist forces elected to engage in positional warfare and let disease and pestilence do their work and by all accounts in 17th century Ireland these were more effective than sword or shot. There aren’t many nice ways to die and 17th century siege warfare was as lethal to those outside the walls than to those in.

    David Hume in his eulogy of Monck neglects to mention Dundee, but furnishes us with an interesting insight into Cromwell’s mind at Drogheda. I’m not going to throw his 6 volumes in the bin because of this oversight. Ask your grandfather if he is hopefully still alive and in good health about machine gunners and snipers not making POW compounds in the “Corinthian” first world war or prisoners shot because they would slow down advances in the Desert which apparently was the last “gentleman’s war” or U-Boat crews beat over the side from rescuing warships or prisoners in Normandy bayoneted because they vacated a village too slowly after the advancing British found dead civilians, whether they killed them or not was not asked. Or a highly decorated officer who shot a German civilian simply because he would not surrender his watch. The old hands always had (unfortunately few left now) tales to tell. Brutality in war did not begin nor end in Drogheda.

    You are correct Ireland had never experienced the destructiveness of a professional artillery train before, nor a seasoned army of traitors against the crown commanded by a Regicide who had been sent to Ireland by a parliament half hoping he would fail, racing against the elements and political opponents. Capital sport indeed. Cromwell to the rational amongst us proved he was not a fool, knave perhaps, but certainly not a fool.

    Cromwell, sorry to bring this back to education but my personal learning of this man always amuses me. The impression thrust upon myself when young was of this titan who strode the British Isles winning Civil Wars, butchering Irish , killing a king and saving democracy. The truth I found was a lot more interesting.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ah Gopher, we can at least agree that the truth about old Noll is really a lot more interesting. The truth about much of history is simplified so much, even amongst experts, that it is always refreshing to discover the real people to whom these things happened. We could debate war in the seventeenth century for pages at least, so I won’t but I’m really sorry we are not talking about it face to face.

    My grandfather, long dead now, was one of the first from this province to volunteer for the new trench mortar batteries in 1915. He knew all about the speciality weapon teams chances of survival. I remember his description of the burnt tank crews at Cambrai. On another thread I’ve rehearsed some of his views on the bombing campaign in WW2.

    And Cromwell was certainly not a fool. Arguably, Drogheda persuaded other towns to surrender and saved on bloodshed in the long run. But all history is simply a long personal memory, usually that of ones family. One of our family stories remembered a poor mercenary who went to the Palatinate with Vere, fought with Tilly and Gustav Adolf (both), served through the Civil war, wrote some poetry to keep himself under the royal eye of Charles, received a colonelcy at Drogheda on the very last day from Arthur Aston, and this is what qualified him to swing alongside the other senior officers rather than simply have his head “knocked” with a musket. The big patterns overlap the very small patterns. As my friend Andy Robertshaw says, it is really important to remember that these things happened to real people.

  • For some reason after I made my initial comment the comment number never changed and so I thought that this was an orphan thread.


    I agree with you that the world was chock full of interesting or at least very bloody events going on in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But at least Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday should have caught your attention as well as the 1974 loyalist strike.

    I really only started paying attention to NI on a sustained basis after the IRA ceasefire of Sep. 1994 (usually referred to as midnight 31 Aug). Because NI has a double minority situation like Israel, and is a constitutional state with an ethnic democracy, I found it very interesting for studying alongside the Mideast. Its peace process also took place in parallel to the Oslo process and so formed the basis for some comparative lessons about which I did write a book three years ago.

    Incidentally it is Moshe Dayan not Moshi, or Musa in Arabic and Moses in English.


    I think that the Flight of the Earls is a bit too early by a couple of centuries to begin studying the problems of the North. Other than a quick reference to the Ulster plantation and the rebellion of 1641, I think that the proper place to begin is the first Home Rule Bill in the late 1880s when the unionists first began to organize in opposition. Then a leap to 1912 and the start of the original Troubles. I would cover everything up to 1912 in one lecture, 1912-22 in another lecture, 1923 to 1962 in a third lecture, and then start in depth with the Civil Rights movement in 1968. If I was going to teach a semester course on NI history that is where I would begin.

  • History can be used to promote a shared identity. We all came from India and north east Africa if you go back far enough. I do like that idea. But if you start this conversation you open the can of worms that is history being used to promote hatred. As an isolated case study: Hundreds of years ago the Dunne clan slaughtered lots of the O’Neills. The same happened the other way around. Dunnes and O’Neills were married to create peace. These events repeated themselves again and again.

  • Coll Ciotach


    UiNeill did nt listen to that argument much considering his actions at Clonmel

  • Coll Ciotach

    Am Gobsmacht

    I agree – we need to forget this diversity nonsense and educate everyone from the same perspective. Let us all dump the silly Northern Ireland stuff and teach everyone the southern system. That will keep us all nice and happy.

    Problem solved

  • Seamuscamp

    It is interesting that so many teachers of history think that history teaching starts at school. Certainly in my day what I learned in my home environment took a much firmer grip than any of the later “corrections” at school. Partly that was because what I was told at home fitted well with the world I could experience. Partly it was because the curriculum for exams had a built-in agenda that my pre-conceptions could not trust.

    Back in the 50’s there for O and A levels history had a beginning and an end. History started with the French Revolution and finished with the outbreak of WWI. History was of two kinds: European and British. We knew about how horrible the French were to their aristos; and how “we” beat Napoleon (nearly helped by Blucher); and how the Continentals had continual revolutions in the 19th century but “we” were saved from that by the wise development of democracy; and the French were pretty awful throughout the 19th century while “we” continued to bring civilisation to black people; and those greedy Germans envied “our” Empire so they tried to conquer one of their own. Nothing much happened in Scotland apart from New lanark and the Clyde shipbuilding; nothing at all happened in Wales; and for a half-a-page there was a shortage of food in Ireland because “they” didn’t develop proper agriculture,love spuds and had large families ie they weren’t English.

    You get the idea – the common curriculum for British History was a paean to English inventiveness, English industry; English civilisation; English enlightenment; in which the minor nations had a walk-on role at best. Many of us were interested enough to read outside the curriculum and found a somewhat more complex story. When Dan Cashman said “terrible shaming things were done”, we were introduced to the notion that all sides were capable of evil – New Ross versus Scullabogue Barn.

    In a way I feel that, for NI, history has been the enemy of reconciliation because there are two prevalent versions of history and they are irreconcilable. History here is always propaganda.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Seamuscamp, a thoughtful and accurate description of how most people encountered history at school, although my own experience in the 1960s included a quite detailed outline of Irish history. But then, that may just have been the school I went to. And I had access to all the books at home that I needed to intellegently assess what I was being sold by the curriculum.

    And while I agree that “there are two prevalent versions of history and they are irreconcilable. History here is always propaganda” the only real answer to this is a deeper study of history and a presentation of our past in a polycultural (blended) manner rather than the currently popular “respectful” multicultural model that requires seperate histories to be funded in each seperate community.

    This seperation of historical narratives has been deepened by the funding culture of the GFA where the greater the percieved historical differences the more financial nurture they seem to require.

    If we “forget the past” and suppress personal memories without getting the true narrative straight in our heads first, we require years of councilling and monthly renewals of the cipramil perscription to function at all. The same thing happens to the life of communities where the nurtured development of our seperate communities into self-justifying basket cases requires treatments like the endless “visits” of outside experts (see Haann’s recent trip) and massive injections of public funding, in order to function at all. All this has followed on the political deep freeze of the GFA and the St Andrews follow-up which have as a side effect institutionalised the culture of seperate development. Something needs to be done to break the mold of how we are being taught to think, for the rohypnol doses are just not working. Getting the historical narrative straight would be a begining. More “real” history is needed, not less.