On October 22 in a webinar hosted by Trinity Long Room, Dublin, marking the launch of the digitalisation of the 1641 Depositions from victims of the violent events in Ireland at the time, former law academic and President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese stated that during her school days she had never been taught about 1641 and had never heard the history appertaining until she was in her 40s.
The remark, not in any way surprising, prompted memories of teaching the history of the period.
New statutory Programmes of Study for the NI Curriculum, drawn up by working groups, emerged in the 1990s. History teachers were provided with a file of History Units composed of Core topics and a selection of others designed to deliver different approaches to teaching and facilitate the use of existing resources in schools.
One of the Core units, targeted at Year 9, focused on Ireland from the late C16 to the end of the Williamite period; a challenging and demanding task for students and teachers in terms of content and complexity set as it is in a period of intertwined religious rivalry, plantation, Civil War and struggle for power in Europe.
Using copies of depositions outlining local experiences and commentaries as to the problematic nature of their accuracy and later use, resourced with a BBC programme covering 1641 and Cromwell’s armies in Ireland in 1649, I seemed ready to go.
The class was small due to the differentiated nature of the learning needs of the pupils. Even though the programme contained too many ‘talking heads’, there were graphic visuals illustrating atrocities in Co Armagh and verbal accounts of the treatment of the Protestant planters during the violence of 1641 which almost ended the plantation.
We discussed some of the experiences and how the figures became exaggerated beyond the estimated 30,000 affected. It was then time to move to 1649 and the siege of Drogheda. When explaining the outcome of the siege and the massacre of the Catholic population, one boy, who had been watching the programme but showed less interest in the written material, gently raised his arm and quietly said: “Hooray!”
And so a key objective of the lesson was not achieved; in all likelihood for a number of reasons. The classroom cannot itself address the natures of the often contentious frames through which we view the past.
Do we acquire too much of our historical understanding from gable walls, the selective programming to which Mary McAleese alluded and inter-generational congruency that borders on mythology? The catalogue of impassioned songs depicting siege heroics and rebellious resistance hardly challenge sealed thoughts and uninterrupted narratives.
Is it these that have contributed to the uncritical orthodoxy and stereotypical labelling that handicaps our politics and shapes our unwillingness to embrace sharing beyond a linguistic nicety? It is a two-way process.
In an episode of Derry Girls when the girls participate in a cross-community school trip the limited views that the ‘two sides ‘hold are exaggerated to the point of ridicule; to challenge through the humour the limitations of contrived interactions.
We cannot deny the reality otherwise commentators would not be speaking of unsettled peace, a term once deployed to refer to the ‘Cold War’, as our community and reconciliation sector is about to embark on Peace Plus after four previous initiatives from 1998 onwards.
Since 1998, Northern Ireland has moved on a mostly progressive trajectory but with further distance to travel. Not so long ago, there was an animated discussion as to the low uptake by ‘Protestant schools ‘in choosing as a GCSE topic for study, Northern Ireland from 1985 onwards.
Whatever the reasons and there are valid misgivings that the history of the period will only be fully understood following the release of classified materials and the disclosure of individuals bound by sacred oaths, the outcome is that students learn different history and do not share in exploring the experiences of the ‘other.’
Canadian historian, Paul Gagnon, wrote that ‘to study without putting ourselves into the shoes of the ‘other’ is an illusion.’ The inference is that we will see things not as they are but as we are.
The approach to history teaching to which Mary McAleese referred, implying a selective approach to content balanced by any counter-narrative, and underpinned by cultural networks may have met the perceived needs of an ‘imagined community ‘but did it promote critical and differentiated analysis free of commodified labelling and categorisation.
Any such limitation is likely to have been repeated across other educational sectors.
The late Mayo Angelou, poet and civil rights activist offers the view that “history despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived and if faced with courage, need not be lived again” Many believe that structural changes in education where pupils learn together in integrated schools will be a boon to addressing long stand division.
While we wait for this and with a heavy emphasis on STEM subjects perhaps we should consider Angelou’s heartfelt words and consider the real world effects of our curricular content and pedagogy of our humanities.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.