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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 19 September, 2018
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The past isn't the past, it's not even over: We can't discard Junior Cert History

Author John Connell agrees with President Higgins that making the study of History optional at junior cycle is to lose a part of our national identity.

John Connell

WHAT IS HISTORY? That is the question we must put to ourselves. Is it the arranging
and dating of facts? The notes of the imperial victor? Or is it something much
deeper, something akin to an understanding, a means by which we might
measure our progress and failures as a people and race.

To be Irish is to be ensnared by history for ours is one of the longest; we hold the oldest vernacular writing form in western Europe, but also too the tales of our Gaelic past in the Annals of the Four masters and later still the relationship with our neighbour Britain.

My history makes me the man I am

To be Irish is to be a prisoner of history, or rather, to be Irish is to be eternally aware of history and its power. I am the grandson of a War of independence fighter and he the son of a Famine survivor. That is my history; without it I should not be here, nor be the man I am. The past informs the present.

This week, the President raised the issue of a new national question, a question of forgetting, for our schools are no longer to include history as a core subject in the Junior Cert cycle.

The move is not a new one and has been discussed for the last few years as part of a new national plan titled, Towards a framework for the Junior Cycle.

Now, however, it seems the measure is complete and we are to wipe the insight of thousands of years of our story from the minds of our young when the subject will be removed from next September on.

President Higgins rightly said that history is “intrinsic to our shared citizenship, to be without such knowledge is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom”.

The place I thought lacking in cultural depth was rich with it

It was not too long ago that I was young and rather than have disdain for this subject, rejoiced in it for I learned about our background; that the place I had thought lacking in cultural depth was, in fact, rich with it.

That the language I spoke and thought in was a circumstance of history and that it was history that had kept my family in this country and the house over my head. For you see we are all the children of the past.

Our President raised the issue of the great forgetting at the launch of a new edition of the Cambridge History of Ireland, speaking at the event he added: “To be without historical training, the careful and necessary capability to filter and critically interpret a variety of sources, is to leave citizens desperately ill-equipped to confront a world in which information is increasingly disseminated without historical perspective or even regard for the truth, and I refer now not only to social media but to the news industry more generally.”

To understand where we are going we must understand where we are coming from. That much makes sense to me but it must not have made sense to the civil servant think tank and Government Ministers Ruairi Quinn who OK’d the move.

Creating a cultural amnesia

Ireland is only the third country in the world to remove history from its core subject curriculum after the UK and Albania.

Deirdre MacMathuna, President of the History Teachers Association of Ireland has said the move denies students to the right of their own history and will help create a cultural amnesia she also highlighted that the subject is already not being thought in some schools in the country.

Currently history is not compulsory in the UK to the age of 16 and available only as an elective. Just 40% of students elect to take the subject leaving a large majority unaware of their past. These figures drop even more alarmingly as students progress through to the senior cycle. CEO of the UK’s Historical Association Rebecca Sullivan has called for the teaching of history and geography to be compulsory to the age of 16 in the UK. And indeed since its removal educators in the UK have tried to backtrack on the ruling.

Are we the nation who has never forgotten our past, (not because of hatred for the outsider but for a want to remember and protect what was left) to abandon our young and arm them with nothing as we move ever forward into the new century.

In the past, only tyrannical regimes changed or altered the history of a state. The Soviet regime most famously removed old comrades who had fallen out of favour from pictures but few have gone so far as to remove the subject altogether, to create a forced amnesia.

For that is what this removal does it begins the slow process of national amnesia and forgetting leaving only a handful of children to electively take the subject and leaving the rest in a vacuum, a half-life space where history and untruth may merge, where the internet and globalised culture will educate and where our national story, our 3,000 year culture will be forgotten.

Will we see Skellig Michael as simply the film set of Star Wars

The English poet Philip Larkin spoke of what would happen to the churches after faith had been departed, I ask what shall happen to Newgrange to the Ceide Fields without the knowledge of history to view them? Shall the beehives of Skellig Michael be viewed as simply the film set of Star Wars?

The great forgetting will be the start of the History Wars of this nation where our youth will not grow up with the knowledge that you and I take for granted because we learned it 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Perhaps with the death of history, our Government shall finally finish Pearses’ murder machine and kill the remaining gems of Gaelicness in our people. If we can no longer know our story then we can no longer stand apart thus was the GPO, the Bogside, the Civil Rights Marches for nothing.

Banish history and you banish all the world.

John Connell is an award winning journalist, producer, farmer and the author of bestselling memoir The Cow Book.

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