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Opinion: 'History's special status at Junior Cert level should be celebrated, but the curriculum has major blind spots'

Aspects of Irish history are conspicuous by their absence from the syllabus, writes Caoimhín de Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, plans to give history “special category status” in the junior cycle in Irish secondary schools has been broadly welcomed in many circles.

But with the status of history in the junior cycle seemingly secure, it is worth looking a little closer at what exactly we are teaching our students and asking whether our students know as much about their past as perhaps they might.

An examination of the history curricula used for the primary, junior, and senior cycles reveals some unfortunate blind spots. This is especially evident when it comes to the Great Famine of the 1840s.

In terms of global historical significance, the Great Hunger is, far and away, the most important thing that ever happened on our island.

The extraordinarily high death toll relative to the general Irish population of the time marks it out as a unique event in modern European history.

The Great Famine: conspicuous by its absence

But the reality is that a lot of Irish students don’t learn much about the famine at all. In the primary school history curriculum, the Great Famine is listed as one of nine topics fifth and sixth class pupils might study.

Students explore four of these nine units in fifth and sixth class, meaning that, all else being equal, there is less than 50% chance that Irish pupils will learn about the famine in primary school.

In the study of history at secondary school level, the Great Famine has at times been conspicuous by its absence.

In the current Junior Certificate history curriculum, the famine simply isn’t mentioned. It can be studied, but only as part of a broader comparison between 19th century industrial England and rural Ireland.

Things were worse in the old Leaving Certificate history course, which, oddly, brushed completely past the famine to begin in the year 1866.

When I studied senior cycle history, we learned all about how Isaac Butt established the Home Rule League.

It wasn’t until long after I left school that I learned that Butt had once been a die-hard unionist, and that it was what he saw as the British betrayal of Ireland during the famine that converted him to the cause of self-government in the first place.

Small improvements

Things have improved on this front a little. The Great Hunger has a place of prominence in the current Leaving Certificate history curriculum, but only about 20% of students opt for this subject.

The new Junior Certificate history curriculum does make explicit mention of the famine, listing an awareness of it as one of thirty-eight learning goals.

It is certainly a step in the right direction, although whether students are being afforded an opportunity to learn about the Great Famine in sufficiently comprehensive detail might be questioned.

An even more glaring problem with the historical content taught to Irish school children is the complete absence of any study of Gaelic society.

The Gaels were the dominant ethnic group in Ireland for most of our recorded history. Their cultural, legal, economic, and political systems were quite alien from those that the English state imposed on Ireland.

And yet the average Irish person couldn’t tell you the first thing about them.

A collective failure

As a post-graduate student in the United States, I once had to read a book called Empires in World History by Frederick Cooper and Jane Burbank.

In describing the political system of the Mongols, the authors used a word that was both familiar and unknown to me: tanistry.

I immediately recognised that it was related to the word Tánaiste, but beyond that, I didn’t understand its meaning.

At the time, I knew nothing about how the transition of political power in the Gaelic world was very different from the English one.

The most telling piece of evidence of the collective failure to appreciate the significance of Gaelic society to our history has been the multiple comments in recent weeks that history should replace Irish as one of the mandatory subjects of study for the Junior Certificate.

The history of Ireland, as most people know it, is comprised primarily of the history of English rule in Ireland and the history of Ireland as a primarily English-speaking country.

This creates the illusion that the English-speaking Ireland we know today has somehow always existed, and the Irish-speaking majority of our past has almost been removed from our collective conscience.

It is this that causes people to call for the mandatory study of Irish history while simultaneously demanding that we jettison the most important link we have with our ancient past.

A distinct way of life

Sadly, our school curriculum reinforces this slanted view of Irish history.

The only mention of Gaelic society anywhere on our school curriculum is in relation to the Leaving Certificate, specifically in the syllabus focusing on early modern Irish history.

However, less than five schools in Ireland actually offer to teach that syllabus, meaning that only a tiny segment of the small minority who study Leaving Certificate history will ever have the opportunity to learn something about historical Gaelic culture.

The closest the average Irish student comes to studying this aspect of our history is the study of early Christian Ireland as part of the Junior Certificate.

Here, however, students focus on the Christian rather than Gaelic nature of that society.

This is a pity, because it reinforces the modern stereotype of Gaelic and Catholic values being intrinsically linked.

In point of fact, Gaelic culture in the early modern period was very different from the Christian norms of the rest of Europe, especially in the realm of sex and marriage.

Cohabitation before marriage was common, marriage itself was largely a civil rather than religious affair, and divorce was frequent.

Unfortunately, as things stand, we learn almost nothing about the distinct way of life that thrived in Ireland for centuries.

The news that all secondary school students will study history is to be celebrated. But are we really providing our students with the understanding of their past that we should

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington. 

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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