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When Irish Eyes Are Closed to History

Imagine if the birth of the United States of America had emerged only after a controversial peace treaty was signed to end the American Revolution, leading to utter division among the states and civil war immediately erupting in the aftermath. Imagine as well beloved national heroes in our history squaring off on opposing sides—Northerners such as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams facing off against Southerners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.  

Now add to that yet another tragedy: the ensuing civil war, which witnesses the victory of the pro-treaty forces, leaves several states under the auspices of British rule, so that the nation’s wounds are not healed but rather inflamed. The treaty leads not to a lasting peace, but rather to almost another century of intermittent, low-grade civil war pitting pro-treaty compromisers and anti-treaty nationalists against each other.   

If you can begin to imagine all that, then thank our lucky 13 (or 50) stars that we have been spared the fate of Ireland, the all-too-easily romanticized Emerald Isle. Now you have some dim notion of the trauma of Ireland’s birth. And that’s just for starters—the full history of the agonies stretch back to the 12th century and beyond.

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All this is worth remembering because Ireland recently observed an important anniversary—the centennial of the Irish War of Independence. It went virtually unreported in the American media, yet it has relevance to the state of our own union—and cautionary lessons for Americans, too. A century ago, on January 21, 1919, the War of Independence in Ireland broke out, the Irish equivalent of the American Revolution. It led to a bloody civil war that exploded 18 months later when the republicans (the Irish Republican Army), who insisted on an independent and fully unified Irish republic, refused to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty emerging from negotiations with the British because it would split the nation, leaving six northern counties still part of Britain.

The year-long civil war proved, if anything, even more divisive and embittering than the revolutionary war. (Irish nationalist forces triumphed, but only because of massive support militarily from the British.) So the Irish Civil War, which officially led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, ended only in an official sense. Practically speaking, Ireland was plunged into guerrilla warfare and terrorism until nearly the end of the 20th century. No lasting, final peace was achieved until the Easter agreement of 1998.

Almost every Irishman knows all this. Hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens have grandfathers who fought in the War of Independence, and tens of thousands more, especially in the northern province of Ulster, have family members who were injured or killed in internecine warfare between the IRA and the British army and its Irish Protestant supporters.

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Perhaps no country has been so haunted by history as Ireland. You will not go far before stumbling across a heated debate, abetted by a few mugs of Guinness, not only about the War of Independence and Civil War, but even the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, where Protestant King William of Orange versus defeated Catholic King James II. You might even hear an exchange about the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, which marked the beginning of more than 800 years of British occupation—or, er, involvement—in Ireland.

Is all that ever going to change? Beginning this school year, as Minister of Education Ruairi Quinn told the nation last May, all 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland have instituted a new set of requirements for the Junior Certificate, the national leave-taking examination for 16-year-olds (equivalent to requirements for U.S. middle school students before they matriculate to high school). The most important, and controversial, curricular change was the decision to drop Irish history as a required course, changing it to one option among other subjects.

Now an Irish wit might say, and probably already has said in plenty of pubs, that this is a good thing—historical amnesia will soon set in and nobody will remember 1922 or 1916. And so the nation’s long-standing and still-simmering antagonisms between Catholics and Protestants, and Irish and Scots-English, will gradually dissolve of their own accord.

A nifty solution, eh?  

Well, not exactly. Another historical fact is that Northern Ireland, which is where so many tragic and traumatic events in the recent past have occurred, abolished history as a school subject several years ago, along with the rest of the United Kingdom. (The six chiefly Protestant counties of Ulster, which make up the region officially known as Northern Ireland, are part of the UK and subject to its laws.) And just as prevails across the sea in Britain, fewer than 40 percent of Northern Irish students currently elect to study history.

The lesson would seem to be the famous warning of George Santayana: “Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Fortunately, a substantial (if shrinking) number of Irish do not agree with the curricular change—and seek to remember (and learn from) the checkered Irish past. Many prominent political and cultural figures in Ireland agree. For instance, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Mick Finn, fears that the change amounts to nothing less than “turning our back on history—local, national, and global.” He argues that the dire scenarios that we have already discussed—the wounds of history being so open and still festering—will only worsen as the years pass. 

Mayor Finn is not alone. The newly re-elected president of the Republic of Ireland, Michael Higgins—a history professor before becoming a national statesman—has expressed “deep and profound concern” about the already noticeable decline of historical knowledge among Irish youth, which will only worsen without the history requirement. Discussing the curricular change on the occasion of the publication of the grand new scholarly edition of The Cambridge History of Ireland, he reminded his fellow Irishmen: “A knowledge and understanding of 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.”

Will a national amnesia overtake Ireland in a generation or two? It is possible. Irish youth, one critic predicts, will soon regard Skellig Michael as nothing more than the set for the Star Wars films—as if Americans were to view the Empire State building as just a location in the King Kong movies (or native Philadelphians take the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as merely the site of Rocky Balboa’s training regimen).

But perhaps the situation is not so hopeless. The Irish Ministry of Education announced in mid-November that it would “review” its decision for the upcoming year. That is welcome news.  

Haunted history cannot be healed by pretending that it is a mere featherweight. Facing the past means facing it down—and that is done only through knowledge and awareness. Otherwise a free people becomes enslaved just as surely as the sheep-like citizenry of Orwell’s 1984, who bleat in unison: “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH!”

John Rodden has written on Irish history in The Review of Politics, The Midwest Quarterly, and other publications. John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "When Irish Eyes Are Closed to History"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 12, 2019 @ 9:43 pm

Dare I comment on an article written by a scholar in Grammar — I dare. I dare.

An article of this nature is welcome news to me. But I suspect in the current state of historical rancor being experienced in the colonies it will be of small note.

The old moors regarding who we are being shorn through by tellers of a different view and hue. That telling comes as a shocking revelation to most and quite unwelcome.

If some decide its time to hang Pres. Jefferson or Pres/Gen. Washington in effigy — there will be talk of civil war renewed.

#2 Comment By Jeremy Buxton On February 12, 2019 @ 10:05 pm

History has been the great interest of my life and normally I would deplore its downgrading from any school curriculum. However the history of Ireland was for generations tragically weaponised by ultra-nationalist bigots. Malign Irish historical politics were of concern in nineteenth century Australia where in NSW Irish history was specifically banned from being taught in government schools.
That said I hope that proper objective history can be taught in Ireland as everywhere else.

#3 Comment By Moone Boy On February 13, 2019 @ 2:05 am

Thanks a million for noticing this. And your prognosis is correct. So much easier to be good little Europeans and consumers of stuff, without wondering why things are the way they are – or harbouring dangerous thoughts that things might be different.

#4 Comment By cg On February 13, 2019 @ 3:23 am

Unfortunately, this article about historical amnesia contains quite a few historical errors of its own:

– “leaving six northern counties still part of Britain” – the six counties are part of the UK, not Britain. The UK is still made up of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

– “Irish nationalist forces triumphed” in the Irish civil war – actually, both sides were Irish nationalists, and the civil war was about which version of nationalism would prevail.

– “Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, which marked the beginning of more than 800 years of British occupation” – Britain didn’t exist in 1169, and wasn’t formed until the 1707 union of the Scottish and English parliaments. And I’m not sure it’s even fair to call the Normans English, given that they had also invaded that country just over a century before, in 1066.

– “six chiefly Protestant counties of Ulster, which make up the region officially known as Northern Ireland” – no, they definitely are not “chiefly Protestant,” and the religious balance at the moment is almost exactly split in half between Protestants and Catholics.

– Michael D. Higgins is described as a “professor of history” – no, in his academic career he was a sociologist.

– “internecine warfare between the IRA and the British army and its Irish Protestant supporters” – in addition, one historical nugget that most Americans don’t seem to realise is that the IRA killed twice as many Catholics as did British soldiers.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On February 13, 2019 @ 6:38 am

Sadly,many Irish have discarded their Christian heritage, so why not toss their history as well? Make a clean sweep of it.
🙁
I must say that the Protestants in the north are doing a far better job these days of preserving their values.

#6 Comment By Scott in MD On February 13, 2019 @ 6:58 am

“…as if Americans were to view the Empire State building as just a location in the King Kong movies (or native Philadelphians take the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as merely the site of Rocky Balboa’s training regimen).”

Do you really think this isn’t already the case?

#7 Comment By Michael Kenny On February 13, 2019 @ 7:30 am

By the usual standards of American ignorance of all things European, this article isn’t too bad, but none the less, one notes the little mistakes of terminology which reveal that the authors are basing themselves on second-hand information. A couple of examples: Guinness isn’t drunk out of mugs. It’s drunk out of glasses. Primitive and ignorant as the authors seem to think we Irish are, we have discovered drinking glasses! Indeed, the only mugs I’ve ever come across in regard to Guinness are naïve American tourists who get themselves overcharged for it! The six Ulster counties that became Northern Ireland in 1920 were never predominantly Protestant. The then massive Protestant majority in the North-East corner of the island was used to create the largest possible territorial entity in which Protestants would have a solid majority. If the border had been drawn according to the religious majority, Antrim would have been the only county that would have been included in its entirety in Northern Ireland. In addition, Irish government departments (like their American equivalents!) are called departments not ministries. And, of course, the authors must have gone to considerable lengths to find a politician called Mickey Finn! The authors are making a good point (and not just on regard to Ireland: do you think Donald Trump would ever have heard of Pocahontas if the film hadn’t been made?), but did they really need to dress it up in racist sneering?

#8 Comment By Liam On February 13, 2019 @ 8:31 am

“Perhaps no country has been so haunted by history as Ireland.”

Making that “English-speaking country”. The Jews, Poles, Armenians, Basques, Kurds, Serbs, et cet. would otherwise beg for some time. And that’s just the peoples in Western Eurasia….

My grandmother left northwest Leitrim over a century ago, and never shed a tear over the Ol’ Sod. When I visited the ruins of her cottage 80 years after she left, I understood why. There were *plenty* of Irish who were quite happy to erase history at the earliest opportunity, rather than cling to it.

#9 Comment By MikeCLT On February 13, 2019 @ 8:37 am

To destroy a people, take away their past.

#10 Comment By Johann On February 13, 2019 @ 9:17 am

Religion played a more important role in the conflict than the article seems to suggest. It’s not coincidence that the provinces that stayed with Britain were protestant and the ones that went independent were Catholic.

And in the US, the first Irish immigrants were protestant. When significant numbers of Catholic immigrants started to arrive in the US much later, those first Irish immigrants did NOT want people to confuse them with the new immigrants. The decedents of those earlier protestant immigrants then wanted to be known as “Scot-Irish” to distinguish themselves from the Catholic Irish.

#11 Comment By kingdomofgodflag.info On February 13, 2019 @ 10:11 am

“Otherwise a free people becomes enslaved…”

Better to be a slave than to disobey Christ’s commands to love your enemies and to not resist an evil person. See 1 Peter 2:18-21.

#12 Comment By Ready for the Apocalypse On February 13, 2019 @ 10:57 am

“Irish history is something no Englishman should forget and no Irishman should remember” (attributed to George Bernard Shaw)

#13 Comment By Mark Thomason On February 13, 2019 @ 11:18 am

Step forward, or step back? The Irish deal was always wanted to be the first part of a two step, on one side of the deal. The other side imagined they could stop the second step. Now they’d have to imagine they can take back the first step too.

#14 Comment By mrscracker On February 13, 2019 @ 11:32 am

Johann says:
“And in the US, the first Irish immigrants were protestant.”
****
That’s mostly true if you’re talking about voluntary immigration, but weren’t some Irish Catholics sent to Virginia by Cromwell as well as to Barbados & Jamaica? I may be incorrect but I thought I’d read that.

#15 Comment By mrscracker On February 13, 2019 @ 11:44 am

Liam says:

“Perhaps no country has been so haunted by history as Ireland.”

Making that “English-speaking country”.
*****************
That’s overwhelmingly the case today but not so for the greater part of Irish history. In 1841, a few years before the onset of the Famine, approx. 4 million Irish still spoke Gaelic.
They’ve been attempting to preserve the Irish language for some time & road signs, etc. are bi-lingual but the Irish face the same sort of difficulties as the Scots do for their language.

#16 Comment By Legalcounsel007 On February 13, 2019 @ 11:58 am

Some astounding mistakes and mistruths, if there is such a thing, lets get real; Ireland has probable the best education system in Europe, and Ireland is the fifth wealthiest country in the world. It has the fourth highest standard of living, and is also rejuvenating the language among young people. This is a complete misrepresenation of the reality of this dynamic and confident country… Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam…

#17 Comment By Ken T On February 13, 2019 @ 2:08 pm

History can be a double-edged sword, depending on how it is presented. Yes, it can be a means for learning, a way of analyzing past problems to seek to avoid them in the future. But it can also be used as a means for clinging to old grudges, and preventing current generations from moving on from the past. The author’s description of the curriculum that is being dropped makes it clear that it was the latter.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 13, 2019 @ 2:19 pm

One of Ireland’s best contributions to western thought . . .

[1]

I for one stand in favor of history face to face with all its myths, glories, tragedies and hypocrisies.

#19 Comment By Clyde Schechter On February 13, 2019 @ 6:59 pm

I am truly shocked that any country advanced enough to have universal education would even consider omitting history from the required curriculum. I know that as a student, I did not like history. Had I not been required to study it, I probably would not have. And that would have been a terrible mistake–one that responsible adults should not allow their children to make.

#20 Comment By polistra On February 13, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

The bit about learning vs repeating is nonsense.

In fact the elites HAVE learned from history. They have learned that slaughtering millions of innocent people makes them rich and powerful, so they keep doing it.

#21 Comment By Quizil Donor On February 15, 2019 @ 3:39 pm

“Imagine as well beloved national heroes in our history squaring off on opposing sides—Northerners such as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams facing off against Southerners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.”

Respectfully, what do you think the American Civil war was??

Do you not understand the degree to which the Southern states and in particular the Western and Appalachian regions of the South were populated by Ulster Scots/Irish/North English who migrated from Northern Ireland?

Do you not understand that all these people, upon arrival in Pennsylvania were universally termed “Irish” in a derisive fashion, and laws were passed in some cases seeking to deter the ‘Irish’ from settling in Pennsylvania, for instance?

Its somewhat amusing to see this same ‘Irish blaming in our own time, in New Zealand currently, were one family acting poorly on vacation has led to mass media outrage at the ‘Irish’, despite the fact that this family apparently has been ‘travelling’ on British passports.

The cultural split from New England and the other Non-Commercial colonies was cast from these early times, when the Ulster origin peoples, who included Non-Catholic Irish who had often married into Lowland Scots origin families, were the hated pariah of their day upon arrival, and were sent off toward the wilderness to carve out a home if they could hold it.

At the time of the Civil War, 95%+ of White Southerners are NOT commercial slave-holders, and over 75% own not a single slave, yet most voted overwhelmingly to part company from their Northern neighboring colonies, who did not want them or their ancestors in the first place.

The decisive checkmate against the British military in the Revolution came not from English gentlemen farmers in New England, who loved fiery rhetoric, but often ran away after the first volley was fired.

It came from the hated Ulster-ites, who in large part composed the Virginia Militia that invaded North Carolina to take on Banastre Tarleton at Guilford Courthouse, who fought at Kings Mountain and then Yorktown.

It was the often Ulster-descended Mountain men who stood their ground against repeat volleys from professional British troops, it was the Ulsterites who took on a bayonet charge at Guilford Courthouse, without possessing any bayonets themselves.

It was the Ulsterites who deployed the same militia structure in the Appalachians that they had used to organize on the Scottish Borders going back to the Roman invasions.
The Virginia State Line was a direct descendant of this organizational structure which was simply reconstituted in the Americas.

The causation of the Civil war, for the Northern Elites or the Southern elites who were overwhelmingly motivated by personal finance and global business interests, had no relation to the motivations of the average man who voted to leave a union that he had never voted to join in the first place, if he voted at all it was only to REVISE the Articles of Confederation.

The Tidewater elites are not representative of the motives of most of the Southern population at this time, and they are by the onset of the civil war largely outnumbered by the Ulsterites and Anglo-Irish who come to dominate the westward expansion from the coastal regions.

None of these people, again, have much in common with peoples in New England, who tended to come from more affluent populations in England, were often religious zealots, and instead of learning the lessons of the enlightenment tended to find a witch to blame for most every problem they might encounter.

#22 Comment By Rossbach On February 17, 2019 @ 11:47 am

If the Irish government continues its policy of mass Third-World immigration, Irish history – as we understand the use of the term – will soon be irrelevant.

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 5, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

This,

“Do you not understand the degree to which the Southern states and in particular the Western and Appalachian regions of the South were populated by Ulster Scots/Irish/North English who migrated from Northern Ireland? . . .”

et al, is a good reason why this,

“The most important, and controversial, curricular change was the decision to drop Irish history as a required course, changing it to one option among other subjects.”

sounds like a bad idea.

#24 Comment By Ed On March 10, 2019 @ 9:09 am

Another historical fact is that Northern Ireland, which is where so many tragic and traumatic events in the recent past have occurred, abolished history as a school subject several years ago, along with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Did they abolish history as a school subject or remove it as a mandatory subject? And was it British/English history, Irish history or all history that was “abolished?” Similarly for the Republic of Ireland: if Irish history is no longer required but optional, does that mean that students must still take history, only not the history of Ireland, or does it mean that the whole subject of history is now an option, rather than a requirement?

A part of me wants to view this as a grievous loss of tradition and culture, but if I’d lost friends and relatives to paramilitary groups drunk on a version of history, I might feel differently.

It’s not so very different here in the US. The old nationalist version of history held the country together in hard times but included blind spots and myths that caused us real trouble. Think of what the idea that America had never lost a war did to Lyndon Johnson, or the idea that America was the world’s great bringer of democracy did to George W. Bush.

That older, heroic, more innocent and less questioning version of history is gone now, at least in the universities (and probably in most high schools as well). What we have now are groups intoxicated by their own versions of history and the stories of their own victimization. When you read another screed about the War of Northern Aggression or 400 years of White racism, you might well wonder if some people haven’t gotten too much history.

I could be banal and say the answer isn’t less, but better history – and banal or not, I don’t entirely disagree with that observation – but sometimes the better version doesn’t get through to people. Either the myths are too strong to overcome, or the past offenses were too great to forget.