Thursday, December 6, 2018

How could the Irish forget their own history?

Irish Current Affairs Blog of the Year 2018

The Great Famine: an appalling period in Irish history

How can we learn from history if we never even studied it in the first place?

How can we understand where we are today without reference points which will help us to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past?

With Brexit and the rise of populism, old animosities, mistrusts, and misunderstandings have risen again. And some people have shown an astounding ignorance of the troubled history between Ireland and its nearest neighbour.

Just over a year ago, Irish people were shocked by the reaction of TV viewers in the United Kingdom who showed that they really did not have a clue about the devastation the British Empire caused in Ireland.

British TV viewers jammed switchboards, and took to Twitter, to express dismay at the depiction of starving Irish people during the Great Famine. A period drama called ‘Victoria’, beamed into their sitting rooms on a Sunday night, was the first they ever heard of a disaster which claimed a million Irish lives and saw another two million emigrate to North America.

Many British TV viewers had never heard
of the Famine which took a million Irish lives

They were horrified to hear the Great Famine described as “the judgement of God” and an "effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” by the British civil servant whose job was to provide relief to the starving Irish.

Irish people need no introduction to the callousness of Lord Charles Trevelyan, because we teach our children history and he’s immortalised through the words of sports anthem ‘The Fields of Athenry’.

As hundreds of thousands died of starvation, Trevelyan persuaded the British Government to do nothing to halt mass evictions. As corn left the Irish ports for the ‘mainland’, he preferred to leave the fate of the dying peasants to the free market.

Most people in Britain had never heard of him, because Irish history is not taught in British schools.

And, just to prove that history can repeat itself, Tory MP Priti Patel said this week that warnings of food shortages in Ireland should have been seized upon by the British. She said her Government should been more firm, to force the Irish to drop the 'backstop' which has caused so much controversy during the Brexit debate in Britain.

She sees the possibility of food shortages in Ireland, a smaller country with a much more open economy than Britain's, as an opportunity for our former colonisers.

Such wilful - or deliberate - ignorance.

But let's not forget there are huge concerns that the same level of ignorance could spread to the Irish, as it is planned to remove History as a core subject in our secondary schools.

By making History optional, is it possible that Irish children will not even learn about the horror of the Great Famine and the impact it had on the psyche of our people?

In generations to come, could be we become as ignorant of our past as many people in the UK?

Here’s a few other things our young people need to be mindful of, while arrogant Tory Brexiteers are so quick dismiss concerns over a ‘hard’ Irish border and a potential return to ‘The Troubles’: 

The decline of the Irish language since 1800. Source:

Why don’t we speak Irish anymore? 

Imagine an Irish child growing up without any awareness of the Penal Laws and the impact they had on our native language and culture. Would they even question why we speak English and why Irish is largely confined to the remote western fringes of our island? Would they know about the ‘hedge’ schools which sprung up when Catholic people did not have a vote and their own language was banned from schools in Ireland?

Would they learn that the number of Irish speakers fell from four million in 1841 to just 680,000 in 1891? This shocking decline was all part of the process of colonisation. People were taught to mock and taunt native speakers, to see them as backwards, and they forget that hundreds of thousands of the impoverished Irish who landed on the east coast of America did not even speak English until they arrived in New York or Boston.

A mural in West Belfast recalls the fight for Irish freedom
Photo by Ciaran Tierney Digital Storyteller

Why is Ireland partitioned? 

It is almost hilarious to hear Unionists and British Tories proclaiming that the UK could never be divided, given that the partition of Ireland in 1922 led to a bloody Civil War and has led to bitter divides on both sides of the border to this day. Ask anyone in Derry or Tyrone if they are “less Irish” than people in Galway, and yet many of them faced discrimination in a sectarian state for decades.

Thankfully, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 brought an end to decades of conflict and discrimination against the Catholic minority. How could any Irish teenager understand the divisions which run through the island without some knowledge of 1609 and the Plantation of Ulster? 

The arrival of planters from Scotland and England changed the face, culture, and language of the northern province. The descendants of those settlers still consider themselves to be British today and the GFA respects that.

What ‘terrible beauty’ was born? 

The Easter Rising of 1916 was just one of a long litany of heroic failures as generations of Irish people struggled to break free of the British Empire. It was also seen as a stab in the back of the Empire, given that thousands upon thousands of Irish men were fighting on the same side as the British in World War One at the time.

It’s important to remember that the Irish rebels who rose up against their colonisers had little support from the ordinary people of Dublin in 1916. The city centre was destroyed and people were angry at the destruction. They abused the rebels as they were being taken away by their British captors.

But the execution of ten rebel leaders at Kilmainham Gaol showed ordinary Irish people the ruthlessness of the British justice system. They rose up against the colonisers. The rebels may have failed in the short-term, but, in the words of poet W.B. Yeats, a “terrible beauty” was born.

A cheeky depiction of modern Ireland

Who were the Black and Tans?

In 1919, Irish nationalists began a violent campaign against the British forces but, unlike three years earlier, they used guerrilla tactics such as ambushes and assassinations. Instead of taking over city centres, they would attack and disappear.  With the republican leaders such as Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera, who later fought against each other in a bloody Civil War, in hiding, the British decided to send in reinforcements.

The hated Black and Tans became known for their violence and vengeance, sometimes against innocent civilians, throughout the island. In 1920, they opened fire on the crowd at a football match in Croke Park, in what became known as the first Bloody Sunday. The gunfire was in response to Irish terrorist attacks. In one day, 32 people were killed, including 13 members of the British forces, 16 Irish civilians and three Irish republican prisoners. 

Without any knowledge of history, people would not understand what a monumental event it was when the Irish rugby team hosted England at Croke Park in 2007. The respectful silence during ‘God Save The Queen’ showed that time really can heal old divisions and animosities. Respect can grow from a knowledge of our shared history.

Bloody Sunday: scarred the city of Derry and
boosted recruitment for the IRA

What caused ‘The Troubles’

After partition, Northern Ireland – which stayed part of the UK – became a “Protestant Sate for a Protestant people” and the Catholic minority, who made up a third of the population, found it difficult if not impossible to get a house or a job. The province was made up of six of the nine counties in Ulster and partition was introduced to maintain this “artificial” Unionist majority.

Strangely enough, the wider availability of televisions in the 1960s played a huge part in bringing about change. Catholics in Northern Ireland saw images of African-Americans marching for Civil Rights in the United States and felt that they, too, were entitled to be treated as equals.

Heavy-handed policing turned their peaceful protests into riots and led to the British Army being deployed onto the streets in 1969. One particularly appalling atrocity, when soldiers fired on peaceful protesters in Derry, killing 14, became known as the second Bloody Sunday. 

The horror inflicted on civilians boosted recruitment to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and prolonged the conflict for decades. It’s impossible to understand ‘The Troubles’ without understanding the atrocities and humiliations which alienated and angered the nationalist people of Northern Ireland.

Our fragile peace has vastly improved
life across Ireland over the past 20 years.

Why is the Good Friday Agreement so important? 

In 1998, there were celebrations all across Ireland when people on both sides of the border voted in favour of a hard-won peace agreement. People were sick of violence and the old tribal hatreds. The document guaranteed that Northern Ireland would stay part of the UK as long as the majority wanted to do so, but it also gave the Republic some say in the governing of the North and guaranteed  equal rights for the minority.

It brought an end to three decades of violence and, indeed, centuries of tribal hatreds. Anyone who understands Irish history recognises what a monumental agreement this was and how appalling it is to hear anyone talk about a return to a hard border and our ancient divisions.

Thankfully, the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, announced this week that he is set to review the decision to remove History as a compulsory subject in Irish schools.

If we don’t study History in our schools, the Irish too might come to forget how much progress we have made in turning conflict into peace and animosity into a shared sense of respect between our two islands.

Faced with such an uncertain future, the more we know about (and understand) the past, the better.

* Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award at the Tramline, Dublin, last month. Find him on Facebook  or Twitter here. Visit his website here -

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