History lessons must not become a thing of the past
Material from military archives shows the importance of understanding our past
Cmmt Padraic Kennedy studies files in the reading room at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin. The first launch of the Military Service Pensions Collection comprised 452,000 images relating to almost 3,000 individuals.
It is truly ironic that the Government that funded the development of a wonderful archive of the 1916 to 1923 period should also be the one to remove history as a core subject for study in our schools.
In the GPO on Thursday night, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and some of his leading Ministers praised the magnificent work that went into creation of the Military Service Pension collection and justifiably took some of the credit for supporting
Kenny called the collection “a glorious bequest”, adding that it was vital that the collective memory of the revolutionary generation be preserved and cherished by all. “With these papers it is. They are our nation’s memory and our children’s inheritance,” he said.
In fairness to former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, he deserves credit for the initiative that led to the opening up of the Military Service Pension Collection and the creation of a proper archive available to the widest possible number of people.
Historians are drooling over the scale of the collection, which has the capacity to fundamentally influence our perception of the events that led to the creation of an independent Irish state.
Apart from the military activities described in minute detail in the pension applications, the collection will shine a light into the social and economic conditions of the time, as well as containing a myriad of personal stories.
An important feature of the collection is that access will not be limited to professional historians and researchers. Not only people living in Ireland but also people of Irish descent around the world will be able to trace the activity of their forebears during the revolutionary period.
A week ago, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and the Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness launched an easily accessible online archive, a listing of the Irish men and women who died in the first World War.
When taken in tandem with the 1901 and 1911 census material made available by the National Archives, there is now an enormous volume of information online about the lives people led a century ago.
It will enable the current generation to research their family stories and should also encourage a variety of local history projects. At a professional level it will provide historians with the material to paint a much fuller picture of the past.
It is timely that all this material has become available for the centenary decade of commemorations covering 1912 to 1922. The Government is making a big effort
to ensure that the commemorations are as inclusive as possible.
On Thursday night, the Taoiseach spoke of how moved British prime minister David Cameron was when both of them visited the peace tower at Messines and the Menin Gate in Belgium to honour the Irish men who died in the first World War.
In promoting a rounded understanding of our past, it is crucial that the achievements of constitutional nationalists are not overlooked in the commemorations, which inevitably tend to focus on the violent acts that resulted in death and destruction, whether perpetrated by governments or insurgents.
The Government made a start by marking the centenary of the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in 2012, and in May of this year there will be events to mark its enactment.
In all of the commemorations, one group that continues to be excluded from the national memory are the 500 or so policemen who died doing their duty as they sought to protect the community between 1916 and 1922.
The complexity of the period is illustrated in the first instalment of the pensions archive. One document shows that when the men of the Kinvara company of the IRA in Co Galway had difficulty in proving their 1916 activities to the satisfaction of the pension assessors in the 1930s, they enlisted the aid of a retired RIC man living in Gort to prove their claim.
“I hereby certify that we were fired on near Kinvara village by a party of men. We returned fire and retreated back to Gort,” wrote Florence McCarthy in support of the claim by the Kinvara IRA for pensions on August 17th, 1939.
In the light of all the good work done to make archives available and to stage inclusive commemorations, there is some paradox in the fact that the Government is simultaneously responsible for an education policy that threatens to leave the next generation in ignorance of its past.
History teachers and historians have put on record their firm view that the dropping of history as a core subject for the Junior Certificate curriculum
will inevitably result in fewer students taking history.
Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has disputed this, pointing out that history is still widely taught even in community schools where it is not compulsory.
Whatever the Minister says, it would be unwise to disregard the views of history teachers, never mind leading historians such as Roy Foster and Diarmaid Ferriter, who believe that over time it will have a very detrimental impact.
While the Irish language remains compulsory, there is no disguising the fact that an enormous number of pupils leave school with little or no ability to communicate in the language.
It will be a very sad day if we arrive at a situation at the end of the decade of commemorations where most of those leaving school can’t speak Irish and to compound matters have no knowledge of Irish history.