1916 reasons why we need to know our history

The centenary hooked our children on Ireland’s history, our collective memory. We must build on that in schools and in fiction because our past can harm or it can heal

President Micheal D Higgins,  his wife Sabina and Joe Duffy, organiser of the Children of the Revolution service, surrounded by pupils of St Patrick’s National School after a   service at St Patrick’s Church, Ringsend to honour the chidren who died in 1916. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

President Micheal D Higgins, his wife Sabina and Joe Duffy, organiser of the Children of the Revolution service, surrounded by pupils of St Patrick’s National School after a service at St Patrick’s Church, Ringsend to honour the chidren who died in 1916. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The centenary of the 1916 Rising was by common consensus a hit in Ireland.

As President Higgins rushed from monument to flag ceremony, singlehandedly boosting the wreath industry in an effort to be even-handed about our thorny history, “nuanced” became the buzzword. It was an inclusive narrative with pioneering research by Joe Duffy, for example, putting children caught in the crossfire squarely in the frame. Others highlighted the contribution of women and the impact on civilians.

We need to give children the toolbox and the vocabulary to understand the collective memory we call history, so they can have a better present and future

My own novel Molly’s Diary, telling the story of Easter week through the eyes of a child, topped the bestseller list and was a crossover hit with adults as well as young readers. But it wasn’t alone. Brian Gallagher’s One Good Turn flew off the shelves as did Gill’s Pocket History of the Rising, while for adults Marita Conlon McKenna’s Rebel Sisters topped the charts.

Children carry wood from Sackville Street, Dublin on May 1st, 1916 after the after the Easter Rising. Photograph: PA
Children carry wood from Sackville Street, Dublin on May 1st, 1916 after the after the Easter Rising. Photograph: PA

Up and down the country, I met thousands of young children who were tearing into our history, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of them were reluctant readers who, dragged to the texts by teachers, discovered a taste for the guns and the glory. Others with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Harry Potter and Star Wars found an equally compelling drama in the birth pangs of a new state struggling to be born. I met dyslexic children who had previously struggled to finish a book, embrace reading as if it was a new super power. Seven-year-olds usually glued to Angry Birds demanding their parents bring them to all the key locations of Easter week. So in an era when parents fret about their kids’ obsession with screens, it’s seriously good news when they are embracing history in all its varieties.

So now that we have grabbed them by the eyeballs, how are we going to capitalise on it?

Teaching history is one of the surest ways to inculcate critical thinking and the ability to evaluate information. In an era of fake news, these skills are more essential than ever

Well, not downgrade it as a subject for starters. It’s deeply ironic and wrongheaded that at this precise moment, history is no longer a compulsory core subject in the Framework for Junior Cycle curriculum. (Nor is geography, one of the most popular university degrees – but that’s another story.) As Diarmaid Ferriter has observed, “enhancing students’ scientific and numeracy skills should not be done by throwing history overboard”. Particularly as history is a subject that reinforces both skills by stealth, pulling children in through narrative. It is also one of the surest ways to inculcate critical thinking and the ability to evaluate information. In an era of fake news and post-truth, these skills are more essential than ever.

Just as Easter Week is only the beginning of the journey to the modern Irish State, so the 1916 immersion should be the start of their time tunnelling into our past

We need to get serious about keeping them hooked into history. For this is a golden generation that has had the most sustained and deep engagement with the story of 1916 in 100 years. And just as Easter Week is only the beginning of the journey to the modern Irish State, so the 1916 immersion should be the start of their time tunnelling into our past. When an 11-year-old in Skibbereen asks you why Ireland didn’t follow the path of passive resistance like India, you know this is a thoughtful audience that you underestimate at your peril.

Part of the answer is to sustain the narrative. Irish history didn’t only happen in one week – however well curated. We need a “long history” of 1916 both before and after. As a storyteller I have felt compelled to continue the imaginative journey into the War of Independence with Dan’s Diary and most recently the Civil War with Ava’s Diary. Once you start children on a passionate engagement with a genre, there’s no stopping them. They move on to other periods and centuries. There’s a lot of horrible history outside the bestselling franchise of that name.

Children lay 16 lilies at the annual Fianna Fáil 1916 commemoration in Arbour Hill, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
Children lay 16 lilies at the annual Fianna Fáil 1916 commemoration in Arbour Hill, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke

But even if the education system foolishly opts for cultural amnesia, luckily thousands of schools, teachers, parents and young readers aren’t toeing the party line. For historical fiction and books about history are hugely popular with readers. Irish publishers, like Poolbeg, O’Brien and New Island, are meeting this demand. Irish authors too have a long and respectable commitment to children’s historical fiction. Marita Conlon McKenna reached an international audience with Under the Hawthorn Tree, while John Boyne has touched millions of hearts with his tale of the Holocaust, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. And that’s only the younger generation. Historical fiction is a bestselling genre for adults and serious literary authors such as Sebastian Barry and Hilary Mantel win awards and readers.

Fiction can touch the parts that facts alone don’t reach, encouraging empathy among young people in not just what happened but what it felt like to live through defining events. Louise Richardson, the Waterford-born vice-chancellor of Oxford University, who is an expert on terrorism, told me she wished books like mine had been around when she was being affected by the civil rights protests in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and 1970s. It’s that privilege to be able to connect with young hearts and minds at a formative stage of their development that keeps you going as an author.

The powers that be have vowed to continue the commemorations from 1912 to 1923. So perhaps they should truly listen to the people, and properly endorse a subject that has sparked curiosity across the generations. Especially when it concerns tricky bits of our history, like the Civil War. We truly cannot appreciate the impact of the 1916 Rising or understand the birth of modern Ireland without taking the story through to 1923 and beyond. It’s as if religious education stopped at the story of Adam and Eve.

It is quite a story to tell. How did the band of brothers who stormed the GPO end up signing each other’s death warrants? Did a Free State looking for legitimacy suppress war crimes and atrocities for the sake of stability? What kind of trauma got buried in families and in the collective memory of communities? Did this veil of silence lead to the other kinds of abuses that we’ve seen in Tuam and the Magdalene laundries? A work of fiction doesn’t necessarily tackle these subjects head on, but equips children with the imaginative curiosity to put themselves in other’s shoes.

In the age of fake news and Brexit, Ireland with its long negotiation with colonialism and its ills, needs to confront our recent modern history. That includes painful chapters like the Civil War. History shouldn’t be pick ’n’mix where you can leave out the uncomfortable, tricky bits to make it more palatable. Otherwise you distort the understanding of the present and turn it into a heritage theme park. Young readers have known only the Ireland of the Belfast agreement where you can travel unhindered to visit the Giant’s Causeway or the Titanic Experience. How can they understand the talk of re-instituting a hard border if they don’t know its origins back in “the olden days” of the bitter Civil War?

These children who are visiting the new GPO in their droves and writing essays about being a soldier in the first World War are potentially a healing generation. For history is our collective memory. And in a country that has been colonised and brutalised by famine and suppression, some of the key narratives and trauma get buried in families.

No matter how well presented, it’s not job done and we can all go home. The 2016 commemorations should not be a one-off. We need to teach children the whole story above and beyond the tumultuous seven years of the Irish Revolution. Spool back and it’s the Famine, the plantations and the Norman Conquests. Spool forward later in the 20th century and the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland with both sides invoking a mandate from the past to settle disputes through violent conflict.

The roots of the Northern Ireland conflict are complex and the extent to which 1916 ushered in or legitimised armed struggle is still an ongoing controversy. But to fully understand it you need the long view.

Equally, the impact of growing up in a community with a history of traumatic experience needs to be taken seriously. My husband grew up in Northern Ireland and he remembers as a very young child as violence erupted in the 1970s, his whole family developed back pain. When they went to the doctor, the surgery was overflowing with people with similar complaints. This experience of pain is not just physical or emotional nor confined to those in the immediate situation. It becomes a psychic scar handed down from parents to children and manifests in a sliding scale as depression, domestic violence and ultimately social discord.

When I was researching the Civil War in Kerry, where some of the darkest chapters in the conflict took place, local historian Dr Tim Horgan told me of families with suitcases of relics and even firearms hidden in thatched cottages, which they, suspicious of the authorities, have never surrendered. They spoke to him as a local man of this hidden history that is an underground hum to so many people’s lives. It needs to be discussed for us to be a truly inclusive society.

So each generation has a duty to bring the past into the light. And we need to give children the toolbox and the vocabulary to understand the collective memory we call history, so they can have a better present and future. As Rebecca Solnit observed in her manifesto against defeatism, Hope in Dark Times, written after the Iraq war: “Changing the story isn’t enough in itself, but it has often been foundational to real changes. Making an injury visible and public is often the first step in remedying it, and political change often follows culture, as what was long tolerated is seen to be intolerable, or what was overlooked becomes obvious. Which means that every conflict is in part a battle over the story we tell, or who tells and who is heard.”

We are still a teenaged country, just about coming out of the  “blame the parents” mentality. By honestly confronting our past we’ll be well positioned to navigate a new global era

The inheritance of trauma and the role of intergenerational trauma in societies with repeated conflict is an emerging field in both therapeutic and conflict studies. For example the work of Lebanese psychotherapist Alexandra Asseily, who emphasises the importance of forgiveness in breaking the cycles of conflict and created the project for a Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut. There is also important work with Native American tribes such as the Lakota and survivors of the Holocaust that focus on how exploitation and war are played out on a micro and macro level.

Placing 1916 and what followed in the context of repeated cycles in Irish history is a potentially enlightening approach. It opens the door to healing what historian Joseph Lee memorably called “historical wounding”. Remembering our troubled past then becomes part of a process that will hopefully help us lay our ghosts to rest. We have a Garden of Remembrance. Wouldn’t it be great to have a Garden of Fogiveness too? A healing space for all the communities existing on the faultlines of our troubled history to reflect on their pain and embrace a new future. So teaching our children our history is not a luxury but a necessity.

We are still a teenaged country, just about coming out of the foot-dragging, “blame the parents” mentality. It’s by honestly confronting our own past that we’ll be well positioned to navigate the choppy waters of a new global era. Or at least our children will.
Patricia Murphy latest children’s fiction Ava’s Diary – the Civil War 1922-23 is published by Poolbeg

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