Senior cycle guide: Exploring the past: how to approach history

Evidence is key to any study of the events that have shaped us

The Leaving Cert history syllabus is based on the principle “that the study of history should be regarded as an exploration of what historians believe to have happened, based on an inquiry into the available evidence”. History deals with the experience of human life in the past. The study of history involves an investigation of the surviving evidence relating to such experience. It brings the student of history into contact with human experiences, which are often very different from his/her own.

The articles and accounts contained in this supplement provide many stimulating starting points for students to engage meaningfully with this principle, summarised as “the three Es”– exploration, enquiry and evidence. Certain themes appear across a range of articles, enabling students to explore the validity of different types of evidence, as well as considering the different perspectives adopted by historians.

With a large number of schools across the country choosing to study the "Modern Ireland Topic No 3 – Sovereignty and Partition", direct links can easily be made by teachers for opportunities to use the brigade activity reports within their classrooms. For the purposes of this article the main areas of the Leaving Cert history syllabus and general classroom practice that will be drawn upon will be "Working with Evidence", "the Research Study Report" and the concept of "Commemoration".

‘Working with Evidence’ The focus of this supplement is on the b

rigade activity reports, and specifically 32 individual accounts of incidents or operations – one from each county, provides a fantastic opportunity for teachers and students to work with evidence in their classroom. Working with historical documents allows the student “to develop expertise in the evaluation of evidence and the capacity to make reasoned judgments”, as the syllabus puts it. While working with the accounts, students should develop the ability to:

– recognise different types of historical source materials

– extract information from source materials to answer historical questions

– evaluate the usefulness of particular sources and their limitations

– detect bias

– identify propaganda.

Documents and sources can be very revealing of the events, attitudes and mores of a period. There are layers of meaning in documents, some of which may not be immediately obvious to students. When working with evidence, such as the examples provided within this supplement, it may be useful for students to climb into a source to search not only for what the source tells us, but what can be inferred from the source.

Research Study Report

The research study aims to “develop in students a spirit of inquiry about the past and a range of skills that will facilitate the conduct of the inquiry”. It allows students to engage in a measure of self-directed learning that is grounded in the procedural values of the historian. Students have the opportunity to engage in the research of a historically significant event. By picking out an operation from every county within this supplement, readers and students will be drawn to their locality and prompted to look for more information on how the War of Independence and the Civil War played out where they are from. This would make for a very interesting research study, with plenty of other choices/ideas and events/incidents recorded and available on the Military Archives website (

The witness statements provide an excellent starting point for students looking to engage with topics of national and local significance. When choosing a subject for the research study, the subject for investigation must be clearly defined and its focus should be narrow rather than broad so as to allow for depth of investigation. Sources used by students should be either primary or specialist secondary. It is important to bear in mind that we need to establish the significance of the evidence selected from any witness statement that we use for research purposes. Christine Counsell, from the University of Cambridge, has indicated a concise 5-Rs test for checking the historical significance of an event:

– Is it remarkable?

– Is it remembered?

– Is it resulting in change?

– Is it resonant?

– Is it revealing?

An opportunity to engage in all of this is available for the student and reader within this supplement and the Military Archives website – specifically the Military Service Pensions Collection.

While students may be studying the War of Independence and the Civil War in class, they would be studying it in a very broad fashion, without learning much about their own locality or county specifically.

The opportunity to learn about specific examples of events, during the years 1919-1923, and local history examples, would provide a fantastic opportunity for students’ own research into historically significant events for their Research Study Report.

Commemoration Historians consider an event to be significant if it is remembered within the collective memory of a society, if it had important consequences for the future, and if it is remarked upon by individuals at the time and since. Two key events that have and will be commemorated within Ireland this year and into 1923 are

those of the War of Independence and the Civil War. Teachers may wish to draw reference during these times of commemoration to the examples of accounts available within their locality. This would make the concept of commemoration even more relevant for students in the classroom by providing more information on how the War of Independence and Civil War played out where they are from.

Questions that teachers might want to pose to their students about commemoration include:

1. What are the positives of commemorating events such as the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War?

2. Are there any downsides to commemorating events in Irish history such as the War of Independence and the Civil War?

3. What other events should be, or will be, commemorated in Ireland over the next 10 years? How should they be commemorated?


n This guide was provided by the Professional Development Service for Teachers ( post-primary history team.

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