Why 1921 was a remarkable year of conversion for the island of Ireland

Big historical events offer students great opportunities to work with rich and abundant evidence

Michael Collins  in London for the treaty negotiations between representatives of Sinn Féin and the British government, which resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Michael Collins in London for the treaty negotiations between representatives of Sinn Féin and the British government, which resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

“Think what have I got for Ireland … Something which she has wanted these past 700 years. Will anyone be satisfied with this bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this, early this morning I have signed my death warrant.” Michael Collins

Leaving Certificate history students become acutely familiar with the above quotation as they participate in the study of this momentous era of Irish history. 1921 was a remarkable year of conversion for the island of Ireland: partition under British law materialised on May 3rd, a ceasefire ending the Anglo-Irish war was called on July 11th, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on December 6th. Such weighty historical events offer Leaving Certificate students vast amounts of opportunities to work with rich and abundant evidence.

Working with evidence

The “working with evidence” principle of the syllabus is core, and this supplement provides a bountiful assortment of sources suitable to utilise in the classroom to practise that historical skill of analysing and making judgments on sources from the past.

The divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 is listed as a case study in the Modern Ireland topic 3: Sovereignty and Partition. Case studies involve an in-depth investigation of a particularly significant or representative aspect of an historical period; the treaty indeed having profound significance in this era of Irish history, ending the Anglo-Irish war, and launching the Irish Free State. The evidence provided in this supplement can support the process of inquiry for students investigating the treaty while considering different explanations in an open-minded spirit of evaluation.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty is an emotive topic for students to engage with. The controversy surrounding the course and outcome of the negotiations from October to December 1921 is explored. Controversies such as De Valera’s absence, the Irish delegation’s role as plenipotentiaries and the perplexity surrounding De Valera’s “external association” proposal. By examining the evidence provided in this supplement, students can discover the different perspectives related to these contentions, analysing and making judgments on their significance and how they contributed to the agreement that was ultimately signed.

Concentrated search

Within the inquiry-based approach, questions can be composed to focus the inquiry, allowing students to approach the evidence with a concentrated search in mind. Questions that may fulfil that purpose in relation to the treaty are:

1921: Truce and Treaty

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1. Was the Anglo-Irish Treaty an outrageous concession or a reasonable response to a stark ultimatum?

2. Was the Anglo-Irish Treaty a “stepping stone” to independence or a desertion of Ulster?

3. How did the course and outcome of the negotiations lead to a split in Irish politics?

By utilising the evidence in this supplement, students will learn that there is not inevitably one correct version of a particular historical event. Students will learn that historical sources are not always impartial but sometimes biased with indications of propaganda and depend on the perspective of the first-hand observer or historian. Students will also learn the importance of contextualisation when studying these sources and the need to consider the political and societal customs of the time.

“I recognise no partition. I recognise it as no crime to be in my own country. I would be ashamed of my own name and my murdered husband’s name if I did… Long live the Republic!” – Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington

Women of the republican cause were notably in favour of continuing the war until a 32-county republic was established. Highlighting this and referencing women such as Sheehy-Skeffington may entice students to investigate such characters in their Research Study Report element of the course.

Research Study Report

“Involvement in research is an integral part of the syllabus. While offering an insight into the manner in which historians operate, the skills developed through such study have a wide applicability.” (Syllabus P.2.)

The Research Study Report fosters a spirit of inquiry and critical thinking in an area of personal interest for each student. It presents an opportunity to administrate self-knowledge while cultivating the historian’s skills. The research and editorial skills developed while undertaking the project are unrivalled within the Senior Cycle curriculum. Such skills will serve students; not only in their academic pursuits but in commonplace circumstances, teaching them the importance of exploration, examination and evaluation.

Articles contained in this supplement provide records and people possibly not directly related to in the broad teaching fashion of this era. Ambushes and skirmishes outside the martial law areas; notably Clonfin, Co Longford, February 2nd, and Thur Mhic Eadaigh, Co Mayo, May 3rd. Referring to and referencing resources in this supplement may indeed spark a Research Study Report realisation moment for a student. Perhaps having these supplements readily available in the classroom may enhance this opportunity.

A further research platform is Scoilnet’s licensed Irish Newspaper Archive website, https://www.scoilnet.ie/scoilnet/tools-for-teachers/ina, which gives teachers and students access to primary source documents through national and local newspapers covering hundreds of years of Irish history. The Irish Times Newspaper Archive, https://www.irishtimes.com/archive, similarly caters for the student historian in this way. Such archives provide an immense collection of sources for this momentous anniversary year in Irish history.

Karen Brady, a teacher at Coláiste na Mí in Johnstown, Co Meath, is History Associate at the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST)

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