US using Irish past to shape its future

 

Those Irish-Americans, at it again. In 1996, when the New York State legislature voted to include "the mass starvation of Ireland from 1845 to 1850" in school human-rights lessons, right beside slavery and the Holocaust, you could nearly hear the esteemed representatives of certain classes in Dublin, on reading the news in The Irish Times, cease their chattering long enough to emit an embarrassed groan or a sneering laugh.

Would there be no end to such token identity politics? Wasn't this the lowest sort of crass ethnic point-scoring - my atrocity was worse than yours? Was the Saint Patrick's Day parade going to march right through New York's classrooms? Really, you almost had to sympathise with John Kerr, then British Ambassador to the US, who declared it "insulting to the many millions who suffered and died in concentration camps across Europe to imply that their man-made fate was in any way analogous to the natural disaster in Ireland".

Back in New York, eyebrows were raised about the likelihood of the Irish, long arguably the state's most politically privileged ethnic group, receiving much sympathy from schoolchildren whose families might be at the receiving end of such clout.

Now, four-and-a-half years later, as teachers and scholars gather at Hofstra University this week to launch the Great Irish Famine Curriculum, and its 1,000plus pages roll off the presses and into New York State's schools, eyebrows are raising only in amazement at the sheer scale and professionalism of the undertaking. Far from being a token gesture, it's designed to be eminently useful within the structure of the state's education standards; far from being parochial, it's both a tool and a model for studying people and periods far removed from the Irish Famine. And while they are far from simplistic, its materials are accessible enough to have been used enthusiastically by students in some of New York's most educationally deprived areas.

Leading academics from both sides of the Atlantic have informed and endorsed its contents, with Dr Margaret MacCurtain leading the project's advisory committee. She calls it, among other things, "a model for an understanding of a famine-stricken people's right to access food, and for an examination of strategies of aid and relief to regions visited by famine".

So what on earth went right? And why on earth hasn't it happened here? Dr Margaret Kelleher, who lectures in English at NUI Maynooth and is author of The Feminisation of Famine, says she is not surprised by the sophistication of the Great Irish Famine Curriculum. "Some of the early dismissals of the project grew out of stereotypical views of Irish-Americans, and of the contributions of Irish-Americans to Irish studies," she says.

"It's significant that many of the best recent initiatives in studying the Famine have originated in the US. Much of the impetus and many of the models in Famine studies have come from Irish-American scholars, who have offered a way out of the revisionist/nationalist debate here."

Kelleher, who acted as an adviser for the New York project and also co-edited a recent volume on the revised Leaving Cert curriculum for English, says "there's much to be learned for the Irish curriculum". Amazingly, the history courses at Leaving and Junior Cert, as examined this year, have no place for the Famine - the Leaving course starts some two decades after the Famine years.

As Kelleher explains, this is changing, but just a bit.

"While the Famine has a place as an option on the new history curriculum for Leaving Cert, it is only an option, and it appears only in terms of demographic and economic issues. There's no place in history or elsewhere for an exploration of the social and political questions raised by the Famine."

Sadly, the only significant part of New York's Great Irish Famine Curriculum which might be familiar to students here is three lessons based on a pack for second-level students prepared some years ago not by the Department of Education and Science but by Trocaire.

Gearoid O Tuathaigh, professor of history at NUI Galway, agrees that it's time to set that right in this State. "Building-in the Famine episode has a huge potential as a site of historical explanation," he says. Recent scholarship means "there are more, and more interesting, ways than a decade ago" for second-level students to explore the Famine.

However, O Tuathaigh is hardly despairing about the present state of Irish students' consciousness. Media highlighting of the Famine anniversary has contributed to a situation whereby "students who haven't studied it are still well-sensitised to its reality, its complexity and to the issues of responsibility". This has been aided by the "general discussion of famines and subsistence crises" elsewhere in the world, he says; questions such as "why can't we write off third-world debt?" are part of many young people's cultural environment.

Has the Famine's polemical role for many nationalists made it an uncomfortable subject for Irish syllabussetters? Some commentators detected a suggestion along those lines when Avril Doyle, then chairing an interdepartmental committee on Famine commemoration, declared in 1995 that sniping from the British media about the impending anniversary should have "ended with the ceasefire".

O Tuathaigh is inclined to a more innocent explanation. "I've never felt that the polemical role was the key issue in defining the Famine's place in the curriculum. And if that ever were an issue, I don't detect it now."

Whatever the arguments about the Famine and its place here, the Great Irish Famine Curriculum in New York doesn't shy away from tough questions. Its developers at Hofstra University, who combine historical expertise with teacher-training experience, write about it in a forthcoming issue of the journal Irish Studies: "We designed our curriculum around four major questions: How did the `Columbian Encounter' [i.e. the early contact between Europe and the Americas] and British colonialism contribute to the conditions that created the Great Irish Famine and the Irish diaspora? Was the Great Irish Famine an act of nature? How did the Great Irish Famine affect Ireland and the world? What is the legacy of the Great Irish Famine?"

The curriculum doesn't so much provide the answers as provide pupils - aged, roughly, nine to 18 - with the means to address the issues themselves. Some 150 lessons run from Irish dance to soup-kitchen recipes to the definitions of genocide. They combine material that's relevant not only to history, but to art, science, technology, theatre, economics, literature, consumer science, maths, music and even career development. And they do so in a way that's up-to-date with New York's new standards-based curriculum, in which students are largely encouraged to master various processes rather than learn off information.

Is there any other curricular material in the state, on any subject, that provides such a good fit with what teachers are required to do for students? "We're the only game in town," says project director and Hofstra professor Maureen Murphy with a smile.

Murphy is an Irish-American dynamo who learned the Irish language on her first visit more than 30 years ago. Nowadays, Famine project permitting, she is writing a book on Irish servant girls in the US. And while she says the curriculum doesn't push a line on the questions it raises, Murphy is proud and unapologetic about its role in advocating active roles for students in dealing with hunger and homelessness today.

Its anti-racist agenda is also clear. More than 20 lessons deal with the relationships between Irish and African Americans, including an eyewitness account of Irish poverty by abolitionist and former slave Frederic Douglass. There's no whitewash: the draft riots of 1863, when Irish rioters slaughtered many black New Yorkers before being struck down, in turn, by federal troops, get considered treatment too.

"We're using Ireland to talk about essential questions in human history - questions not just for historians but for all people," says Dr Alan J Singer, associate professor at Hofstra and Murphy's sidekick on the project team, with professor Maureen McCann Miletta.

They're also using it, in small but telling ways, to address areas of educational disadvantage. Singer explains how, after they'd done lessons from the curriculum, young Brooklyn teenagers with poor literacy skills were encouraged to write stories about the Famine and Irish immigration, then read them aloud to pre-schoolers at a community daycare centre.

"These teenagers generally don't want to read the material they're actually able to read, because it's babyish. But reading to little kids was okay." The activity went down a treat with the students.

But what did four-year-olds in this heavily Afro-Caribbean community make of these "Irish" stories? "We went back to the daycare centre the next day and asked them what the stories were about," Murphy recalls. "And they said: `Jamaica'."

Maureen Murphy flashes her unparochial, Irish-American smile. "Isn't that great?"