History needs to play a greater role in society, says Martin

FF leader says abuse of history to justify extreme views has not been so evident since the 1940s

History needs to play a greater role in modern day society to prevent those who adopt extreme positions from promoting false narratives, according to Fianna Fail leader, Micheál Martin.

Mr Martin said it was a testament to a modern Ireland that, in celebrating the centenary of events marking the founding of the Irish state, most of its citizens were capable of being proud of its patriot revolutionaries while also honouring Irish men and women who died in other causes.

Officially opening the inaugural Thomas Kent School of History in Fermoy, Mr Martin said it was encouraging that in remembering Kent, there was no agenda other than to broaden understanding and challenge people to seek context and complexity.

"This stands in contrast to those who prefer set narratives to be transferred from generation to generation as orthodoxies to be memorized rather than understood," said Mr Martin, a History Graduate of University College Cork and a former history teacher.


Mr Martin has previously condemned a government move to remove History as a core subject from the Junior Certificate curriculum. On Friday, he re-iterated his opposition to the move with reference to its importance in enabling Irish people to commemorate 1916 and other events.

‘Historical literacy’

“A shared historical literacy is an essential part of inclusive citizenship and it is something which we must insist on,” he said.

“A proper response to the public outcry over the effective downgrading of history in schools should be to stop the changes and instead look at the overall approach to historical literacy.”

“It is a great testament to a modern and self-questioning republic that in a period where we are marking the centenary of the events which created our state that the overwhelming majority of people have embraced the idea of adding new elements to our national story. “

Mr Martin said the way that Ireland had marked the centenary of 1916 and other seminal events from 100 years ago contrasted with the way some other countries were adopting false narratives from their own past to justify extreme political positions today.

“When the question is posed what role does the study of history play in a modern society, I think the evidence of the contemporary world is we desperately need it to play a much bigger role,” he said. He added the abuse of history to justify extreme position was worse now than at any time since the 1940s.

"If you look at the rise of anti-democratic and extreme forces in Britain, America, France, Germany, Hungary, not to mention Russia, the promotion of a false narrative of the past is an absolutely consistent part of their repertoire."

‘War on history’

Mr Martin said he would go so far as to say that those forces in those countries had engaged in “a war on history and the promotion of pseudo-history” through exaggerating historical grievances and seeking a restoration of mythical pasts to directly attack the foundations of liberal democracy.

Brexit succeeded in the UK because of "an appeal to an imperial glory, whitewashed of all of its many dark sides," while in France , one third of the electorate voted for Marine La Pen who defines her country on the basis of seeking a return to a monolithic single culture, he said.

"In Germany, a dangerous and growing party is appealing to people to forget about the Nazi era and look instead to other glorious times," he said. He added that in Hungary, Viktor Orban has argued for a return to a pre-First World War Greater Hungary and has waged war on intellectual dissent.

“And then of course you have the case of Putin’s regime, where every history textbook has been edited to reflect an official version which ignores the crimes of Stalin and views the independence of various states as a tragedy which should be reversed.”

The direct link between the abuse of history and the launching of wars is now undeniable. The way to challenge this was not to run away from history but to challenge those who use it as a source of division and exclusivity, he said.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times