Lest we forget

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne Marie Flynn

‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their “history”. A quote attributed to George Orwell, and one that will resonate throughout the world today and perhaps, now, in Ireland too.
The removal of history as a compulsory subject in the Irish school curriculum is an interesting, and retrograde development. We are only the third country in the world to remove history from our core subject curriculum, the others being the UK and Albania. It is difficult to fathom how allowing students to leave secondary education with no meaningful understanding of either the events that shaped our state, identity and culture, or those that have shaped the wider world in which they are now expected to find their way, can possibly be a good thing.
In our own personal lives, we learn from experience; often from poor decisions we might have made. We emerge wiser, shrewder and avoid such errors again. Does this logic not follow through to the macro picture? As a society, as we trundle slowly on, is it not pertinent to assume that we might learn from decisions made in the past, and that they may guide us on our future path? And at the most basic anthropological level, is it not a desirable thing to be aware of the journey of our ancestors?
My feeling is that this step does not represent ‘flexibility’ or ‘choice’ for students, as the PR suggests. I fear that this downgrading of the importance of history in the school curriculum may instead make it become more difficult for students to choose it as a subject. Think timetable clashes and subject choices, particularly in public schools. Will the studying of history become regarded as a luxury; a pursuit more easily facilitated among the elites of society? If this happens, then we are really in trouble.
It is not unreasonable to wonder whether there is a more sinister motivation for devaluing our own history. Inevitably, aspects of our own history will not please us. While in bygone days, our experience at the hands of our closest neighbours may have been in many ways a negative one that was inflicted upon us, our dysfunctional relationship with the Catholic Church and the institutional abuse inflicted on women and children was of our own doing.
The learnings from this should ensure that such things never happen again. Perhaps those in power might look at our current system of Direct Provision and take cognisance of the mistakes made in the past. Or perhaps they would prefer to attempt to quietly, gradually erase these mistakes from the public consciousness?
It is not hard therefore to see how the demotion of history as a subject poses a threat to cultural and political life. Indeed, it is interesting that the current political situation in the US coincides with a period where levels of historical awareness have been shown to be remarkably low.
Similarly, the erasure of our own built heritage is another problem on many levels. How many beautiful buildings of historical, architectural and cultural significance have been razed to make way for soulless shopping centres and apartment blocks, in the name of progress, development? Naturally, decisions need to be made based on the balance of needs, particularly in rural areas where sadly, economic necessities sometimes force our hands. But where possible, every effort should be made to preserve our built heritage.
Last year, I had the pleasure of working with a number of community groups and businesses along the north Mayo coast in a project designed to showcase our ‘tangible cultural assets’. When collated, the evidence of the sheer wealth of built history on our doorsteps was astounding. It is what our visitors yearn to learn about, to get under the skin of our heritage and culture.
Ireland’s heritage is part of what we are, and it includes everything from the Neolithic fields of the first farmers at Céide to the Georgian streets of Ballina, and all between.
Orwell also said: ‘The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth’. We must ensure that we retain ownership over our truth, whatever it takes.