Colm O'Regan: Impact of history is a modern-day concern

Colm O'Regan: Impact of history is a modern-day concern

Brexit told us that the UK history school curriculum seemed to have gaps. That there wasn’t much about the impact of their history on everyone else’s history.

They had a lot of the gettings-up-to of various kings and queens and bridge builders. And not half enough about how they financed said gettings-up-to.

Maybe we’d be the same, if we had a load of kings and queens since Strongbow. We’ve extracted approximately four million hours of broadcasting out of Italia 90. Who knows, if we had 15 kings named PJ from 1400 to 1700, what we would talk about now? But history catches up eventually and a lot of British probably learned more about their history in the past week from watching a slave trader statue being thrown into the Bristol Channel, than they ever learned going through the proper channels of GCSE.

We can’t get too smug here. There are many gaps in our history learning. Yes, we did a whistle-stop tour of the world and we did learn broadly that colonialism was bad. Perfidious English with their red coats and cruel Spaniards with their little mustaches peppered the Junior Cert books I had. But there wasn’t much about what we Irish were up to once we landed.

You could be forgiven for thinking Cromwell sent us out as slaves to the Bahamas, we joined up with the Africans and the Indians and got on like a house on fire and that’s why people on Monsterrat sound like they could be being interviewed on the way into a Nathan Carter concert.

But it turns out Irish people were well able to own slaves and apparently could be worse slave masters than the originals. Follow the work of historian Liam Hogan to learn how some of the merchants of Cork and Limerick came into money. Hint — it wasn’t from selling a pint of milk and the paper.

Then there are people who we thought we knew. John Mitchell, who I remember from Junior Cert history as a great patriot altogether, was pro-slavery, thought black people were inferior and strongly supported the Confederate army in the US Civil War.

I didn’t learn any of this in Junior Cert history. And I had a very good teacher who did give us nuggets of extra-curricular info. But there wasn’t time to go very far off piste. And, it’s a bit much to know the full history of the world when you’re 15. Especially as, later that day, you have to conjugate, in three languages, the verb ‘to be’. While also having the existential crisis of being a teenager.

But I do remember a feeling of: “Right this is what we’ve learned now for the exam, that’s history completed” and since then I feel like I’ve had to unlearn much of what I thought I knew.

To be fair, I didn’t do history for the Leaving. Via Twitter, I asked a Leaving Cert History teacher Joanne, about this and she said she tries to emphasise to her students “question what you’re reading, question the status quo and question authority. Just because I’m an authority figure, doesn’t mean I’m always right” which sounds like her students are in good hands.

But for Junior Cert students now, where history is compulsory, I hope it is drummed into them: “There isn’t time to go into this in full. Please read other stuff. And keep refreshing.” Final word to a young lad from Sligo called Jude — who would have been doing the Junior Cert this year and possibly should be made a professor of history already, He said: “You learn from your mistakes, if history is whitewashed how can the human race learn?”.

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