Irish historian explains why he didn't take history for his Leaving Cert

As a documentary on Eamon de Valera’s time in America airs, historian and author Ryle Dwyer looks at how history is taught here — and explains why he did not take the subject for his Leaving Cert.

Irish historian explains why he didn't take history for his Leaving Cert

As a documentary on Eamon de Valera’s time in America airs, historian and author Ryle Dwyer looks at how history is taught here — and explains why he did not take the subject for his Leaving Cert.

Although born of American parents in the US, I was reared from the age of four in Ireland, and I received all my primary and secondary education in Tralee, Co Kerry.

The history that was taught in school at the time was all pre-20th century.

I cannot remember any aspect of 20th-century history being covered in school during the 1950s or early 1960s.

History seemed to end with Parnell and the Kitty O’Shea affair in the 1890s.

I did not sit history in the Leaving Certificate in 1963, because the course was dealing with the era of St Patrick, which seemed more like mythology than history to me.

It was less than 40 years since the Irish civil war of 1922-23, which had been particularly bitter in Kerry, so it was suggested was the wounds were still too raw to cover the period in school.

After finishing school here, I went to university in the US, enrolling at North Texas State University, near Dallas, in January 1964.

It was 99 years since the American Civil War, but it still seemed to be a live issue in Texas at the time.

I had a rather distorted introduction to Irish history in my final year of primary school (1956-57).

The teacher, a Christian Brother, used to become indignant in telling the class that Daniel O’Connell had suggested that it was not worth killing, or dying, for Irish Independence.

That Christian Brother depicted this as depraved thinking. After all, the leaders of 1916, had all killed and died in an effort to secure Irish independence.

“Heroism has come back to earth,” Patrick Pearse wrote in December 1915.

The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives gladly given for love of country.

He was glorifying the killing and dying in the First World War, which we now know was responsible for many other wars, including the Second World War. How many people would now agree with those sentiments expressed by Pearse then?

At the time, James Connolly denounced such sentiments as the thinking of a “blithering idiot”.

The Christian Brothers never told us that. Indeed, some of them encouraged us to believe there was a moral obligation to be prepared to fight and die to end partition in order to bring about the full national independence of the whole island.

My father was killed in the Second World War while serving in the US army, so I had a different perspective about the glory of killing and dying in war. I frankly wondered whether that cranky Christian Brother really understood Christianity.

I knew very little growing up about my father, because if my brother or I ever asked our mother anything about him, she would answer us with tears in her eyes.

As it is disconcerting for a child to see a parent cry, we developed a cardinal rule — not to mention our father, or the war, to our mother.

But I did develop a sneaking regard forDaniel O’Connell, in spite of what was said about him in school.

In Olivia O’Leary’s recent documentary, Patrick Geoghegan, one of O’Connell’s biographers, recalled that when opening O’Connell’s home, Derrynane House, as a national heritage centre on August 20, 1967, President Éamon de Valera said his generation had hated O’Connell, but candidly admitted they had been wrong.

They would never have been able to achieve what they had achieved if O’Connell had not prepared the way in the 19th century.

By talking to great public gatherings, O’Connell convinced the Irish people that they were not slaves. In a figurative sense, he got them off of their knees, and to stand up for themselves.

“All over the world he was honoured as a great democratic leader, and he set the foundations for all the democratic organisations we have today,” de Valera told the gathering at Derrynane on that day.

“We are not inclined to give him the credit that was due to him.”

By instilling confidence in the downtrodden Irish Catholic population, O’Connell made the great triumph ofindependence possible in the 20th century.

“How could we promote the memory the man who achieved so much by parliamentary means with no loss of life?” de Valera privately admitted to Austin Dunphy, architect of Office of Public Works, which was responsible for the restoration of Derrynane House.

“To praise him would have made it impossible for us to justify armed insurrection.”

O’Leary stated that O’Connell’s lasting legacy was to democratic politics as he had no blood on his hands.

It was an honourable legacy — a profoundly moral message, which de Valera himself admitted had not been acknowledged.

“For far too long we decided not to listen to it,” she concluded.

“Perhaps we’re listening now.”

Unfortunately, far too many people were not listening over the next 30 years, at least until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

De Valera i Meiriceá is on TG4 tonight (weds) at 9.30pm. The second part will be broadcast at 7.30pm on Friday.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up