Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week? Jan Robert Schulz on the Easter Rising in Northern Irish History Textbooks

imageThere’s a tired old joke about air passengers arriving in Northern Ireland. The pilot announces: ‘Welcome to Belfast, set your clocks back 400 years.’

The implication is of course that Northern Ireland is living in its past, trapped by its history. Indeed, the past is all around the streets of Northern Ireland, from the murals of historical happenings that dominate gable walls, to the parades that commemorate events of hundreds of years ago.

But coupled with this seeming obsession with history is the observation that children in Northern Ireland have actually not been taught history in schools.

Though this is changing somewhat, most people of my generation and older never learned Irish history in school, or if they did, it avoided difficult issues around violence.

The result has been that many people in Northern Ireland hold mythologised and incomplete ideas about what happened in the past.

Further, they have not been introduced to the idea of history as an ongoing process of interpretation that takes on board differing perspectives. Rather, they tend to see history as a chronicle of supposedly ‘hard facts’ that can be discovered by ‘objective’ scholars.

Jan Robert Schulz, who completed my School’s Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation last year, wrote his dissertation on the portrayal of the 1916 Easter Rising in history textbooks used in secondary schools in Northern Ireland.

His work, now published as a shorter article in the journal International Perspectives in Adult Education and available here online, engages with difficult issues around how history is taught and aims to ‘give a substantiated explanation as to why creating a shared history is so vital.’

I encourage you to read the full article, titled ‘Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week? Remembering and Forgetting the Easter Rising in Northern Irish History Textbooks.’ His introductory summary reads:

From the analysis of history textbooks used in Northern Irish secondary schools in the last four decades, this research project deals with the memory of the 1916 Easter Rising. The study shows that the representation of the Easter Rising is balanced, though the textbooks do not perform well with handling controversial issues. A general pattern is to avoid challenging questions and complex issues, such as the concept of “sacrifice” or contemporary interpretations of Easter 1916.

Not using enquiry-based approaches, avoiding drawing links to the present and not mentioning sectarian interpretations of history are shortcomings revealed by this study. Furthermore, the textbooks reviewed have the tendency to not critically engage the Easter Rising, the ideologies surrounding the event and the people involved. This all merges into a picture of a society which is afraid to say too much. Within the theoretical framework of collective memory, the argument developed is that critically dealing with a violent and divided past is important in post-conflict Northern Ireland. Moreover, theories of collective memory contribute to a further analysis of Easter 1916 and the textbooks.

Some of you may take issue with his idea of creating a ‘shared history,’ as indeed I would without having read his full article and seen his further explanation of what he means by a shared history.

Shared history does not mean coming up with a tidy narrative of ‘objective’ interpretations of events on which all can agree.

Rather, Schulz roots his idea of shared history in Paul Ricoeur’s use of Sigmund Freud’s idea of ‘recollection memory’, as opposed to ‘repetition memory.’ Repetition memory consists of repeating common behaviour, or retreating to escapism or passive forgetting (p. 20-21).

Recollection memory, on the other hand, is (p. 20-21):

… actively and critically engaging with the past. … viewing the past with a multi-faceted lens, e.g. seeing the past with the eyes of others. This kind of memory facilitates reconciliation with the past; it is a way of cancelling the debt of the past. … it heals memory and encourages the process of moving on.

Engaging in recollection memory is of course not easy, but striving towards this in our history classrooms could be an important first step.

Image: Easter Rising mural, Beechmount, West Belfast

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