Learning not to be Irish
Children of Empire was the education system’s perceived model.
Looking back on my school days in Derry and particularly those spent at primary level, the curriculum was designed to make us view ourselves as part of Britain. Although the Northern Ireland State or the Six Counties, as it was called in Nationalist circles, was twenty six years old when I started school, it lacked confidence in its government; distrusted and discriminated against a large minority of its citizens and exercised tight, centrist control over education. The Catholic Hierarchy was deeply suspicious of the education plans proposed for the new Northern Ireland State and, at significant cost to its congregations, opted for a separate system. In effect, the Catholic population had to provide 30% of the initial capital investment and 25% of the school maintenance costs. All schools were fully funded in the remainder of the UK. Teachers, once they had taken an Oath of Allegiance to HM, were paid by the State. All text books for use in schools, had to be approved by the Ministry of Education.
I enjoyed reading and uncritically assimilated the pieces in our text books. The teachers seemed interested only in our ability to decode words and read them aloud. There was little enlargement on the content. Two chapters in my reading book on great, British heroes are easily recalled – ‘With Clive in India’ and ‘General Wolfe in Canada’. We learned that Clive had made India prosperous and established the East India Company’s presence there. Wolfe was the valiant hero who had captured Quebec and united Canada with some of the United States. There may well still be some of my fellow pupils who have spent their lives with those truths deeply ingrained and unchallenged. I now understand that Clive headed, with undisguised brutality, the group which plundered the Indian Sub-Continent. The echoes of Empire which surfaced in the EU Referendum carefully selected a picture of a benign regime where indigenous peoples were extras. We were fed a distorted and highly abridged version of reality. My primary school teacher, if he knew, failed to point out that Wolfe had perfected the bayonet technique during service in Ireland where he helped to subdue restless natives. Scots will be aware that he also saw service with Cumberland at Culloden. Had I known those facts then, I would have better understood why the British Empire was coloured red on our classroom World map.
The Belgians have offered an apology for their behaviour in the Congo and other colonial misdeeds. Even today, Britain is not prepared to accept the injustices of colonialism. Our young learners deserve to know the whole, true facts of the past, not merely convenient moments which depict the invaders favourably. It is both fundamental to our comprehension of the multi-cultural state that we inhabit and to our appreciation of diversity in the World around us. There are valuable efforts being made in Ireland by historians and writers to show the validity of the two traditions that inhabit the island. A model is beginning to emerge but it will require teachers to educate a new generation with honesty in the lessons of history.
Each life matters.