I would like to thank you for the honour of being asked to speak at the opening of the inaugural Thomas Kent School of History. The School’s programme is not only a tribute to its organisers but it also a great demonstration of how commemoration can be a positive and forward-looking act.
It is a great honour to again meet Tomi Reichental whose story of surviving Bergen Belsen has brought home to so many of us the inhumanity which mankind can be reduced to when the abuse of history reaches it’s extreme.
In your programme you will be hearing in detail about Thomas Kent and how he came to be seen as a forgotten hero of 1916. This is being done in the spirit of trying to build understanding about the breadth and complexity of the personalities and times which produced the Irish Revolution.
In remembering Kent and in the many other papers you will hear there is no agenda other than broadening our understanding and challenging us to search for context and complexity. This stands in contrast to those who prefer set narratives to be transferred from generation to generation as orthodoxies to be memorized rather than understood.
It is a great testament to a modern and self-questioning republic that in a period where we are marking the centenary of the events which created our state that the overwhelming majority of people have embraced the idea of adding new elements to our national story. We have shown that we can be proud of the achievements of our patriot revolutionaries but also honour the Irish men and women who formed other traditions and died in other causes.
The organisers have prepared a programme which is designed to combine the best of modern scholarship on the period with reflecting on broader themes. I want to congratulate them on their ambition and their intentions for the future.
When the question is posed about what role does the study of history play in a modern society I think the evidence of the contemporary world is that we desperately need it to play a much bigger role. The abuse of history in order to justify increasingly extreme positions or to promote division is worse than it has been at any point in the last seven decades.
If you look at the rise of anti-democratic and extreme forces in Britain, America, France, Germany, Hungary, not to mention Russia, the promotion of a false narrative of the past is an absolutely consistent part of their repertoire. In fact I would go as far as to say that what we are seeing in these places is a war on history and the promotion of pseudo-history. A combination of promoting historical grievances and seeking a restoration of mythical pasts is being used to directly attack the foundations of liberal democracy and rules-based international cooperation.
In Britain, a Brexit which will cost every family thousands of pounds succeeded because of an appeal to an imperial glory whitewashed of all of its many dark sides.
In France, one third of the population voted for a candidate who defines her country on the basis of a return to monolithic single culture.
In Germany, a dangerous and growing party is appealing to people to forget about the Nazi era and look instead to other glorious times.
In Hungary, the prime minister holds up the image of the pre-First World War Greater Hungary as his country’s rightful destiny and has waged a relentless war on intellectual dissent.
And then of course you have the case of Putin’s regime, where every history textbook has been edited to reflect an official version which ignores the crimes of Stalin and views the independence of various states as a tragedy which should be reversed. Organisations involved in trying to open up historical archives have been prosecuted and the direct link between the abuse of history and the launching of wars is now undeniable.
The way to challenge this is not to run away from history but to challenge those who use it as a source of division and exclusivity.
The simple fact is that we not only shouldn’t be reducing the study of history we should actually be significantly increasing it. It cannot be left to advocates and partisans – it must be a space where many voices can be heard and where the questioning which is at the heart of all healthy societies is encouraged.
In order to have a broad and inclusive history we have to make sure that every person has access to core knowledge and is encouraged to challenge and explore. This simply cannot happen unless every child is taught history up to an age where they start questioning and forming their own perspectives.
I don’t think we should merely insist that history be part of the curriculum for school students up to 15, but we should actually be looking to expand historical content in other parts of the curriculum. For example, how is it possible to appreciate most literature without an understanding of historical events, themes and movements. The same could be said about all forms of music. Every popular form of music from Tchaikovsky to punk and even pop reflects what was once contemporary and is now only understood through appreciating history.
A shared historical literacy is an essential part of inclusive citizenship and it is something which we must insist on.
This is an issue which I faced as Minister for Education on the last time that there was a proposal to radically alter the role of history in our schools. I opposed removing its prominent position in the Junior Cycle and rejected a formal proposal for a new Leaving Certificate Curriculum in large part because it was so diverse and complex that we would no longer have a shared base of knowledge across the generation involved.
A proper response to the public outcry over the effective downgrading of history in schools should be to stop the changes and instead look at the overall approach to historical literacy.
We also need a renewed commitment to the role of advanced humanities research in our universities.
When we began the massive expansion of support for advanced research we explicitly included the humanities as part of a programme which was about putting in place long-term foundations for progress. Many people questioned why we were funding history alongside materials sciences.
The answer was as valid then as it is now – the first thing you need for a society which pushes the boundaries of knowledge is a society which knows how to explore and question.
I think the ever-closer link which is being put in research funding between politically-overseen priorities and established economic sectors is damaging and should be reversed.
A lot of the great success of the 1916 centenary was based on the work of a new generation of scholars who benefited through the creation of support schemes a decade and a half ago. Where once we lost most of our young historians to other countries or other professions, a structure was put in place where hundreds were able to do their work here.
As a country we need to make sure that we value and support a broad base of historical research as well as expanding opportunities to bridge the gap between the public and new scholarship.
The ‘Decade of Commemorations’ is a testament to the great work which has been undertaken in the last two decades and it has confirmed how a society can be both patriotic and inclusive. At the core of this have been the rejection of partisan narratives – and indeed the relentless campaign of one party to impose its narrative on our history.
Fermoy is a very fitting place to remember that the truth of a more complex history which enriches our identity.
It was here, as a secondary school teacher, that Thomas MacDonagh deepened his involvement in the Gaelic League and grew in his nationalist sentiment. However anyone who sees him and his colleagues as narrow cultural nationalists is missing an important part of their ideas.
In his only significant academic publication, MacDonagh studies the role of literature in English by Irish people. He argued that we should see Irish literature in English as uniquely Irish – as an expression of Irishness which must be seen alongside literature in the Irish language.
Declan Kiberd has referred to this as one of the most important works of Irish literary criticism of any age and it is something which adds very important dimensions to the past picture of a supposedly inflexible ‘Irish Ireland’ movement.
Perhaps the most corrosive approach to Irish history is one which demands we take sides and find new ways of waging old conflicts. People who preach about unbroken chains and try to legitimise contemporary brutality by reference to long-past events are not honouring history they are twisting and distorting it.
I think the Irish people have a lot to be proud of in how we have developed in recent years in our appreciation of our past. How we have introduced a new complexity to our history, have worked to be more inclusive and have combined this with a strong and proud patriotism.
In a modern world where history is becoming a battlefield once again we need to understand just how important it is that we insist on a broad, inclusive and challenging national discourse on our history.