News Carol Hunt

Friday 19 September 2014

Unless we uncover the truth we risk repeating mistakes

If we don't foster study of history, we are doomed to remain prisoners of our own ignorance, writes Carol Hunt

Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30

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A makeshift plaque at the site of the mass grave in Tuam.
A makeshift plaque at the site of the mass grave in Tuam

When Minister Ruairi Quinn announced his plan to make English, Irish and Maths the only mandatory subjects for the Junior Cert, he laid down a challenge to those who believe that the study of history is vital to civilised living. "Historians," he said, "owe a duty to the country to show why their domain of knowledge matters (and it does) and why 12-year-olds and their parents should take heed."

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If the revelations of the past few weeks have shown us anything, it is that we ignore history at our peril. As Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin, Ciaran Brady, wrote, in answer to Mr Quinn: "What other subject insists that we put things in sequence, judge their importance, think about the consequences and hold people responsible for their actions?"

Many questions have been asked, since the revelations emerged, about what happened at the Tuam Mother and Baby home – and many other such institutions all over the country. Why did it happen? How did we allow it? Who knew? And who is ultimately to blame?

The extraordinarily tardy response of media and Government to engage with these questions suggests that some would rather not enter the quagmire that a forensic historical investigation would entail. But we must. If we don't, we are doomed to remain prisoners of our own ignorance.

If one does not know the reasons why atrocities were committed against children by what were, ostensibly, ordinary decent human beings, then we are at risk of repeating them within a generation.

In many countries, study of the Holocaust is mandatory, and for good reason. Similarly, in the US, many states have made slave history compulsory and some have also added the study of the Irish Famine. In his introduction to The Irish Famine: A Documentary, written with Diarmaid Ferriter, Colm Toibin quotes the then New York Governor George Pataki, who said: "History teaches us that the Great Hunger was not the result of a massive Irish crop failure, but rather a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive." One can assume that such polemical rhetoric has done much to help fill the coffers of Republican organisations in the US, but the problem is that "history teaches us" no such thing.

During recent days "The Famine" has been trotted out as an excuse for why Irish people could behave with such brutality to the most weak and vulnerable in society. We were treated horrifically by the British, goes the reasoning, and therefore we treated others with brutality in return.

This is far too simplistic an excuse.

Certainly, the Great Famine was a game-changer in Irish history. But many people of my generation – for whom its study was mandatory – know little more about it beyond the fact that this catastrophe was without doubt the fault of the British, who insisted that all food from Ireland be exported to Britain. (This is despite the fact that the British government – particularly under Robert Peel – made many right-minded attempts to deal with the crisis, albeit most of them unsuccessfully.)

This has been the emotional line sold to us down the years by nationalist politicians and Catholic bishops who had their own reasons for denying the truth of what really occurred during those years.

Facts show that what actually happened was not so much a colonial walkover but rather a class war in which an entire layer of people – the cottier class – was wiped out in order to make way for the new orders: the Catholic bourgeoisie. The newly rising Catholic middle-classes saw their chance when the potato blight struck, and they took it.

An entire generation of upwardly mobile Irish not only survived the horror and poverty of those years, but many actually prospered.

Those survivors are our ancestors. And when the dust had settled and the rate of dying had eased, what was left behind was relief and guilt – a need for penitence – combined with a fear and loathing of the weak, the vulnerable, the different. (Ireland would later achieve notoriety for incarcerating a larger portion of our population than any other country in the world – the Soviet Union coming a distant second.)

To prevent such horrors from happening again, population growth had to be strictly controlled. And that, coupled with Victorian attitudes to sexuality, the Catholic Church's virgin complex and fear of sexual women, created a sad little country of aged bachelors and spinsters supposedly proud of their chastity.

If you weren't the eldest son, the only chance you had of an education was if you emigrated – or joined the church. Within two decades – and with the help of the authoritarian Cardinal Cullen – we had become the "Jewel in the Vatican Crown". Mothers pushed unwilling pre-pubescent sons and daughters into the arms of the church, where they became embittered, angry and frustrated priests and nuns. Sex – outside marriage – became the greatest sin of all. Of course it didn't go away, human nature being what it is; instead Ireland became a "society of guilt, secrecy, darkness and oppression". And the outward evidence of this sin was the so-called "illegitimate child". This is why these children were deemed to be less than human. This is why they were treated so mercilessly. They carried the guilt of a generation in their little bodies.

The claim that the Catholic Church filled a need in society not provided for by the State is true, up to a point. The post-Famine Irish church was hungry for status, power and possessions. The British had gladly given it charge of education and health. Our new, impoverished State was not in a position to challenge that power, even if it had wanted to – which it didn't. It still doesn't.

The church guarded its power over "social issues" jealously and opposed every attempt to introduce State provision for women and children – which would have freed many from the church's power – citing them as "socialistic".

"History is," again to quote Ciaran Brady, "a kind of cultural alphabet that equips us to understand and discuss the present. Without that alphabet it is impossible to be the sort of critical citizen that society needs." If ever a country so desperately needed to make the study of history mandatory for all its citizens, it is ours.

@carolmhunt

Sunday Independent

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