Tuesday 18 June 2019

Child's-eye view gives new angle on our shared history

Students from St Mary’s School in Edenderry, Co Offaly, with their 1916 sculpture
Students from St Mary’s School in Edenderry, Co Offaly, with their 1916 sculpture
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Cross-border initiatives make my heart sing. They do. My family was formed as a result of a cross-border initiative, after all, when my Tyrone father married my Limerick mother.

The Border was a concrete presence when I was a child, as opposed to today's message popping up on mobile phones flagging a different billing jurisdiction. Checkpoints and watch towers were our norm. But we didn't allow them to change our behaviour. If the two halves of my family were on different sides of the boundary, then constant to-ing and fro-ing would take place.

This was not and is not unusual. Neighbours and school friends had a patchwork quilt of relatives from the four provinces. It's the rare Irish family without a cross-border element, and this has happened organically.

But formal cross-border projects matter, too. They are a way of acknowledging our shared history: value is placed on swapping stories, and recognising intersections and parallels. During this Decade of Commemorations, various schemes to that end have taken place, including a worthwhile collaboration involving five schools from the Republic and five from the North.

The results are published in a book called 'Across An Open Field' in which the pupils reflect on landmark events between 1912 and 1922, for which they produced both artwork and accounts in their own words.

The Titanic, Lockout, Great War, Easter Rising, War of Independence, Civil War and partition are among topics covered with child's-eye candour, in a venture which explores the social history of the time as opposed to rote learning key political dates.

The book helps to dismantle any concept of the North as a place apart, or the notion that Ireland, north and south, have little in common. On the contrary, connections are traced in 'Across An Open Field' - which has just been published, with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund, by the arts organisation Kids' Own Publishing Partnership.

The children marvel at learning how relatives played a part in history. Here's Kyle from St Joseph's Boys' National School in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan. He was given a box with two decks of playing cards used in the trenches by his great-grand-uncle, who won a medal, and speculates: "I wonder what games the soldiers played? Maybe Poker."

Ruairi from Laghey Primary School, Dungannon, Co Tyrone, has another take on trench life: "Soldiers, if they were hungry enough, ate their own head lice. It's disgusting."

The Rising features, and Louis, from Holy Rosary Primary School in Belfast, is clearly an entrepreneur of the future: "In the old days, there was no coke or 7Up. Everyone drank tea and coffee and ginger beer, even if they went to a café… I made some and brought it to Dublin in the Easter holidays for the big parade. I sold the ginger beer to children and adults for 50 cent. Everyone loved having a taste from long ago."

Pupils at Dublin's Inchicore National School are interested in how the children who attended their school were given just two days off during the Rising, on the Tuesday and Wednesday of that incendiary week. Everyday life carried on in the thick of history-changing events.

May, from Northampton National School in Kinvara, Co Galway, highlights through her own story the divided loyalties of families. Her namesake great-grandmother May lost her British naval father on HMS Fortitude, and went on to marry a man who turned out in 1916 to fight for Irish freedom. May notices how that other May's father wrote letters beginning "My darling May", and how her grandmother calls her by the same endearment today. Here, as elsewhere, history isn't confined to the page but is woven through family lore.

From the same school, Grace talks about her great-grandfather sentenced to death, commuted to imprisonment because he was only 18, during the War of Independence. From Dartmoor Prison, he wrote to his parents to let them know he was "toddling along" and to his sweetheart promising to make her his wife. They married soon after he was released in 1922 - paving the way for Grace to be born.

Caoimhe, from Nicker National School, Co Limerick, reminds us that women were involved in the struggle for independence: her great-grandmother was in Cumann na mBan and carried messages during the War of Independence. "She died aged 93 and was given a 21-gun salute at her funeral…"

From the same school, Dennis - with a family connection to the Dromkeen ambush in 1921, when 11 policemen were killed - has drawn a picture of a volunteer on a bicycle being chased by an RIC man.

Back at St Joseph's in Carrickmacross, close to the Border, partition was studied. An episode from local history received attention, with study focusing on the Clones shootings in 1922, when a gun battle broke out between the IRA and the Ulster Special Constabulary who were travelling by train through the Monaghan town. Six police specials were killed and the pupils describe how passengers were forced to lay out the bodies.

"Everyone shut down their shops in Clones and Monaghan and put off the street lights and stayed inside," they note of the ensuing turbulence.

Pupils at Hazelwood Integrated Primary School in Newtownabbey, Co Down, describe how suffragettes attacked public property and were force-fed in jail in Belfast when they went on hunger strike. Jackson and Eamon say of their tactics: "They hoped the men might get sick of women doing these things (pouring acid on a golf green). They targeted places where men liked to go, so they might turn round and say, 'Let them have the vote'."

This was child-led research into an epoch which gave birth to modern Ireland. When teachers suggested pupils should ask at home what their relatives were doing 100 years ago, they didn't know which stories would come to light. Nor could they guess which elements from those eventful years would resonate with their classes.

A participating teacher told me she intends to build on the work by seeking out connections between the topics researched by her pupils, and those which other schools concentrated on. Stories have more than one side, after all. That's a lesson we can all draw from the Decade of Commemorations.

Irish Independent

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