Why do we know nothing about our own history?

The fact of the matter is that most of us know nothing at all about our history, nothing,” said the poet Paul Muldoon on William Crawley’s Imagining Ulster.

Sorry to digress in only the second sentence, but Crawley’s Sunday evening series is interesting but deeply flawed. It’s too ambitious. It takes in such a broad sweep of the past that it doesn’t hang together. It’s not coherent. Also, it’s Protestant and unionist in its focus, possibly even with overtones of ancestor worship. Apart from that, Crawley is an outstanding broadcaster and his series has many individual, if disparate, insights like Paul Muldoon’s comment.

Most of us know nothing about our past despite the fact that we’re always trying to convince ourselves that we have wonderful schools and world class education. It’s dreadful because our ignorance impacts on us today.

Studying history doesn’t mean we’ll all arrive at an agreed narrative; far from it, but knowledge of the main events would at least allow us to make informed judgements and to appreciate the need for respect.

So, whose fault is it that our schools have largely ignored Irish history? The blame has to lie with those who set the syllabus for examinations and with teachers who chose the easier or less contentions subjects when they are given a choice. “We’re often fearful of engaging with Irish history,” says University College Cork historian Dr Gillian McIntosh.

Fifty years ago when I did ‘A’ level history very few teachers chose the only Irish option of Grattan’s Parliament as a special period. Most opted for the French Revolution instead. It was only at college (that’s today’s un-cool word “uni” in the puffed-up lingo of academic inflation) that I had an opportunity to study Irish history.

Things haven’t improved over the last 50 years. Irish history remains too-challenging-to-bother-with. Most pupils taking history seem to study little but Germany between the wars and the rise of fascism. It’s the easy option. I even heard the other day of a university history student who was dismayed to discover she would be required to take at least a module on Irish history.

Meanwhile, ignorance is painfully apparent in our society. Even politicians betray a lack of historical perspective and judgement.

The other day Danny Morrison and Jim Allister were talking on radio about the 1916 Easter Rising and other things. Jim said, “The Easter Rising had nothing to do with Northern Ireland.” “That’s right,” replied Danny, “because Northern Ireland didn’t exist in 1916.” Of course Northern Ireland didn’t exist in 1916, although some seem to think it was one of the great civilisations of the ancient world. So, on that level Danny Morrison was right, but on another level Danny and Jim were both wrong. The 1916 Rising did have something to do with Northern Ireland. One of the Rising’s unintended consequences was that it copper fastened the prospect of partition. In that sense you’d think Jim would celebrate the Rising!

“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise,” said 18th century poet Thomas Gray.

On St. Patrick’s Day a friend innocently said to an acquaintance, “That’s a nice day for St. Patrick’s.” “We want nothing to do with that,” came a snarled response. That’s it. What has Christianity or history got to do with us?