Anglo-Irish history is long forgotten in British schools

5 Mins read

The long history of Ireland and Britain is yet to break through into the UK education curriculum. Something has to change.

It’s no secret that the British government have conducted some sinister operations over time, particularly to the people of Ireland. With Irish rebel band The Wolfe Tones breaking attendance records at the iconic Irish music festival ‘Electric Picnic’ back in September, members of the press were left stunned, with pro-IRA lyrics drawing accusations of ‘glorifying a terrorist group’ by the likes of columnist Sarah Carey

Britain and Ireland have an extremely long and controversial history, the effects of which are still on-going. Only two years ago, a Lord Ashcroft survey showed that 51% of voters in Northern Ireland supported a referendum to unite Ireland once again. Yet, most Brits don’t seem to understand the core reasons some Irish natives are still fighting for independence. Is this because the British education system refuses to explore the issue?

The Independent reported back in 2017, that one in ten people in the UK couldn’t identify Ireland on a map, and this isn’t the only factor of ignorance. Karen Bradley, a British conservative MP and former Secretary Of State in Northern Ireland, told RTÉ columnist Abie Philbin Bowman that she was “unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and that unionists did not vote for nationalists”.

When even British government officials are unable to grasp basic Irish concepts, the need to familiarise and educate in schools remains an urgent matter.

A painted mural of IRA volunteer, Bobby Sands
The Belfast Mural of Bobby Sands, a former IRA volunteer [Aoife Ní Niadh]

The UK Department Of Education publicly displays the national secondary school history curriculum on its website, and the list is long. Whilst ‘conflicts with Catholics’ is listed, it seems many schools turn a blind eye to the matter, primarily down to the fact the topic is optional and classified as ‘non-statutory.’

History teacher Ethan explains that despite the subject being available on the curriculum, he is given set topics by the school board: “The Troubles in Ireland, or Irish history as a whole is something neither myself nor any other teacher I know has covered. When we’re planning lessons for students we are encouraged to stick to what’s on the examinations: World Wars, Medicine, The Black Death etc. It’s very quick for people to assume that because it’s available, it’ll be taught because more than likely it won’t and that’s just how it’s always been.”

Teaching culture in schools remains a priority of importance, yet schools in Britain don’t seem ready to teach of their wrongdoings to the Irish people. 

Tania, an Irish native now living in London, believes the British education system does “absolutely nothing” to teach students about Irish history, particularly in Northern Ireland, where she grew up: “There’s no education on the Troubles in Ireland available on the curriculum. My son in year nine recently did two weeks of work in [history] class on British colonisation. They covered every country that Britain colonised, and there was one sentence about Ireland, which was about Britain allowing them to keep the Irish games. It’s just not discussed. I believe that British children should be taught all colonisation, as it still very much represents the country we live in today.”

Whilst schools still fail to educate students on the matter in Britain, fortunately, there have been prolific pieces of historical context in the form of entertainment available on national television, one being Lisa Mcgee’s hit sitcom, Derry Girls

Samuel GR Morgan, a Belfast-born film composer living in Surrey, recalls the Channel 4 sitcom educating many of his peers, and the reflection this has based on the UK’s academic teachings: “I remember when the series finale of Derry Girls came out, which was based around The Good Friday agreement. A lot of my friends approached me and told me they learned so much about the Troubles. I think that says quite a lot about the state of the British education system, the fact that people are learning about their history from a TV series.” 

Sam Morgan’s former band Saint Sapphire highlights footage of the Troubles in their music videos [YouTube: Saint Sapphire]

Whilst The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, a huge divide remains between the people of Ireland and the British government. Sam believes a route to some sort of relationship between the two starts with the British government being clearer with their beliefs and intentions: 

“The main thing I would argue is, I think a lot of Irish people would appreciate a more open and mature relationship with the British government about their past in Ireland. Certain legislation like the recent legacy bill isn’t helping the cause whatsoever.”  

Perhaps the Irish people would also appreciate Britain taking sole responsibility for their atrocities during the Troubles and engaging with the education board to set aside a curriculum based on the history between the two countries.

Without insight into Anglo-Irish history, students are left at a sincere disadvantage, in not only their understanding of history but also disadvantages in unfamiliarity with the practices of the Irish people.

James McClean, an Irish footballer who has spent the last decade in English football, has had first-hand experiences with continuous abuse regarding his beliefs. McClean has always refused to wear a red poppy on Remembrance Day, something English fans continue to criticise him for, marking the action as a form of disrespect. 

For many Irish natives, the red poppy is seen as a symbol of British imperialism and of supporting the British army, who were one of the main culprits of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Despite McClean continuously trying to justify his actions, English supporters are relentless with accusations of supporting terrorism, bombarding the Irish player with abuse. 

James McClean experiencing abusive behaviour by British football fans for refusing to wear a red poppy [YouTube: Irish Wolfhound] (CONTAINS EXPLICIT LANGUAGE)

Should it be down to the Irish people to culture Brits on their history? That’s not the case, says Kildare local Aoife Ní Niadh (formally known as Neville, before last year deciding to use her Irish surname).

“I don’t think it should be down to the Irish people to educate the British on their history and the actions of their government and army in the past. It should be part of the education system along with the other crimes the British army committed, such as the Bengal famine in India and all of the countries they colonised throughout history. It seems that the British government are only interested in teaching a selective history which only highlights the good parts and leaves out all of the dark aspects of what the empire stood for.” 

With so much left unsaid in schools on the matter, where could the education board even begin? Regardless of where the British education system would start in history, the most important factor is to take steps to begin teaching. It’s more important than ever, both for shining a light on the past and making sense of the present.

 Whilst it seems highly unlikely we’ll see Anglo-Irish history added to the curriculum anytime soon, the best any British native can do is partake in self-education on the matter, not only for yourself but for the people of Ireland who deserve to be heard and understood.

Featured image by Samuel GR Morgan.

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