Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

By Hugh F. Kearney | Go to book overview

Part II

Contested Ideas of National History

The rise of nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe was closely linked with the idea of national languages (see chapter 5 above). National schools, national literatures, and, not least, national histories soon came to form part of the same pattern. Thus in the United States, the concept of a “manifest destiny” became the basic assumption in the teaching of history in the publicly funded schools. In England “Our Island Story,” linked with the rise of the idea of an Anglo-Saxon “race” came to provide the dominant framework of the national narrative. Similarly, within the Irish Free State an Irish version of “Our Island Story” was introduced into the national schools from 1933 onward.

As with the idea of nationhood itself, however, there were almost inevitably conflicting versions of what constituted national history. Within the United States, “the South” created its own version of the national myth. In the United Kingdom the English version of history was challenged in Scotland and Wales. In Ireland, as in France, the Catholic Church's view of the past contrasted sharply with that of the revolutionary tradition. For Catholic churchmen it was the penal period of the eighteenth century which required emphasis. For the Fianna Fail Party the rebellions of 1798, 1848, 1867, and ultimately 1916 formed the basis of the national narrative.

Before the Irish revolution of 1916–21 there was no place for formal history teaching within the national schools. History was considered too sensitive a topic to form part of the curriculum. After the accession to power of De Valera in 1932, however, the situation changed and the key role of Irish history was spelled out almost immediately in the government pamphlet Notes for Teachers (1933). At the university level the situation was more complicated, but here also within the National University the influence of nationalism, albeit of a somewhat different cast, was strong (Eoin MacNeill and John Marcus O'Sullivan, former government ministers, were

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