(From Church & State Magazine, No. 74, Autumn 2003)
The Story Of An Educational Document
David Alvey

Notes for Teachers — History is an important educational document published by the Irish Department of Education sometime between 1932 and 1934. In it guidelines are set down as to how Irish history should be taught in National Schools. It is important not just because of its enunciation of sound educational principles and practice and because of the influence it brought to bear on Irish history teaching over the next thirty-five years, but because it includes a first-class summary of Irish history from a national perspective. As a pupil in a National School (Belgrove National School, Clontarf, Dublin), who enjoyed learning about history, I can verify that these guidelines were still being closely adhered to by a National Teacher (Mr. Jordan) in the mid 1960s. I was taught Irish history in a way that was inspirational, proudly national, but also balanced and generous spirited by a teacher who passionately believed in what he was expounding. I believe that teacher was typical of National Teachers of the time.

While the importance of Notes for Teachers – History is self evident, I have never come across references to it in educational or academic literature. I came across it by chance in the National Library and it was filed with Government publications published by the Stationary Office for the year 1959. This may have been because the guidelines were republished in that year.

When I discovered it I had just finished reading History And The Irish Question, Roy Foster’s influential critique of the misuse of history by Irish nationalists (published in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1983, Paddy And Mr. Punch, 1993 and Interpreting Irish History – The Debate On Historical Revisionism, 1994). The gist of the essay was that past history had been made to serve a legitimizing function by nationalist activists and propagandists throughout the period of modern history, that this phenomenon was uniquely Irish, and that it could be traced both to a school of romantic antiquarians writing in the late eighteenth century and to the influence of the hedge schools at around the same time.

In ferreting out the many culprits responsible for what he sees as the falsification of Irish history (the list includes most British historians who wrote about Ireland), Foster eventually turns his attention to the Department of Education. He castigates the Department’s function as "the institutional debasement of popular history". He also counterposes the emergence in the early forties of a school of Irish academic historians with the ‘bureaucratic philistinism’ of Education officials of that time.

In the following extract Foster provides what we must take as the evidence behind his assertions, complete with a footnote reference.

"What followed was the institutionalization of a certain view of history in the Free State, as instructed by the Department of Education from 1922, and memorialized in textbooks that did duty for the next forty years. Teachers were informed that ‘the continuity of the separtist idea from Tone to Pearse should be stressed’; pupils should be ‘imbued with the ideals and aspirations of such men as Thomas Davis and Patrick Pearse" 78

Footnote 78 reads: "Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure, p. 341."

It is worth pausing at this point to note that the notion postulated here by Roy Foster that the influence exerted by the Department of Education on history teaching was malign, is now widely accepted. I have seen essays in which other academics make the same point, also citing Ruth Dudley Edwards as the source. Conventional wisdom now dictates that prior to the 1970s we lived in a Dark Age of historical distortion, and now thanks to revisionism we are enlightened. Since the history syllabus at primary and secondary level has been transformed along lines acceptable to revisionist historians it is fair to assume that the political establishment and the Department of Education itself have now accepted the revisionist view that their past policies in relation to the teaching of Irish history were wicked transgressions!

That the accusation of bureaucratic philistinism directed by Foster and Dudley Edwards against the Department of Education should be so widely believed on such flimsy evidence is astounding. Ruth Dudley Edwards’s biography of Patrick Pearse is about Patrick Pearse. It contains only a passing reference to the attitude of the civil service to the teaching of Irish history. Here is the relevant passage:

"His [Pearse’s] popularity with the department of education in the 1920s merely made the name of Pearse familiar to schoolchildren, but with Fianna Fail in power in 1932, a new spirit possessed the educators. Forgetful, it would seem, that the battle for an independent Ireland had already been won, and that revolution was no longer necessary, the ideals of Pearse (and to a very much lesser extent, of the more acceptable of his colleagues) became a faith for the primary schools, and for those of the secondaries ready to accept it. At the top of the department of education, some new men appeared – men stamped in the mould of the Cork Republicans of the civil war. In its notes for teachers, the department recommended Pearse’s "The Singer", and provided a list of suitable songs in English, packed with Irish rebel ballads like "Who Fears to Speak of '98?" The teachers were instructed not only to teach excellent Irish, but to establish "the Gaelic outlook".

" 'The teaching of the Irish language itself is…not an end in itself. The aim is broader and more difficult. It is to restore, as far as is practicable, the characterstically Gaelic turn of mind and way of looking at life. That Gaelic attidude, of course, gives us our individuality as a nation, without it we become an amorphous or a hybrid people and in these modern days of foreign penetration by newspaper, book and conema, the need for a vivid conception of our duty in this regard is more urgent than ever… Prayers and ordianry salutations and expressions breathing a high spirituality, a vivid awareness of the presence of God, and a deep spirit of resignation to his will are dominant elements in the Gaelic outlook on life.' [From a Department of Education circular early thirties, DA.]

"This doctrine was almost pure Pearse, as expressed in 'The Spiritual Nation', but 'resignation to the will of God' had replaced the socially-advanced arguments of 'The Sovereign People'…The non-social ideals were still the property of Fianna Fail, which suppressed the IRA, ignoring that organization's debt to Pearse. The notes for teachers dealing with history made the objective clear.

"The continuity of the separatist idea from Tone to Pearse should be stressed. The events leading up to the Rising of 1916 and to the struggle that followed it will be so fresh in the minds of all teachers that there can be no difficulty in dealing with them vividly, or with the great language movement that was the inspiration of the leaders. [From Notes for Teachers – History, DA.]

"The teachers were recommended to study Pearse’s Collected Works as an aid in this great effort. Each of them should be busy 'imbuing the minds of his pupils with the ideals and aspirations of such men as Thomas Davis and Patrick Pearse'. [Also from Notes for Teachers – History DA; Fintan Lalor was not mentioned.]

"The schoolteachers of Ireland, struggling with overcrowded class-rooms, inadequate facilities, poor pay and, often, their own weakness in the Irish language, tried hard to satisfy the ubiquitous inspectors. They might not be able to cultivate the Gaelic outlook but they could, without too much difficulty, impose on their pupils the ideals of Patrick Pearse, subtly described in the most popular history text-book as 'The greatest of the 1916 leaders and one of the noblest characters in Irish history' (A Class-Book of Irish History, James Carty London 1946 p.111). The schools, and particularly the Christian Brothers, dinned into successive generations—frequently with a liberal use of the cane—a veneration for this greatest of Irishmen. The human being disappeared under the weight of glorification: Pearse's admirers could no more see his flaws than he could see Tone's."

Clearly Roy Foster relied entirely on this passage for his claim concerning the Department of Education. Ruth Dudley Edwards herself is so unequal to her subject that it is difficult to know where to begin by way of criticism. She cannot grasp that there was a real enthusiasm among National Teachers to imbue the minds of their pupils with a sense of national pride; she cannot fathom that a revolution must continually consolidate itself by imparting the revolutionary worldview to the population; she is apparently unaware that Fianna Fail’s coming to power in the thirties represented a popular intensification and deepening of the national revolution.

But none of this is directly relevant to the point under discussion. Ruth Dudley Edwards has taken a few references to nationalist historical figures from a lengthy educational document which can fairly be described as seminal, comprehensive, balanced, inspirational and measured, a document that ultimately impacted positively on Irish society as a whole. She has presented these references without mentioning the length and breadth of the document they are taken from. She has quoted them out of context. She has given no indication where readers might check the source of her research, nor has she named the civil servants she has accused. She has distorted a piece of historical evidence as a subterfuge so as to give credence to her untenable belief that a partisan clique in the Department of Education imposed their political prejudice on a defenceless education system.

And this shoddy piece of distortion is accepted as gospel by the ultra fastidious academics who have been prating about the need for impartiality in historical scholarship! By their own petard they are hoisted! A reference to the official attitude to Irish history-teaching in a biography of Patrick Pearse has become, solely because it was picked up by Roy Foster, the authoritative statement on the matter.

Notes for Teachers – History deserves to be published in full for many reasons, not least of which is as a reminder of a time when a sense of purpose imbued the Irish State. From the thirties onwards the Department of Education oversaw the teaching of Irish history on sound national principles in schools throughout the country. That great endeavour bore rich fruit and is still doing so despite the triumph of the revisionists in academia. This forgotten document exposes the shoddiness and shallowness of revisionism; it also testifies to the sound thinking that went on in the upper echelons of the Irish civil service in the decades following independence.

Notes For Teachers—History can be read here

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