I began teaching history at second level in 1984 and have continued to do so until the present day with a break of four years (1998–2002). In 1984, the Intermediate and Leaving Certificate history courses were pretty much the same as they had been during my days in secondary school (1975–1980). In 1991, the Junior Certificate replaced the Intermediate and Group Certificates. This brought a change to the history course; it was no longer linked with geography and it covered everything from the first settlers to the present day. The Leaving Certificate history curriculum has also been revamped in recent years.
During my career as a teacher, I have perceived a change in students’ views of history. This is particularly true in relation to their opinions and views of the Irish political scene in the early 1900s. In the 1980s, the majority of students came to the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War with opinions already quite formed. The Northern situation was a live force in their lives. As most houses had only two channels, most students saw the news on television almost daily. Students were very aware of ‘The Troubles’. Politics was discussed at home. Students knew how their parents voted. At this time, the majority still selected their party based on the side they or their parents had supported during the Treaty debates.
As a result, when looking at de Valera, Michael Collins and the Treaty negotiations in the classroom, students were very quick to express their opinions and state which side was correct. Heated debates concerning party politics often ensued. Students were eager to elicit my opinion. They seemed to need confirmation that ‘their party’ and the decisions that they had made in 1921 were the correct ones. My opinion was all important. I didn’t need to inculcate in the students a desire to learn; they had self-motivation in abundance when it came to discussing the Treaty. My main difficulty was trying to help them form a balanced opinion, something which proved quite difficult on occasion as some were very set in their ways.
Over the years, students’ perceptions of the Treaty and its relevance today have certainly changed. Today we all live in multichannel land and in houses with several televisions. School students rarely if ever look at the news. They aren’t politically aware despite the best efforts of CSPE (Civil, Social and Political Education) teachers; this is particularly obvious in an election year. Some students are not even aware of partition, unless they are big into soccer.
Now when dealing with the period in Irish history concerning the Treaty, I find that the students have very little if any prior knowledge of the subject. I find myself going through the whole period with them step-by-step, ensuring that all the students understand the terms nationalist, unionist, pro-Treaty, anti-Treaty, regulars and irregulars. They tend to find the whole period quite confusing. A lot of learning of facts and terms must take place before we even begin to look at the Treaty and its consequences. However, as a result, students don’t come into the classroom with a biased opinion. They are quite prepared to be open to discussion on whether the Treaty was the correct course for Ireland to take.
As the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 moves further into history, I can only presume that the significance of the Treaty in the lives of students will become less and less. Students will probably look at it in the same way as they view the 1798 Rising; a section of history that they have to study.
About the author
Theresa Kenny is a teacher of history and Irish and has been teaching both subjects in Gorey Community School in county Wexford from 2002 to the present.