11. Dec, 2017


Many English people cannot understand why the Conservative-supporting Democratic Unionist Party are seemingly doing their best to ruin the former's Brexit plans over the border between themselves in the North and the Irish Republic in the south.

This is hardly surprising. The English as a whole know little of their own country's past (let alone History) and even less about that of others, especially Ireland's.

The Brexit border problem has taken me back thirty years to an attempt I made to rectify the above.

As part of the Schools' Council History GCSE exam syllabus, students had to undertake a "Modern World Study." With The Armed Struggle still in violent progress, I selected "The Irish Question."

The aim was really an exercise in causation - getting to see how such situations do not just suddenly happen but have long, medium and immediate causes.

In planning the work I needed something of greater impact than TV news to hit the 15 year olds hard at the start of term.

It was supplied thanks to one of my students and was devastating.

After giving the classes their year's study plans a term in advance, I was approached by Sarah. She told me that she had a cousin in Northern Ireland who attended one of the very few mixed Catholic/Protestant colleges in the province.

It gave me the idea. Via Sarah and Sarah's cousin I got into contact with the college's History Department, explained what I was doing and asked whether they could send us some material from both sides of the religious divide.

It duly arrived-letters, tapes, photographs etc all from students the same age as mine.

I photo-copied some into study packs and gave them out to the first group...only to be met with 40 minutes of utter, incredulous silence!

Some of the experiences I remember myself. ..
"Every afternoon when I get home from school my nanny and I sit on the edges of our chairs, waiting for daddy to get home. You see he is a RUC reservist and during the day drives a milk container through isolated countryside. He could be murdered at any time."

"I recently went to England for the very first time and could not believe that shopping centres were not surrounded by chainlink fencing and barbed wire like back home. I thought that was true everywhere in the world. Can you believe it? I am a bright 16 year old girl and that was what I had been led to believe!"

They then got down to the extreme sectarian material and were truly shocked by the vicious hatred shown between classmates. This was not soccer rivalry. This was visceral loathing based on what church you attended. Catholic boys and Protestant girls did not socialise out of school hours etc.

Worst of all was the fact that the material was planned and written by students of their own age ...but who lived in circumstances so very different from rural east Norfolk.

Yet there was still a sense of humour.  One lad told the following story..." A little Catholic girl and a little Protestant boy went down to the beach to skinny dip.  They stripped and the little boy was embarrassed to find the little girl staring at him so he demanded to know why.  She replied "Sure and the mammy told me you Protestants were different from us Catholics, but she didn't say HOW MUCH different!"

The material begged one outstanding question from my students, "WHY?"

Me. "Well, you see..."

A term later...
(To be continued)