For far too many young people today, history really is bunk

Even with history still on the syllabus as a compulsory subject, there is still, among school-leavers, a very low level of knowledge of history, both Irish and European/world. so says Michael Pattwell
For far too many young people today, history really is bunk

HISTORY LESSON: How many schoolchildren today know the year Brian Boru (right) died at the Battle of Clontarf?

THERE is a certain amount of furore among educators and a few others about the proposal to remove compulsory history from the secondary school junior-cycle syllabus. This, they claim, poses a serious threat to cultural and political life in Ireland.

Last June, one contributor to wrote: “We are confronted with the prospect of an Ireland in which a great number of pupils leave school and begin their adult lives with next to no knowledge of the history of their nation and the wider world, and — so lightly was the subject valued in their schools —without the faintest impression that history is worthy of study in one’s own time. In any country, this ignorance is dangerous. In a democracy, it’s almost fatal.”

When it was first suggested, that is what I believed myself. Indeed, it is what I still believe, except that after giving it some thought, I have come to the conclusion that even with history still on the syllabus as a compulsory subject, there is still, among school-leavers, a very low level of knowledge of history, both Irish and European/world.

In the many years since I was at school there have been many changes — indeed most of them have been for the better — and whilst we did much learning by rote in many subjects, there seems to be very little of that now. That, in my opinion, is one of the changes that is to be regretted.

When it came to history, we learned the significance of dates. In my school-going time every child from early on in his/her school life could tell you that St Patrick came to Ireland in 432AD; that Brian Boru died at The Battle of Clontarf in 1014; and that the first Normans came to Ireland in 1169, when a group of Norman soldiers and knights arrived in Wexford at the invitation of the King of Leinster, Diarmuid MacMurrough. We knew too that the following year, 1170, Richard de Clare (Strongbow) arrived ‘with archers, knights and horse-soldiers’ to help MacMurrough capture Waterford and Dublin.

For his reward, Strongbow was given the hand of MacMurrough’s daughter, Aoife, and their marriage took place in Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford in 1171, though the painting of the event that hangs in the National Gallery suggests the marriage took place in 1170 and for some reason my memory from school was to the effect that it took place in 1172 — but nearly a thousand years later, who’s haggling over a year or two? The artist was Daniel Maclise who completed the painting in 1854.

I must apologise; I have wandered, but when it comes to this particular painting I do tend to get carried away. It is, clearly, one of my favourites.

On the subject of history and how it is taught and learned in our schools, I am left with the distinct impression that generations younger than mine don’t seem to have the same interest or knowledge.

Frequently, when I drop into a shop for a few groceries and the till attendant tells me the bill total and it corresponds with a familiar historic date, my mind gets to work. Recently my few items came to €18.67 and without thinking I said, “The Fenian Rising”. The young lady, probably in her late 20s, looked at me with a puzzled look. She hadn’t the faintest idea what I was referring to. I did it again in another shop when the date in question would have been much better known, the amount was €10.14, and I got the same reaction.

In fact, I find that if they know anything at all from history they have picked it up from the cinema or TV. I don’t know how many times I have been told by a younger person that Éamon de Valera shot Michael Collins, because they believe that was suggested in the movie.

I hadn’t been to the National Gallery for a good many years until eight of my friends and I in the Cork Scout Fellowship Group visited it recently for one of our monthly outings. We collected our train tickets at Kent Station and some of us couldn’t help commenting on the fact that because we were all holders of travel passes no money changed hands. Irish Rail made very little from us except perhaps a bit of profit from the teas and coffees we bought from the trolley going through the train.

It was the same of course with the Luas, both red and green lines, that took us to and from very close to the Gallery. We concluded that there are some compensations for being ‘a little older’.

On the subject of history — and also of religion — I would strongly recommend a trip to the National Gallery in Dublin. Some of our group already had favourites to see and before long we were well scattered throughout the gallery. Some, interested in religious art, wanted to see the Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ and the Perugino, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. My personal favourite in that genre being Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Rembrandt van Rijn. The description displayed alongside the painting included: “The artist chose to place more emphasis on the mesmerising atmosphere of a hilly landscape at night, illuminated by multiple light sources. The painting is one of nine painted landscapes by Rembrandt and the only by night.”

Some headed off to the collection of Jack B. Yeats paintings, though they are not at all among my own personal favourites. I like more definite images and find works like A Cavalier’s Farewell to his Steed, The Liffey Swim and The Singing Horseman too vague.

Though I had seen it before, I wanted to see the artwork that some years ago was voted ‘Ireland’s Favourite Painting’, by Frederick William Burton, but I was disappointed. The Meeting on the Turret Stairs is open to viewing for only a couple of hours daily and our visit did not correspond with those hours.

There are some Picassos in the Gallery too, the favourite among them being, I think, Still Life with a Mandolin but again they are not among my own favourites.

The National Gallery of Ireland was founded in 1854 and opened its doors ten years later. It holds an extensive, representative collection of Irish paintings and is also notable for its Italian Baroque and Dutch masters painting. The current director is Sean Rainbird. It grew out of an exhibition held on the lawns of Leinster House, next to the current gallery, and was underwritten by the railway magnate, William Dargan. When it opened it had just 112 paintings. It now has more than 16,000.

A substantial bequest from Hugh Lane came with his untimely death in the sinking of the Lusitania. Not only did he leave a large collection of pictures, he also left part of his residual estate and the ‘Lane Fund’ has continued to contribute to the purchase of art works to this day. George Bernard Shaw also made a substantial bequest, leaving the Gallery a third of the royalties of his estate in gratitude for the time he spent there as a youth. A bronze statue of him is to be seen in the vestibule at the Clare Street entrance.

In 1978, the Gallery received from the government the paintings given to the nation by Chester Beatty and in 1987 the Sweeney bequest brought 14 works of art including paintings by Picasso and Jack B. Yeats. The same year the Gallery was again given some of the contents of Russborough House when Alfred Beit donated 17 masterpieces, including paintings by Velázquez, Murillo, Steen, Vermeer and Raeburn.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Henry Vaughan left 31 watercolours by J.M.W. Turner with the requirement that they could only be exhibited in January, to protect them from the ill-effects of sunlight. Though modern lighting technology has made this stipulation unnecessary, the Gallery continues to restrict viewing of the ‘Turners’ to January and the exhibition is treated as something of an occasion. He is known for his expressive colourisations, imaginative landscapes and turbulent, often violent marine paintings. I would love to see the Turner paintings but have never made it in January. It must go on my bucket list now.

At the announcement of Ireland’s Favourite Painting in 2012, President Higgins is reported as saying: “I remember the editorial in the Irish Independent of the day, written by William Martin Murphy, who said that the (National) gallery would never be a jot of value to the common people of Dublin. And thankfully he was wrong.

Art is about the foundations of citizenship and creativity and what we all own together and the celebration that should be available to every citizen now and into the future.

How right President Higgins was; numbers visiting The National Gallery of Ireland now exceed one million annually.

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