“They’re at it again”: The ‘English’ in Irish Textbooks

 Abstract: This paper focuses on portrayals of the English in Irish history textbooks from 1921 to 1969 for post-primary level, in the first five decades following independence in the 26-county Free State (later the Republic of Ireland). It considers the question of how a former colony depicted its coloniser once given the opportunity to tell its own history.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21667
Languages: English

There is a tongue-in-cheek expression in Ireland used when members of British society behave in an overly imperialistic or superior manner, or in ways which belie any sense of propriety or sensitivity to Irish history[1] and culture:[2] “The Brits are at it again”. When the BBC claim Paul Mescal as a British actor,[3] or Katie Taylor as a British Olympian[4] – they are “at it again”. When public figures define Ireland as still being part of the United Kingdom:[5] “at it again”. The expression is often flippantly used when considering English/British[6] involvement in Irish history.

Imperial Past

The degree to which these are examples of the British public and British education system failing to come to grips with their imperial past, and their historic relations with Ireland is an important question.[7] It would be unfair however to castigate the British system without considering its Irish counterpoint. This paper focuses on portrayals of the English[8] in Irish history textbooks from 1921 to 1969 in post-independence Ireland.[9] Ultimately, it challenges the strongly held perception that Irish history as taught was “not a subject, but a creed, not a discipline but a weapon”[10] consisting “largely of stoking up hatred against England”[11], a view which fails to take the differing emphases in the major textbooks into account or appreciate how portrayals of England were not as a rule xenophobic. A simplistic good Irishman – bad Englishman binary was not being promoted. There was room in the textbook accounts for some English/British figures to be portrayed in a positive light. For the most part however, the English were framed as colonial oppressor, against whom the ‘Irish’ resisted over centuries.[12]

To understand these portrayals, one must first consider the wider purpose of history education in Ireland at this time. School history, especially (but not exclusively) in post-independence societies, tends to transmit a positive story about the national past, with the desire that this “will inculcate in young people a sense of loyalty to the state; a reassuring and positive sense of identity and belonging; and a sense of social solidarity with fellow citizens.”.[13]

In the Irish context, there was general agreement across the major textbooks used in post-primary schools[14] as to the overall narrative of Irish history. It promoted in no uncertain terms political and military history, focusing on “great men”[15] with the general message being in line with the moralistic and cultural “policy of Gaelicisation” implemented by the Department of Education.[16] Ireland was not exceptional in this. The high-politics approach seen in these textbooks and the memorization by students of these facts about great men and political events constituted a dominant tradition of how history was taught up until the 1960s, both in England and abroad.[17]

Narratives of Resistance and ‘Glorious Failure’

The popular textbooks portrayed a definite narrative of resistance and “glorious failure”. This was identified through the concept of an “Irish” people, united under a common Gaelic culture, language, and especially from the sixteenth century onwards, religion and sense of “nationalism” (though not always expressed in these explicit terms). Each of the major textbook series cover Irish history from the earliest time until the present.[18] They first establish who the “Irish” were, outlining their development as Gaelic adherents of Christianity.[19] The “protagonists” are then faced with the threat of invasion to which a response is necessary.[20]

Thus, the resistance narrative is developed, and maintained due to the repeated losses sustained by the Irish to this foreign element. The conflict was portrayed, not as between rival clans, ethnicities or nations, but between rival civilisations.[21] The hostility between Irish and feudal ideas of land ownership was seen to affect the very basis of social and political life and lay at the root of the future struggle between the two races. English involvement in Ireland was seen as a “discordant note”[22] working against the harmony of Irish society. This conflict began with the grants of Henry II in the twelfth century and Norman “settled policy of conquest”[23] and continued to the present day.[24]

No Singular Depictions

The English history discussed focussed on “elites”, namely kings, queens, and political and military leaders. One does not however see negative depictions of the “English” as a people, but more so negative depictions of English colonial authority or historical acts of oppression: such as the deportation of children to the West Indies to work on plantations in the 1650s, the imposition of Penal Laws against the Irish Catholic and Dissenter in the wake of the Williamite Wars, or the brutal torture of rebels in the 1790s. Certain commentators believed that school history at this time “encourages bitterness in our children” being taught “for the purpose of belittling England and denigrating the British.”[25] Others contended that history needed to not shy away from the brutal facts of the Anglo-Irish relationship. As Minister for Education Patrick Hillery noted in 1964

Some Deputies…want to have Cromwell without his warts…Cromwell’s warts, as far as we are concerned, are something like the massacre of defenseless men, women and children at Drogheda. It is there; it happened and there is no justifying it. …If we omitted teaching things like this, we should be making it difficult for our children to understand that our history is the history of a conquest and its undoing …[T]he greatest achievement of this nation was its survival from the longest and most thorough conquest known to history. To appreciate the achievement of our immediate and ancient ancestors and to have some self-respect we must realise that this was a conquest that was associated with persecution, violence and massacres.[26]

Some depictions of this time were inherently biased, with wrongdoings committed by the “Irish” being either denied or else qualified,[27] while similar actions by their enemies were utterly condemned.[28] This was not a rule however. Hayden and Moonan’s text (1921) notes in its Preface that “while written from a frankly national stand-point, the authors have made every effort to attain accuracy and avoid prejudice. Events are dealt with, as far as possible, in the spirit and atmosphere of their times, but are judged by their final effects upon the destinies of the nation.”[29]

While discussing the siege of Derry 1689, the English governor of the city George Walker is described as “a militant clergyman of remarkable courage and capacity”. The people of Derry were also noted as “brave”during their suffering. When describing the Battle of the Boyne, Hayden criticises James II for his “indecision and downright cowardly” behaviour, whereas William of Orange was described as a “skilled and experienced general” along with his associates.[30] It was not exclusively Irish Catholic nationalist leaders who were lauded. Conversely, when discussing the French Revolution as context for the foundation of the United Irishmen,[31] Ó Siochfhradha openly defines the English in Ireland as “tyrants” against whom the people of Ireland formed a united movement “in an intense effort to expel.”[32] This demonstrates how there was no singular depiction of the English in Irish history textbooks.

This understanding was used when discussing the nineteenth century in Ireland. The significance of landlordism and “Land” as a theme was evident in all textbooks, being especially important to Carty.[33] Some textbooks commented on how fair landlords did exist, before criticising others. The issue was not English landlords, but absentee or oppressive landlords.[34] Their disregard for the suffering Irish tenantry was at issue, not their nationality. Moreover, in Irish language textbooks, the “oppressor” were regularly referred to as “Gaill” or “foreigners”. This demonstrates a deeper understanding that what was reviled was not the fact of being English, but rather the concept of any oppressor foreign to the Gaelic ideal. When Robert the Bruce and his brother Edward were discussed for instance, they were not classified in the same manner as the earlier Normans, nor the later Planters, due to their connection with Gaelic culture.[35]

The Swing of the Pendulum

Enemies of “Ireland” could just as easily be of Irish descent, while champions could be of English descent, such as W.E. Gladstone.[36] What was common is that the figures chosen to be celebrated were those who adhered to and furthered a nationalist cause (though not necessarily independence). Those figures who were on the “side of the Irish” were described in generally positive terms,[37] and given physical characteristics to match their feats,[38] while those who were on the “wrong side” of this nationalist narrative were described in negative terms or simply left undefined.[39] While a balanced account was noticeable in historical detail, the overall perspective from which the textbook was written certainly favoured the Gaelic Catholic point of view.[40]

Most of the textbooks published after the late 1920s included aspects of European and English history where relevant.[41] Despite this, complaints abounded about the lack of English history being learned in Irish schools, even where this directly affected Irish history. This was highlighted by Senator Michael Hayes in 1939, who denied claims of anti-English bias in Irish history textbooks, but noted that “while I was reared to hate the British in schools that were controlled by the British Government, the young people now do not seem to know the first thing about the British …whether they are taught through Irish or English.”[42]

This assertion is given weight when analysed alongside the annual Departmental Reports, which complained that “while formerly too much stress was laid on English History, the pendulum in some of the schools seems to have swung too far in the other direction… It is undesirable that teachers should treat Irish history as an isolated phenomenon or should fail to explain the connection between events in Ireland and the contemporaneous events in Great Britain and Europe.”[43] This omission created a strange understanding of British involvement in Irish history, being largely uncontextualized. For some, this gave a peculiar malevolence to it.[44]

Focus and Frames

The Irish history textbooks in use between 1921 and 1969 ultimately aligned with the traditional understanding of what national history entailed: namely political and militaristic history. Through descriptive language, the “heroes” and “villains” of the Irish story could be discerned, and due to the target audience, these accounts were portrayed, not in a suggestive but in a declarative way. The portrayal of the English in Irish history textbook did tend towards the negative. This should not be surprising considering the focus on high politics and military history, where the English, and later British were seen as the oppressive force against which the Irish people resisted for centuries. That Irish history textbooks focussed predominantly on a struggle against “an alien oppressor” reflected a pattern seen in most newly independent countries across Europe in the twentieth century.[45]

Despite this, there was space for the English to be portrayed in a positive light in Irish history textbooks. These examples were generally predicated on the individual being a champion of Irish Gaelic tradition and/or Irish nationalism. The textbooks focused on the “great men” of Irish history, provided moral and civic lessons, but ultimately framed the English as historical oppressors who repeatedly were found to be “at it again”.


Further Reading

  • Mac Gearailt, Colm.”Writing the Irish past: An investigation into post-primary Irish history textbook emphases and historiography, 1921–69.” History Education Research Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2 2018, 233-47.
  • Mac Gearailt, Colm. “Examinations and Irish history – Intermediate Certificate history and gauging the official historical narrative, 1926–1968,” Irish Educational Studies, Vol. 43, Issue 2 2023, 205-31.
  • Janmaat, Jan Germen. ” The ethnic ‘other’ in Ukrainian history textbooks: the case of Russia and the Russians.” Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 37:3 2007, 307-324, DOI: 10.1080/03057920701330180

Web Resources


[1] The Irish Free State was established in 1922, following the ratification of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.
[2] A simplistic view of Ireland as colony has been challenged in recent years, owing to the ambiguous relationship between Ireland and empire, especially from the eighteenth century on. For an overview of this relationship see Kevin Kenny, ed., Ireland and the British Empire (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). See also Stephen Howe, Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture, Revised ed. edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Lauren A. Scanlon and M. Satish Kumar, “Ireland and Irishness: The Contextuality of Postcolonial Identity,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 109, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 202–22.
[3] This was done most recently in the lead up to the 2023 Oscars. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/2023/01/27/paul-mescal-is-irish-bbc-apologise-for-calling-oscar-nominee-british-on-news-bulletin/
[4] The Daily Telegraph, 12 August 2012
[5] Excluding the six counties of Northern Ireland.
[6] ‘English’ is being used, as this was most commonly used in the major textbooks being considered. The author acknowledges the difference between England, Britain, and the United Kingdom however.
[7] See Paul Bracey, “Teaching for Diversity? Exploring an Irish Dimension in the School History Curriculum since c.1970,” History of Education 35, no. 6 (2006): 619–35.; For a detailed consideration of the teaching of Empire in English schools see Terry Haydn, “How is ‘Empire’ taught in English schools? An Exploratory study,” in History Education and (Post-)Colonialism: International Case Studies, ed. Susanne Popp, Katja Gorbahn, and Susanne Grindel (Peter Lang, 2019), 277–98; Terry Haydn, “How and What Should We Teach about the British Empire in Schools?,” in Yearbook of the International Society of History Didactics, ed. Joanna Wojdon, vol. 35 (Schwalbach: Wochen Schau Verlag, 2014), 23–40.
[8] ‘English’ is being used, as this was most commonly used in the major textbooks being considered. The author acknowledges the difference between England, Britain, and the United Kingdom however.
[9] The Irish Free State was established in 1922, following the ratification of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.
[10] John O’Donoghue, ‘A Critique of the Theory Underpinning the Junior Certificate Course in History and the Reality for Pupils in the Classroom’, in Áine Hyland, (ed.) Issues in Education, Vol.2, (Dublin, 1997) p. 99: See also (Garrison, 2009, p. 172)
[11] Seanad Éireann Parliamentary Debates, vol. 22, 26 Jan. 1939, col.820, Frank McDermott: see also H. Rex Cathcart, Teaching Irish History: Wiles Week Open Lecture (Belfast: Queens University of Belfast, Teachers’ Centre, 1978), where this statement was cited as ‘proof’ of a concerted anti-English educational drive in history in the ‘South’.
[12] The history syllabus specifically framed the relationship between England and Ireland as a colonial one. The new 1969 Intermediate certificate syllabus described the study of sixteenth to twentieth century Ireland as ‘The emergence of the Colonial Nation’; ‘The achievements of the Colonial Nation’, and after the Act of Union 1801, ‘The Downfall of the Colonial Nation’.
[13] Terry Haydn, “History in Schools and the Problem of ‘The Nation,’” Education Sciences 2, no. 4 (December 2012): 276–89.; See also Alan Smith and Tony Vaux, Education, Conflict and International Development (London: Department for International Development, 2003), 2.; See also Alan McCully, “History Teaching, Conflict and the Legacy of the Past,” Education, Citizenship and Social Justice 7, no. 2 (2012): 145. E. E. Y. Hales, European Curriculum Studies. Number 8: History., Council for Cultural Cooperation (New York: Manhattan Publishing Company, 1973).
[14] For a study of what these textbooks were, who wrote them, and what they emphasised, see Colm Mac Gearailt, “Writing the Irish Past: An Investigation into Post-Primary Irish History Textbook Emphases and Historiography, 1921–69,” History Education Research Journal 15, no. 2 (October 26, 2018): 233–47.; The textbooks most widely used in secondary schools were as follows: James Carty, A Class-Book of Irish History. Book I: From the Earliest Times to the Norman Invasion (London: Macmillan and Co., 1929); James Carty, A Class-Book of Irish History. Book II: From the Norman Invasion to the Flight of the Earls (1607) (London: Macmillan and Co., 1930); James Carty, A Class-Book of Irish History. Book III: From the Flight of the Earls to the Act of Union (1800) (London: Macmillan and Co., 1930); James Carty, A Class-Book of Irish History. Book IV: From the Act of Union to the Present Day (London: Macmillan and Co., 1931). (and its translations); Fr. John Ryan, S.J., Ireland from the Earliest Times to A. D. 800 (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1929a)., Idem, Ireland from A.D. 800 to A.D. 1600 (Dublin: Brown and Nolan, 1929b) (and translations); Mary Hayden and George Aloysius Moonan, A Short History of the Irish People (Dublin: Educational Company of Ireland, 1921).; Mícheál Ó Siochfhradha, Stair Sheanchas Éireann I & II (First published 1932-33, Cork: Aubune Historical Society, 2005) and Dora Casserley, History of Ireland: Part One- Earliest Times to Flight of the Earls and History of Ireland: Part Two- From the Flight of the Earls to the Present Day (Dublin and Cork: Educational Company of Ireland, 1941).
[15] Mac Gearailt, “Writing the Irish Past,” 241.
[16] Ibid, 235. See also John Coolahan, Irish Education: Its History and Structure (Dublin, 1981), 72–73; Séamus Ó Buachalla, Education Policy in Twentieth Century Ireland (Dublin, 1988), 340–50.; Alan McCully and Fionnuala Waldron, “A Question of Identity? Purpose, Policy and Practice in the Teaching of History in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research 11, no. 2 (2013): 149.
[17] David Sylvester, “Change and Continuity in History Teaching, 1900-1993,” in Teaching History, ed. Hilary Bourdillon (London: Routledge, 1993), 9–26. cited in Mac Gearailt, “Writing the Irish Past,” 241. – David Sylvester was the originator of the ‘Schools Council History Project’ in England.
[18] Bar the works of Fr John Ryan, which ended in 1601. See Mac Gearailt, “Writing the Irish Past.”
[19] Ryan structures his texts around this, using the high point of Gaelic Christianity, before the coming of the Vikings as the end of his first volume. See Ryan, S.J., Ireland from the Earliest Times to A. D. 800.
[20] Mícheál Ó Siochfhradha, Stair Sheanchas Éireann I & II (First published 1933, Cork, 2005), p. 53 specifically lauds the fact that the Norsemen never placed Ireland under their control, unlike other more powerful countries which they subjugated, “agus ní beag an cháil ar Éirinn sin.”
[21] Hayden and Moonan, 165–68.: Discussing the Statute of Kilkenny, 1367: “In every phase of life, barriers were to be erected between the two races in Ireland; the process of assimilation was to be arrested; the island was to be permanently divided into two hostile nations, between whom all intercourse, social, economic, intellectual (and even spiritual) was prohibited.”
[22] Hayden and Moonan, 177–78.
[23] Hayden and Moonan, 80, 109.; The ‘coming of the Normans’ shaping the overall narrative of Irish history was seen especially in Hayden and Moonan, and in the structure of Carty’s Class-Books.
[24] Hayden and Moonan, 120.
[25] 4 June 1961 Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol. 189, No. 12 – Oliver Flanagan, member of Fine Gael.  Flanagan is a highly controversial figure however, being a noted Anglophile and Anti-Semite.
[26] 2 Jun 1964, Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol. 210, No. 3 -Patrick Hillery.
[27] See for example Hayden and Moonan, A Short History of the Irish People, 1921, 436.  and the piking and shooting of prisoners in Wexford town in 1798– being blamed on a “ruffian named Dixon” who encouraged some half-drunk pikemen to pull the prisoners from the gaol, and murder them before a “courageous priest, Father Curran…succeeded in stopping the massacre.” See also Carty, Class-Book III, 111–12.; Due to examples these texts were described as ‘purist’, in comparison to the ‘moderate’ texts of the late 1960s by one historian in the field. See Brian Mulcahy, “A Study of the Relationship between Ireland and England as Portrayed in Irish Post-Primary School History Textbooks, Published since 1922, and Dealing with the Period 1800 to the Present” (Unpublished PhD, University of Hull, 1988).
[28] Hayden and Moonan, A Short History of the Irish People, 1921, 301–2.; discussing the Confederate Wars, and the cruel treatment by English soldiers of Irish combatants, and civilians alike. This was in contrast with the Irish Party who “after the first few months, cannot be charged with any such savagery. Captured garrisons were frequently suffered to depart where they would; prisoners often remained for long periods in the hands of the Confederate troops and were finally released uninjured. Eoghan Ruadh punished with great severity any attempt of his soldiers to plunder or ill-use the civil population, and he treated his captives with the utmost consideration and courtesy. When the English Parliament issued a decree (1644) that no quarter should in future be given to any Irishman ” taken in hostilities ” against it, the Confederate Council did not retort, as it might well have done, by a similar decree against the Parliamentarian soldiers.”
[29] Hayden and Moonan, iii. – This work was initially written for University students, though used in secondary schools.
[30] Ibid, 340–45. Notably, the siege was defined as that of ‘Derry’, not ‘Londonderry’
[31] This textbook chapter was titled ‘Teagasc na bPoblachtaithe’ -Translation: ‘the Teaching of the Republicans’.
[32] Ó Siochfhradha, Stair Sheanchas Éireann, 157.
[33] Over one fifth of Carty’s Class-Book III is dedicated exclusively to the concept of land, with specific sections on ‘The Struggle for Land, I & II’, as well as on ‘Agriculture and Industry’. (34 pages from a total of 169) See Carty, Class-Book III, 66–87, 128–41. What is more, ‘Land’ featured heavily in other sections of the text as well, notably when discussing the Great Hunger, and so this 1/5 is not a final amount.
[34] Hayden and Moonan, A Short History of the Irish People, 1921, 498. “Of the resident landlords many did their duty nobly. Some were ruined by the lavishness of their charity. On the other hand, there were surprising instances of heartlessness, amongst the absentees especially. There were parishes in which practically the whole population was reduced to a state of utter destitution, while the lord of the soil, dwelling in London or in Paris, subscribed not a penny for their relief, and merely grumbled that his rents were not remitted to him as usual. Perhaps even, he desired his agent to serve notices of eviction on the starving peasants, and to fling them out to die on the roadside.”
[35] See Department of Education, Examination Papers, ‘Intermediate Certificate- History’, 1968, Q. 1 (alternative), for an example of this different portrayal.
[36] Hayden and Moonan, 541. “Ireland should remember with gratitude the Statesman to whom she owes the Disestablishment of the Irish Church, the first important Land Bill, and the two attempts to restore her legislature, to which he devoted so much of the evening of his days.”
[37] Ibid, 77–78.For example, before the Battle of Clontarf, the language differed greatly for Brian’s allies vs his enemies: His wife, Gormfhlaith, who left with her son, Maolmordha, and rallied a Norse alliance against Brian was described as ‘bitterly resentful’ and ‘vindictive’, while Malachy, the only chief of Leath Chuinn (northern half of Ireland) who joined with Brian was described as ‘patriotic’.
[38] For example, Patrick Sarsfield (Seventeenth century nationalist hero) was a ‘fine handsome man, very tall and strong’, while Daniel O’Connell was a ‘tall, well-built and handsome man’. For a representative example, see the depiction of Hugh O’Neill, Hayden and Moonan, 271. This was also noted by Ciara Boylan in her review of James Carty A Junior History of Ireland for the National Collection of Children’s Books https://nccb.tcd.ie/exhibit/3197xm07c, viewed 12/07/16;
[39] For example, see Ó Siochfhradha, Stair Sheanchas Éireann, 62, 66. Diarmuid Mac Murrough is described as being ‘rough and repulsive’ (garbh gránna), Henry II as a ‘lúbaire’, or fraudster, and the Norman barons as ‘sladairí’ (ravagers/ruiners). See also Hayden and Moonan, A Short History of the Irish People, 1921, 223.
[40] Casserley was perhaps the most accommodating to the English perspective as to Irish history.  She included the list of Monarchs, from the Tudors up to the House of Windsor, and George VI at the start of the appropriately corresponding chapters. Overall, her work broadly followed the accepted ‘story of Ireland’, as laid down by previous textbook writers.
[41] See for example Ó Siochfhradha, Stair Sheanchas Éireann, 83–85. and his discussion of Luther, the growth of Protestantism on the continent, Henry VIII’s feud with the Pope, and its importance to why he declared himself King of Ireland in 1534. This was largely omitted from Hayden and Moonan’s text, which stated “The details of the dispute belong to English History and do not concern us here.” Hayden and Moonan, A Short History of the Irish People, 1921, 204.; Complaints as to this were noted in reviews at the time, See New York Times, 7 January 1923, ‘Review’: “The chief defect of (Hayden and Moonan) as history is that the English policy in Ireland is not frequently enough related to the general European situation. This is especially true in the explanation of the Act of union, where there is scarcely a hint that one of the reasons for its passage was the desirability of binding the British dominions together against the increasing power of Napoleon. The old saying that ‘He who would England win/ Must first with Ireland begin’ is completely ignored. …
[42] Seanad Debates, vol. 22, 26 Jan. 1939, col.889 ; Hayes was former Minister for Education (responsible for the secondary Branch, 1922) and at the time of the debate, UCD Lecturer in modern Languages.
[43] Rules and Programmes of the Department of Education, 1927-8, (Dublin, 1929), p.58. This complaint was repeated in reports in subsequent years as well.
[44] Cathcart, Teaching Irish History. See also Kenneth Milne, New Approaches to the Teaching of Irish History, Teaching of History Pamphlets, no. 43 (London: Historical Association, 1979).
[45] E. E. Y. Hales, “European Curriculum Studies. Number 8: History.,” 1973, 37–38.


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Recommended Citation

Mac Gearailt, Colm: “They’re at it again”: The ‘English’ in Irish Textbooks. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 5, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21667.

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    At it again

    There is an irony about an Englishman reviewing an article about English interference in Ireland. The article’s author wryly reports on Irish amusement (and frustration) at the seemingly irresistible tendency of the English to feel qualified to comment on Ireland. Here then, you have an English academic perhaps more knowingly ‘at it again’ – commenting from the perspective of the former coloniser. In my defence I am interested in textbooks, and found this article informative and thought provoking, but also resonant with my experiences of working on pedagogic projects across Europe and beyond and seeing the myriad of influences that shape textbooks.

    I find of the most frequent problems of critiques of British imperial history, and British home and empire education systems’ educational structures and resources/published intent for state education is the conflation of ‘the English’ with ‘British’ or ‘the British’, and ‘The English’ as a mass with the small elites of ‘policy makers and enactors in England and the British Empire. The ‘British’ key actors might indeed be English, but equally Scottish, Welsh, or Irish, or to a lesser extent statistically from any of the colonial territories. ‘The English’ have not ruled England since before the heptarchy and loss of England to the Norman conquerors. In this article pains are taken to note that there is often a false conflation of British with English, and it is noted that some History textbook authors for the Free State and then Ireland’s schools, and commentators, in the period 1921-1969 were able to distinguish between ‘good and helpful’ English (men), and bad and unhelpful English (men).

    The tendency shown, as is noted, is not unusual. Many states are places of very close control of the curriculum and History curricula and textbook narratives in particular. State review and control panels lead to what Foster[1] indicates as a closing down of contested and risky narratives and a conformity with the politics and position of the moment. To generate the ire of ruling politicians, approval boards and ‘tradition’ risks the adoption of a textbook, and threatens it as a commercial enterprise and potential sales/profits. Textbook authors therefore often ‘play to the gallery’ and mirror the mood of the time, as is pointed out here. School history, especially (but not exclusively) in post-independence societies, tends to transmit a positive story about the national past, with the desire that this “will inculcate in young people a sense of loyalty to the state; a reassuring and positive sense of identity and belonging; and a sense of social solidarity with fellow citizens.”[2]

    The ethnic other in different jurisdiction’s history textbooks is often blurred and a general ‘not us’, or at least often not a mythologised and romanticised ‘us’ suffices, while a mythologised and threatening (linguistic, religious, ethnic, political, militaristic aggressive and avaricious) ‘other is generated. Here a recognition of nuance in specific texts is made, and returned to, reflecting the post-colonial narratives revealed and the co-existing sense of there being ‘English’ supporters and opponents of legitimate Irish needs and aspirations.

    This reflects how the curation of Irish stories of Irish history for schools and for public consumption was morphing from ‘acceptable’ foundation stories: ‘us’ as a Catholic, Gaelic culture ethnic ‘race’; through to consideration of survival and resistance while being conquered. A story of ‘glorious failure’ and occupation by foreigners who are out of sympathy and empathy with national uniqueness, creating and galvanising a unified people in a colonial territory impatient to be free. Here ‘the Settlement’ and Plantation populations –a ‘not us’ group are little mentioned. What is also not considered, possibly for reasons of space, is how Irish migration to England (and Britain/the Empire) and Irish (men) then later women also shaped colonial policy and governance via the British parliament and administration of Ireland, and by emulation and echoing of ‘colonial power groups and elites.

    The exploration of identity shaping and reshaping is interesting and this is a wide ranging and well-informed account of different textbook contributions to the developing narrative and ‘storying’ of Ireland’s history and relationship with ‘England’/’Britain’. As the author indicates, while citing O’Donoghue (1997) ‘Irish history was sometimes taught ‘not a subject, but a creed, not a discipline but a weapon’’[3] and ‘the English’ were often framed as colonial oppressor who the ‘Irish’ resisted over centuries, creating and unifying the Irish as a colonial nation. This homogenisation of newly ‘freed’ nations is found in many decolonised states, and here this prompts the question of possibly ‘How do users react to what they were told, and what stance and response did the readers and teachers take?’

    Barton and McCully’s (2005)[4] work demonstrates clearly that the official textbook is not the only, or often main, source of identity formation. Home narratives coexist alongside ‘official’ or textbook content, but the home version dominates, even, and perhaps especially where adolescents are told ‘truths from home’ and community members’ interpretations are seen as key within families. As the old term states: ‘What is taught is not always what is learnt’ and what is portrayed is not always understood or believed in the way that the author or teacher expected or intended. The home interpretation and accepted community version of history are pervasive and long-lasting. Equally the received wisdom of educators and textbook authors is acquired, in part at least, from what they have been taught and believe to be so and what their values and experience suggest ‘is needed’ in the next generation of textbooks

    Pingel (2010)[5] and others distinguish between different types of textbook analysis: construction and production, creation and authorship, and use and reception/impact. Here we are interested in, and by, analysis of construction and intent. We cannot be certain of uptake, use and learner response, and no detail is available about author agency or constraints upon them, from for example text and picture editors, proof readers and overall publisher’s agents.

    We have the finished product- the textbook only, and a text analysis which responds to, and stimulates a whole series of further, interesting questions. I found myself intrigued to know more about the intended use, whether some texts were for particular types of school and pupil, who were the intended audiences, and the (here) unexplored visual narratives. It will make me go back to my own collection of Irish textbooks and look at them carefully again.


    [1] Foster, S, (2000) Red Alert: Educators Confront the Red Scare in American Public Schools, 1947-1954 – New York: Peter Lang
    [2] Haydn, T (2012) “History in Schools and the Problem of ‘The Nation,’” Education Sciences 2 (4), 276–89.
    [3] O’Donoghue, J. (1997) ‘A Critique of the Theory Underpinning the Junior Certificate Course in History and the Reality for Pupils in the Classroom’, in Áine Hyland, (ed.) Issues in Education, Vol.2, (Dublin, 1997) p. 99.
    [4][4] Barton KC and McCully A., (2005) ‘History, identity, and the school curriculum in Northern Ireland’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(1), 85-116.
    [5] Pingel F. UNESCO (2010 2nd Edn) Handbook on Textbook Research and Textbook Revision. UNESCO: Paris/Braunschweig

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