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Pupils explore their Irish ancestry

Elaine Williams finds out why a Birmingham school has received such high praise from OFSTED for its history teaching.

More Irish than the Irish. That would be a fair description of the prevailing culture at Archbishop Ilsley Roman Catholic School in Birmingham.

More than 80 per cent of pupils have parents or grandparents who are Irish or were born in Ireland themselves. The school has produced a world champion Irish dancer, pupils play Gaelic football and hurling (camogie for girls), they love Riverdance and Boyzone, learn nationalist folk songs on their mother's knee and spend their nights out in the city's Irish centre.

They also live with Irish politics on the streets. "IRA scum out" has appeared on walls and bus stops over the past few weeks. Politicised graffiti are a regular feature in Acocks Green whose high street is dominated by Holy Souls Catholic church and the school behind it.

Given this cultural background, the school's history department took the decision 10 years ago to spend optional time at key stage 3 with 14- and 15-year-olds teaching Irish history around the topic of the potato famine, an initiative that has recently been praised by inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education.

The shadows cast by the famine are long, and getting longer. It is now 150 years since the catastrophe but, as the sensitivities surrounding the anniversary "celebrations" have shown, it still has Irish history by the throat.

Glen Alexander, the school's head of humanities, said: "We felt it was our duty to introduce some historical background to their cultural identity.

"A large part of history at key stage 3 is the story of Britain, concentrating on the development of Parliament and the South-east. We felt it was crucial that our students also learnt about Ireland."

Until this year, Irish history has been taught in the stand-alone optional unit in which schools look at a society or culture other than Britain based around an era or turning point before 1900.

"Most schools tend to study the Romans or the French Revolution under this title," said Mr Alexander, "but we decided to look at Ireland and the potato famine."

Next year, the department has decided to teach it as strands within the core British history units, such as the Irish contribution to monasticism, Cromwell's Irish campaigns, the Irish dimension to British imperialism, and sectarianism and nationalist uprisings under Britain in the 20th century.

"We feel we have taught this (Irish) unit well, but there is a danger that the children see British history as one development and Irish history as another, when the two are intertwined," said Mr Alexander.

"Some of the things we talk about are obviously controversial, but we think it is our duty not to shy away from this."

Jonathan Burke, an Irish teacher who works in the department, held up a plastic bullet that he found on the streets of Derry.

"I start my lessons with this," he said. "I ask them if they know what this is. I tell them that most pupils in Northern Ireland would recognise this immediately.

"We look at why children there grow up with violence and what that does to them. We look at their own prejudices. Then we look at some of the history behind it."

According to George Bernard Shaw: "An Irishman's heart is nothing but his imagination." Teachers at Archbishop Ilsley felt it was important to explore the images of Ireland that children received from their families and to match these up with historical study. They also match racist commentary about "thick Paddies" against the poetry and writing of artists such as WB Yeats, Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Jonathan Swift.

Daniel Maguire, aged 14, whose family are strongly nationalist, said his grandparents talked about the potato famine and how the Irish "lost their land" all the time. "They're a bit over the top. It's good to learn about it from both sides."

Joseph Wilson, 14, whose mother is a Catholic from Northern Ireland and whose father is a Protestant from the Republic, said his parents never talked politics, although his mother had told him about the famine as a child.

He said: "When I see stories abut the Troubles on the news, I now understand it better."

Roydell Levy, who is black, said he was shocked to learn about the famine. He said: "I didn't know people had starved like that. I always thought Ireland was well-off."

In Glen Alexander's room, a map of Ireland is dotted with coloured pinheads, showing the family origins of pupils in his class.

Why is it that so many of Archbishop Ilsley's children come from the West, the counties of Galway and Clare? "That's where the famine struck hardest. And that's where so many emigres come from."

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