Celtic Tiger offers a leap forward for us

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Scotland could easily benefit by taking a leaf out of Ireland's book on education, says Michael Russell

hen today's Irish politicians are asked about the origins of their "Celtic Tiger" status, the more thoughtful of them point to the investment in modern education that the Irish state undertook from the 1970s onwards.

Some even point to Scotland as helping to inspire such thinking, although in reality we could now learn from Ireland, for these profound changes were not the first, but the second, Irish educational revolution of the 20th century.

Both owe a great deal to Patrick Pearse, the Irish Nationalist leader who was executed on May 3, 1916, following his prominent role in the Easter Rising. Pearse was not only a revolutionary. He was a writer, poet, language activist and - first and foremost - a teacher. His great charisma - the same charisma that inspired his pupils - was obvious even to his court martial judges, with General Blackadder telling the Countess of Fingall: "I have just done one of the hardest tasks I have ever had to do.

I have had to condemn to death one of the finest characters I have ever come across. There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like that a rebel."

Modern scholarship has been less kind to Pearse. Although he was revered for more than half a century after his death, the resurgence in the 1960s of the IRA, which frequently invoked Pearse's name in its cause, cast a shadow over his reputation. This was followed by two critical studies which interpreted his poems as being inspired by repressed homosexuality and even concealed paedophilia, though there is not the slightest evidence for actual sexual activity of any sort anywhere in his well-documented existence.

Certainly Pearse was, towards the end of his life, an active advocate of armed struggle but, for most of his adult years, he devoted his time and energies to the task of creating a truly Irish educational system.

"What I mean by an Irish school," he observed in 1909, "is a school that takes Ireland for granted. You need not praise the Irish language - simply speak it. You need not denounce English games - just play Irish ones."

That is precisely what Pearse did in his own establishment, St Enda's, which he set up in his family house in Ranelagh in Dublin in September, 1908. The son of an English stonemason who had married an Irish speaker from County Meath, he was himself schooled in a repressive and rigid traditional education system. Passionate about both the Irish language and English literature, he was already very active in the Irish language movement when he spent the summer of 1905 in Belgium, visiting bilingual schools in Flanders.

On his return, he tried to persuade his colleagues in the Gaelic League to invest in such education. But, when he failed, he resolved to establish a place which was "permeated through and through by Irish culture", arguing that only if such places existed would Ireland be able to create a generation which would develop a confident, deeply-rooted, approach to the world.

Although the Irish language, Irish culture and Irish history were the foundation stones of the curriculum at St Enda's (with, among others, W B Yeats writing for its pupils), both at Ranelagh and then in the grander surroundings of a country house, outside the city, Pearse's educational vision went much further. St Enda's was what he called a "child- republic" in which pupils played an active part in decision-making, and at which outdoor activities and collective responsibility were an important part of the mix.

Pearse's imagining of a radically different society extended to democracy and participation as well as the icons of language and culture. What Pearse wanted to achieve was the creation of the antidote to the moribund society in which he lived. To do so, he first needed to create the antidote to an educational system which he described as a "murder machine" in that it killed off enquiring minds and independence of thought and action.

Certainly, that drive was fuelled by his Irish nationalism, but it was also fuelled by a desire to achieve a better type of world, peopled by more informed, more enthused and more active citizens.

It was Pearse's status as a hero of the rising which secured his place in the pantheon of the first Irish state, although his mother - who became a member of the Dail and then a Senator - was a doughty opponent of the compromises that produced the free state. Once Ireland had come through the trauma of civil war, it was Pearse's name that was hallowed in the instructions from the Irish Education Department, which dictated that Irish teachers should "enshrine the continuity of the separatist idea from Tone to Pearse" and urged that pupils should be "imbued with the ideals and aspirations of such men as . . . Patrick Pearse".

His politics lived on but what became forgotten for more than half a century was his emphasis on education as liberation, not imposition. Only in recent generations - with that second revolution - has Irish schooling become more open, more flexible and more child-centred.

Underpinned by the strong sense of nation and national culture which he had demanded, it was the injection of this second part of Pearse's vision that made all the difference, produced an economic miracle and reversed years of emigration. There are lessons for Scotland in this. Scottish schooling needs to be not just open and inclusive : it needs also to be distinctively Scottish. Only by grounding young people in the culture and distinctive nature of the country they live in can their enthusiasms and energies be directed towards making that country somewhere to be proud of.

Paradoxically, that is the best antidote to parochialism, for it teaches more about our place in the world than anything else.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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