Inspiration from Irish history
Any event on the scale of the Irish famine in the middle of the 19th century is likely to divide opinion. What caused the mass starvation? Could anything have been done to stop the deaths of more than a million people? Was it the fault of landlords or the indifference of government in London? Who should be blamed for a disaster that killed or forced the emigration of a quarter of the population? Did anyone try to help?
In Ireland, history is a subject that refuses to be confined to the past.
In Northern Ireland in particular, questions of historical blame are interwoven with contemporary politics. The famine's stories of death, disease, evictions and emigration are alive with political insinuations.
It has become part of the mythology of nationalist Ireland that the famine between 1845 and 1852 stands in a long line of injustices committed by British rulers. There are now monuments and memorials to commemorate the suffering, both in the US and Ireland. And it's part of the historical experience that is given as an explanation for how and why the Irish fought for independence.
So the famine was a brave and innovative topic to be explored by a predominantly Protestant primary school in Northern Ireland. And when Killylea Primary School, in County Armagh, began to look at the subject for an ICT project, the headteacher says that eyebrows were raised.
Mark Vallelly, principal of this rural school with 58 pupils in three mixed age-group classes, says he has always wanted to see the story of the famine as part of a wider history, rather than being seen as "belonging" to one community.
As he says, the potato blight that destroyed the subsistence crop did not have any religious denomination and affected Protestant families as well as Catholic. And by examining how the famine affected both communities, in terms of hunger, hardship and emigration, he hoped to encourage children to look at history from different perspectives. The results, which include a website and CD-Rom - www.irishpotatofamine.org - are really to the credit of the school because they are both well-produced, accessible and thought provoking.
There are many online resources about the famine, particularly from the US, but the Killylea project is a model of lucidity, with a clear attempt to be objective and to show different views of events.
Making this possible was a BT Schools Award of pound;25,000, which gave funding to set up a cross-community Irish Famine Walls project, which together with four schools, would produce curriculum materials which could be used by other schools.
The famine struck across Ireland, but to make it more immediate, the project looked at how the potato blight affected their own community. They used information from what was once the workhouse and visited its unmarked burial pits, where those who did not survive were buried (separate pits for each denomination).
"We wanted to approach it in an even-handed way, showing our pupils the experiences of Catholics in the famine, but also letting them know that it wasn't only Catholics who were its victims," says Mr Vallelly.
"When we visited the building that was the workhouse, the upstairs was virtually unchanged, and the children drank this in. It brought out their sympathy when they knew that in buildings like this thousands of people were dying each week.
"It takes a while for the facts to sink in," he says. When pupils were writing about the famine, he found references to items such as mobile phones, because growing up in our affluent era it's difficult for children to imagine such hardship.
"But they were very moved by what had happened, particularly when it was in their own area. There was an account of a mother dying, with grass around her mouth because she had nothing left to eat, trying to keep her baby alive."
The website and CD-Rom look at how people faced up to the famine and how there were good and bad landlords whose behaviour played a large part in either alleviating or aggravating people's distress. While there are plenty of stories of absentee landlords who evicted starving tenants, the website also shows there were landlords who helped people, giving them food, money or work. It also tries to put young people into the shoes of those who lived through the famine, showing how their homes looked, what clothes they wore, the choices they faced, the kinds of letters emigrants wrote home from the US and Canada.
The website, designed with the help of an internet design company in Belfast, includes video and audio clips, pictures, artwork, explanations and essays. It includes images taken by the children, using camera and scanning equipment bought with the funds.
It encourages young people to view the past through the eyes of the other side of the religious divide. No mean achievement in a place where flags and graffiti relentlessly mark out sectarian affiliations.
Mr Vallelly says technology has allowed a small school to plug into the wider world. Every classroom has an ISDN connection and there is a school e-board where pupils and staff can access information. Mr Vallelly's not a techie, but he says he's keen to use technology if it allows schools to do what they otherwise couldn't.
He's observed how boys seem more enthusiastic about using their literacy skills on a computer keyboard than writing with pen and paper. The school also puts questions online, such as for maths, and pupils enjoy racing home after school to be the first to send an answer.
The school's e-board is used to show examples of the pupils' work in literacy, history, science and art. There is also desktop publishing for a school news sheet.
Teachers have hand-held computers with details of pupils and a diary, and email was used to keep in touch with other schools.
As a follow-up, Mr Vallelly has given presentations at which 65 other schools were represented and he has been invited to a Building Learning Communities conference in the US.
There has been a big leap forward: "A decade or so ago, if pupils got a go on a game about the Vikings, they were doing well," he says.
Looking ahead, he thinks teachers could have digital CVs, perhaps on CD-Roms, which would give a clearer picture of abilities than a reference and an interview. Pupils could also have their own digital portfolio, he says, which they could take to their next school so staff could see their achievement.
"We've enjoyed the process. It's good for the self-esteem of a small rural primary school to be recognised. It's all about good ideas. If you give money to teachers with good ideas, they'll do a good job with it," says Mr Vallelly.
WEBSITES AND MUSEUMS
Killylea Primary School, 150 Killylea Road, County Armagh BT60 4LN www.killylea-p-s.org.uk
Its website on the famine, www.irishpotatofamine.org
is also available as a CD-Rom. Principal Mark Vallelly acknowledges ICT help from C2K which supports all schools in Northern Ireland www.c2kni.org.uk
Other schools taking part in the project were Cope Primary School, Loughall; St Patrick's Primary School, Mayobridge; Richhill, Churchill Primary School, Caledon; and Hardy Memorial, Richhill.
In recent years many famine memorials have been built, particularly in the US and Ireland. Among the largest was the $5 million Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park, New York. Built in 2002, it includes a stone cottage brought from Ireland in recognition of more than 800,000 emigrants who came to New York during the famine. In 1996, teaching "mass starvation in Ireland" was made part of the New York state curriculum.
In 1994, a famine museum was opened in Ireland at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon (Tel: 00353 783 3013 www.strokestownpark.iemuseum.html) to show links between the famine and the hunger still affecting many developing countries today.
There is also a famine memorial in Liverpool, opened in 1998, in recognition of the more than one million people who arrived from Ireland during the famine. The migration was on such a scale that Ireland is said to be the only country in Europe to have a smaller population now than in 1845.