Teaching topics

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Land of lost love In the Ireland in Schools project, children learn The Fields of Athenry, one of Ireland's most famous ballads and one of the few about the Famine.

The narrator laments the depopulation of his land and his transportation to Australia for stealing "Trevelyan's corn". The latter, a British civil servant , brought a supply from America to Ireland to relieve the starving population but many were too poor to buy it. The song raises issues of free trade - the restrictive Corn Laws were repealed in 1846.


By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling "Michael, they are taking you away, For you stole Trevelyan's corn, So the young might see the morn.

Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay."

Chorus Low lie the Fields of Athenry, Where once we watched the small free birds fly.

Our love was on the wing, We had dreams and songs to sing.

It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young man calling "Nothing matters, Mary, when you're free.

Against the Famine and the Crown I rebelled, they ran me down.

Now you must raise our child with dignity."

By a lonely harbour wall, she watched the last star falling As the prison-ship sailed out against the sky.

Sure she'll wait and hope and pray For her love in Botany Bay.

It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

The Irish potato famine

Study of the Victorians can include the Famine, especially when examining inequalities in society and colonialism. In the 1840s, nearly half the Irish population depended on the potato for food. The Famine was brought about by economic and social conditions, but potato blight was responsible for the final catastrophe. This fungus arrived in 1845 and, when potatoes sprouted the next year, spores scattered and destroyed the crop in a few days. People weakened by lack of food became sick.

Subsistence farmers lost their means of paying rent to British and Protestant landlords, who evicted hundreds of thousands or paid for them to emigrate. Many others ended up in crowded workhouses.

An estimated one million people died in the Famine and 1.5 million emigrated. The British government provided minimal help - loans and soup kitchens.

Under the Hawthorn Tree, by Marita Conlon-McKenna (O'Brien Press, pound;4.99), popular in Years 5 and 6 in the literacy hour and for cross-curricular work, is the first of an award-winning trilogy of historical novels set during the Famine. The book tells of three children who set off to find the great-aunts they have heard about in their mother's stories. Less able readers are assisted by a Channel 4 film version, as well as titles such as The Great Hunger by Malachy Doyle (Franklin Watts, pound;3.99) and Famine by Arthur McKeown (Poolbeg, pound;3.99).

Unpack the Troubles

The story of Northern Ireland has been dominated by 30 years of the Troubles, going back to the late 1960s. The conflict involved the British authorities and paramilitaries drawn from the Irish nationalist Catholic community and from the Protestant "Unionists". More than 3,600 people have died since 1968.

Primary schools can study its origins by learning about the "Plantation of Ulster", beginning in 1607, when Protestants from Scotland and England were sent to colonise the Catholic province after resistance had been destroyed by Elizabeth I's forces.

At secondary level, Enemy Encounter, by the poet Padraic Fiacc, is often used to demonstrate the three-way nature of the conflict and challenge attitudes that it was just an arcane battle between Catholics and Protestants. The poem describes an encounter between an Irishman and a British soldier hiding in a ditch. "He is like a lonely little winter robin," says the Irishman. "We are that close to each other I can nearly hear his heart beating". One exercise is to guess the final lines, which read "I am an Irishman And he is afraid That I have come to kill him."

Other tools are murals that can be found on walls in the strongholds of the rival communities. Studying the colours and historical references reveals a great deal. Thus, in Northern Ireland the loyalist, Protestant community celebrates 1916 with images of the Battle of the Somme, while the nationalist community recalls the Easter Rising, when a rebellion broke out that, though unsuccessful in itself, led to the creation of the Irish Republic.

The fearsome female pirate

The pirate and politician Grace O'Malley, otherwise known as Granuaile (pronounced Gran-oo-ale), fascinates primary children learning about the Tudors when they realise that this fearsome figure of Irish legend was a woman. It is said that when she was young she cut off her hair and wore male clothes to go to sea.

Records of the 16th-century English court confirm that Granuaile resisted and later traded with the invading Tudors. She commanded a fleet of war and merchant ships, trading with France, Spain, England and Portugal and dominating the waters off the west coast of Ireland.

By land she stormed and defended castles, engaged in cattle-rustling and generally showed she was the equal of any man. According to one horrified Tudor official, she "hath impudently passed the part of womanhood and been a great spoiler and chief commander and director of thieves and murderers at sea".

Such was her power that Elizabeth I agreed to meet her to consider her complaints against Sir Richard Bingham, governor or Connacht. She became the only Gaelic woman to appear in Elizabeth I's court, when she travelled to London in 1593. A contemporary account records "the wild grandeur of her mien erect and high, before the English Queen she dauntless stoodI well used to power and dominion over men of savage mood".

Children can discuss why Grace and Elizabeth were thought to get along well, and why they spoke together in Latin.

Granuaile was successful in her petition, but died 10 years later, outwitted and impoverished by Tudor officials who never forgave her for earlier "betrayals".

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