Liam Neeson , the Irish actor will collect his Old Age Pension in June this year for the first time .I know this because Liam and myself are exactly the same age .Well actually he’s about two weeks older than me so he will score his those few days sooner. We both grew up in Norneverland, Ireland at the exact time during those years in which “the Troubles” started .I don’t know the man , of course, other than through his films throughout this past forty odd years, but he ‘d have seen and heard much the same kinds of things I saw and heard in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, through our childhood, teenage years and then into our early twenties when we both, separately had various reasons to move from home and eventually live in Belfast for a time in 1971 /72 at the height of the violence,before we each headed for the cities of England, to either get away from the madness ,momentarily , or to further our broader education of the world.1970 through to 1972 issued in an explosion of political violence in Norneverland,which peaked in 1972, when nearly 500 people, just over half of them civilians, lost their lives. 1972 was the year which saw the greatest loss of life throughout the entire conflict. It was the year that I decided that Leeds College of Art was preferable to working in an office in downtown Belfast and made my plans to do that very thing..
The only other serendipitous thing about Liam Neeson and myself that I can think of is that we both drove forklift trucks in warehouses for a time in that same era .I did my stint in a fruit and vegetable warehouse outside Leeds in Yorkshire that supplied the supermarkets of the city and he worked for the Guinness Brewery in his hometown of Ballymena after abandoning his university course, no doubt hustling crates of the black stout back and forth.I wasn’t quite so lucky as to later on have a fling with the young hell-raising Helen Mirren, as he did when he went to London , but I had a similar youthful dalliance of my own to contend with at art college with a similar wild and wilful , artistic young woman also of Russian or German provenance, to keep me occupied ;she carried the exotic name of Leopold…
Liam Neeson is now a very famous actor, of course , able to live far away from the madness that most here consider “ordinary life”. Of course there’s nothing ordinary or even normal about any of it.Liam can afford to look at it with his own jaundiced faraway eye now and given his own experiences, his own life’s joys and crippling heartbreaks, he might as well throw in his own tuppence worth of opinion on the land he grew up in. Why shouldn’t he? He has every right as I or anyone else who might have returned to live in the place .He obviously still sees all the divisions still there, almost fifty years later.
He imagines that having nothing but integrated schools might be the solution to some of Norneverland’s cultural problems.It’s a point of view that has many merits.What agenda have those who would disagree with it ? Is there a fear that by having integrated schools that a particular ethos might suffer or prosper? Would Catholicism/Nationalism or Protestantism/Unionism suffer? Would that matter ? How properly “integrated” in education would these future-proposed all -encompassing integrated schools actually be? How would the fractured history of our country be taught for example ?Would there be two versions of it to accommodate two different perspectives of reality? How would education deal with a really weird fantasy such as Creationism, for example ,or the very real facts of scientific exploration?How would it deal with the re-telling of our own historical record and which parts of that record are open to re-interpretation? Some talk casually of “re-writing the past” but never really specify how or where this is done and in what way.
That is a valid point of view too, but if the education was of the highest quality, maybe everyone across the board would gain something of a broader perspective .A lot would depend on what exactly was being taught and how well it was taught.Would it be education or simple indoctrination? Within schools the pupils would form their own alliances among themselves as we all do,based on shared likes or dislikes and possibly get a better understanding of their fellow -pupils .Maybe it would make no difference at all . Small micro-tribes would probably still form around shared likes in music or fashion as they tend to do.Classroom bullies might still find something else to bully about out on the streets outside besides religion, race or supposed political affiliation.These kinds of individuals rarely need a logic- based reason to do what they choose to do in any case.
I totally agree with recent assertions that generalisations are the bane of our lives.We have discussed this about “unionism” and I agree it is not a good idea to assume that every “unionist” is in agreement with the ethos of the DUP, for example .The problem arises in that the DUP are regarded as representing the majority “unionist” view this past ten years or so ,so the perception across the entire community…ie nationalists, unionists , don’t cares, don’t knows, or whatever ,is that the DUP are largely represented by flat-earthers, bigots, racists, homophobes, renegers and possibly even thieves. The fact is that the more vocal DUP politicians have actually made no bones about any of that, after all, so it must suit their agenda. In that sense you can see where that impression comes from.There may be plenty of similarly -minded folk in the nationalist community too(ie racists, homophobes and all the rest), but where are they and who is representing them at government level? I have never heard a nationalist politician coming out with the same kind of mad bile or racist nonsense that issues from the mouths of some of these DUP heroes. I have seen written comments online where some nationalists will generalise “unionists” as fools, knaves or worse, but that is not the same thing as being in power and stating it as policy.Unionist politicians in power have called nationalists many demeaning names in the recent past.It’s in the public record and on film.How that might be translated in the homes and in the playground is anyone’s guess.
So how would teaching be approached where some seem to believe things that are easily open to ridicule and are indifferent to reality.There’s the aforementioned Creationist nonsense , for example, about the earth being only 6000 years old, which flies in the face of every fact that is known on earth; there’s casual racism about the”Irish” or the “Muslims” and much , much more.Who votes for people like that? What kind of person votes for someone like that?How will talk like that affect children who will grow to be the future adults?
Listen to the latest “crocodile” reference from Arlene Foster, the ex First Minister, which compares Irish nationalists to reptiles. That’s hot off the presses and just a week old…. that one .It came out of her mouth just days ago in Lurgan. What would that be called in any society? “Hate- speak”, or simple racism ,possibly?That’s what represents “unionism” at present , for bad or worse.The DUP have more “unionist” votes than anyone else and they are the ones who get to represent the “unionist” point of view.
As far as the religious education and fully- integrated schools goes , the question could also be asked does it matter at all ? Does the religious aspect actually matter? I’m an atheist and have been since I was a teenager and am still perfectly happy with that position into my old age, having read a lot about the many religions and cultures of the world and although I come from a nominally Catholic background and ethos and was educated at both Catholic Primary school and then Catholic grammar school, I really only remember the biblical morality tales from early church-going.For me they work on the same level as Aesop’s Fables or any other kind of good -versus- evil folk -tales that are told the world over. I’m inclined to believe that this is exactly what these old Biblical stories actually are, except that they’ve been wrapped up in a supernatural aspect.The fables of the Greek or Ethiopian slave Aesop predate Christianity by some six hundred years , but the parables are similar. Of course there’s the theatricality of religion, the artistry of churches, the fine stained -glass and the Italian mosaic work ; there’s the music too.Men and women who believed in God were inspired to either pay for or create these wonderful things. These churches really can be stunning artworks in themselves and add to the experience , but the whole idea of “God” and all that springs from that belief never rang true for me , the more I read outside and beyond any school curriculum. That’s just my point of view, of course and it is not the same for every pupil with whom I shared classrooms with , I’m sure.We are all different and many still have their beliefs and these give them solace .In my case a “religious education” had the reverse effect and laid the foundational groundwork for my own inquisitive nature.
There was no real sense of religious zeal being promoted in the classrooms anyway, that I remember.It was peripheral to everything else, except possibly when at an earlier time while learning the rites and rotes of receiving communion, the correct behaviour in the confessional , the recitation of catechism and prayers , creed and commands and later the passage of confirmation; there were explanations of the vestments , and the arcane language of the various ceremonies and the accoutrements used to perform them…the surplice , the chalice , the paten , the alb, the thurible, the monstrance, the pall, the corporal, the ciborium the chasuble and so on .These were wonderful words of ancient ritual and tradition in themselves.They added to my knowledge of the world and its workings but at the same time we had become somehow exposed to the teaching of a ritualised devotion to a god that had survived for two thousand years and was probably a continuation from even earlier modes of worship than that. I knew it was ; it stretched back into mankind’s pre-history before people were able to read or before there was even much to be read….before there was even much of a written language at all.There was magic in it too.The fact that the Mass was also in Latin for most of my childhood and youth gave it something of a mystique which has possibly been lost when Latin recitation stopped.We learned to recite the entire Mass in Latin and that’s about an hour’s worth of recitation.That’s like learning a play off -by -heart and in an ancient language . Much of that magic was removed when the Latin went out, I suppose. The idea was probabably to make the rituals more amenable on a world basis. I was about twelve when that happened overnight in November 1964. Suddenly the prayers were in English.This was a time of great world changes; John F. Kennedy had been murdered the year before and there had been the Cuban Missile Crisis before that too.
Other than that, religion wasn’t really pushed down anyone’s throat at school although in those early days it was an ordinary part of the fabric of life. We were supposed to act in a specific way. We wouldn’t have thought of it as a “control mechanism” but that is what it really was, I suppose.It was an enforcement of a certain morality and part of this was the confessional where you could unburden your sins and be forgiven.The priest had that power of forgiveness and he doled it out with various small price tickets. You’d tell him of some small moral crime and you’d be given several prayers to say as a penance.If you completed that you could receive communion which was to be allowed to join again in god’s “family”.I interpreted that as a sort of universal brotherhood that only true -believers were admitted to . Of course there was still the medieval ideas of “Heaven” , “Hell” and even “Limbo” talked about . Heaven was somehow “up there”…a place to be ascended to somehow and “Hell” was down -there- below somewhere and was not a very pleasant place at all. There was no getting out if you went to Hell, but “Limbo” was a sort of half-way house where you might have a chance to improve and win a golden -ticket after much struggle.It was certainly an interesting concept even though it didn’t really make a lot of sense. Where was up and where was down in outer -space ?The other question was a huge “WHY”?….and for what reason ,any of it.
I suppose it was a way to concentrate on the very nature of what “morality” and “goodness” meant, but basically the buck actually stopped with an all- controlling God at the apex of the power -pyramid who uniquely had the final say about everything .You were meant to accept this as a fact beyond mere human understanding although no one could really tell you why this was the case, exactly or who really said you had to do it at all.
Mine was a household where my mother was a devout adherent but my father probably less- so.Later in his life he never bothered much with the ceremony of the Mass.As he got older he never went. After my mother died he never went . My mother found much solace in her daily Mass-going .I suppose there was social aspect to it for her too.it was part of the rhythm of her life .She’d go to Mass and meet friends and possibly do a little shopping before coming home. Even at that , my mother never forced the issue; it was her personal meditation. There was no Rosary and rattling of beads recited nightly in our home .I only heard that at funerals and wake-houses and always imagined it as some old ancient mantra or incantation performed to invoke the archaic spirits of all the dead, which I didn’t belive actually existed ;that would have been really creepy; the words of the “Our Father” Credo and the “Holy Mary” blurred together as easily as acracadabara. A part of me knew that this invocation was really an impossibility…a prayer flung out to an uncaring and dead cosmos like radio waves bouncing eternally across the stars.
The idea of being religious at all may have been something of a pretence for many of us in those early days , that was adhered to outside school times , so as not offend the parents ; to give them their due respect, so it was not something that was argued about at home or discussed too much , although my parents were aware of my lack of belief in anything of a supernatural nature.My position was that it was all to do with the complex chemistry, the electricity and the needs of the human brain. There was the pretence in teenage years of going to Mass for a while ,but the hour or so spent away from the Sunday -morning home was really spent drinking coffee in a cafe with friends or girlfriends of similar mind , or possibly later on ,having a pint in a local club. Parents were aware enough of this teenage subterfuge but probably accepted it as a sort of age-old rebellion against their elders.
During that entire time there was no real reference to “Protestantism” at all , by anyone, really. The very idea was an irrelevance in the circumstances. In my own case If there was no God to begin with and if the “One True Religion” was based on that original errant idea, then there was obviously not much use for the variety of adjustments and variations on that same theme , which comprised the muddled and many-named varieties of breakaway churches ever since the Reformation. Reforming what? Everyone and their dog were inventing their own new versions of religions hand- over- fist.King Henry the Eighth decided to get in on the act and now even local boy , the Reverend Ian Paisley was having a go with his own version too.There he was out on the streets making stuff up , mixing it all up with unionist and loyalist politics and howling to the the treetops about “papists , popists and the Whores of Rome “.Different strokes for different folks, obviously.
Distinct from that was Orangeism on the outside streets which always seemed to have a higher profile than it really deserved .What was it? Religious? Political? Or a mish-mash of both, like Paisley’s version of reality? Every summer there were marching men, dressed strangely, who snagged up the growing traffic. In point of fact they seemed to control the very streets and how they could be used, as if they alone ,owned them for themselves.Other than that I knew little about them.They were anti-Catholic ….but hey ! How were they any better ? Their particular brand of gobbledeegook was even more mixed -up, again .As if the story being told wasn’t improbable enough , they’d also added some mad strain of ultra- conservative politics and iffy history into the mix.There were fewer of these marches then and these were largely irrelevant to us, like some club that you wouldn’t want to join. There was nothing like the traffic on the streets that there is now in any case so nobody seemed to care unless they made a nuisance of themselves by marching where they weren’t wanted with their noisy drums and their ancient war-songs..
Education at school was designed to pass NI GCEs ,which we were made aware, were much harder to pass than the Comprehensive -styled CSEs, as the standard required was apparently academically higher .All the usual grammar school subjects were taught; Geography, ,Modern History, English Language ,English Literature, Mathematics,Geometry,Physics Latin, Irish, French …later Art (which I had to personally request be included).I suppose art -teachers were few on the ground and art classes may not have been deemed important enough when weighed against all of that other learning.in any case a local artist was called in to do the needful.Myself and a handful of other enthusiasts took these classes too.
That was school and education.Outside of school we mixed with pupils from across the spectrum .I had Catholic girlfriends and Protestant girlfriends. Friends extended across the divide. Before the Troubles broke out for real we all mixed across the board . Various schools competed in debate or in basketball or athletics. A generation later my children went through a similar process but by then the worst of the Troubles were thankfully over ; none of them arriving out the other side with any religion intact ,whatsoever. They brought both Catholic and Protestant boyfriends home to slump in front of the TV screen , watch videos and eat everything that was carried from my fridge .It was as if they had never really heard about any of that old horror that we had lived through at all and none of it was ever mentioned.
If there is some idea afoot that somehow Catholic -only schools will continue to produce rows of neat little Catholic citizens into the future, ad finitum and that they will all grow up to be cookie-cutter ,good little Irish nationalists too, I don’t believe that will really be the case.The practice of observing a religion in Ireland does not appear to have the same enthusiasm that it had in generations past when churches across the land were filled on Sundays and the clergy had a lot more social control than they seem to do now.. Of course there is always a built-in social aspect too. Religious belief is something that should be sought out by adults if it is deemed a necessitity in someone’s life. If they feel their life requires this kind of structure .It isn’t something that should be fed to children from an early age before they have even learned how to reason .There are other ways of teaching mores and moralities besides religion . I believe that religion should have no part to play in education, but should be a parental responsibility at best.If it is to be taught at schools at all , it should be taught as part of philosophy classes and discussed rationally in comparison to all the other many beliefs of humankind.. It is really a series of long-held ancient beliefs of some conservatism from an era before rationalism and therefore contains some very odd concepts and some very strange other-worldly ideas that cannot be balanced against what is really known of our existence .
As for politics; there was little local politics taught at my grammar school back in the 1960s and only the bones of European and British History based on selected anodyne textbooks. History was concerned with Britain and Europe mostly ,with a smidgen of Irish history thrown in as an aside to attempt to explain how we got to the situation that was just about to break out into horror ,outside our doors on the streets. We learned the issues that were required to pass the possible exam questions coming up, while the cry for civil rights fomented .These dry historical narratives were to be learned by rote , just as geography was also learned. It was only necessary to know that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was murdered and not really all those tiny details as to why he was really murdered …and only that World War One was fought on the back of it … and not for some other set of the idiotic reasons and power-plays by the nobility of Europe.That could be confusing with all that detail of a variety of strange alliances between the UK and Europe. Oh , we ploughed through the texts and tried to remember the fine details but how could our little heads possibly contain every line in hard focus?…all those dates to memorise and strangelt ever-changing and odd place -names from the faraway past. Macphail ‘s “Modern Times 1880-1955”, Richards and Hunt’s “Modern Britain 1783-1964”, and Isaac’s “A History Of Europe 1870-1950” were our textbooks.If reference to our our own wee country of Ireland was slipped into any of those worthy tomes it seemed almost an accident to us on this much wider canvas . If something came up it may have provoked some off-topic discussion at the teacher’s own remit, but none of that was considered part of the “real” curriculum and the passage toward exam passes.
“Modern Times”(1880-1965) did make a start with” Gladstone and the Irish Question” and we were left in no doubt of Queen Victoria’s antipathy to Gladstone and his “foolish”liberal ideas about Ireland.We also read of how Irish MPs were holding up the business of parliament with their obstructions.Ireland was declared “a most distressful country” and the writers of the book claimed that its problems were not to be fully solved until the 20th century.(You wish!!)Remember, that this book ended at 1955 and we were reading it in the late 1960s before all hell broke loose in Ireland once again. We learned some more about England’s involvement in Ireland prior to 1880, the Act of Union and why she was there at all and how the potato blight previously had brought about famine and immigration and the decimation of the Irish population.As we sat in our classroom the Great Famine had only ended one hundred years before we were born in the early 1950s.It didn’t seem in any way distant. The Irish population had been dependent on the potato for a range of ethnic, religious, political, social, and economic reasons, such as land acquisition, absentee landlords, and the Corn Laws, which left two-fifths of the population totally reliant on the tuber .The Celtic grazing lands of Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonised the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home in England(“The Rosbifs” as they were known by the French!) . The British taste for beef was to have a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of Ireland. It pushed them off the best pasture land and forced them to farm smaller plots of marginal land turning them to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.This all contributed to the disaster when the potato blight struck, but in England they didn’t seem to care.This famine was a rallying cry for Home Rule and soured any relations between Ireland and England . Disraeli stated in 1844 that Ireland had , “a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and, in addition, the weakest executive in the world.”
We learned that in the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited by the Penal Laws from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society. The laws had largely been reformed by 1793, and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 allowed Irish Catholics to again sit in parliament. I wondered while I listened to this what form history took in other schools .Were they learning these same historical stories or reading these textbooks? What could anyone else possibly make of England’s role in Ireland? There was so much of it to learn and it was probable that many were either unaware of the history or sided with the architects of Ireland’s disaster in any case .
We would make what we could from the poetry of Wilfred Owen , WB Yeats or Siegfried Sassoon later on and decide for ourselves the rightness or otherwise of the decimation of an entire generation in World War One, but the exam papers didn’t require our personal input, debate or opinions at all….only the required “right” answers to set questions.
As for my own children , I’m not even sure how much of this was taught to them at all, or how much they actually learned of it in their own schooldays.They were girls and attended different schools. Did their teachers stick entirely to the allotted agenda and work towards getting only the best results within that narrow frame or did they attempt to really “educate” them?
…. They attended different schools at a different time when everything seemed to be a series of “modules” that had to be completed by rote.I can’t remember discussing much of an historical bent with them. They never talked much about it at home, at all, but there seemed to be a huge desire to acquire more and more A-Stars or whatever in their exams and in the end they went on to their various further educations and working lives with everything that was necessary to apply for universities and jobs to get out of the place .Were they properly “educated”, though? I don’t know the answer to that one.
They seem well -enough adjusted to life in the 21st century where the real education is in knowing how to use all the available technology. As long as it doesn’t all crash,knowledge is at the tips of your fingertips ,after all. All you have to be able to do is to understand it and that has always been the case or the problem with education anyway.None of them believe in God or religion ,as far as I can tell.Two of them have married men who would be amazed at the very idea. They appear to be generally not very politicised at all either, although this Brexit business and the arrival of the demagogue Trump, as President of America, seems to have finally exercised their ire. At least two of them have little intention of returning to this place at all anytime soon to live with its eventual outworkings or possible disasters, but then ,is there any hope for anyone, anywhere in the entire world ,anywhere, the way things are going with the rise of even more virulent religious fanatics in the form of ISIS?
Plus ca change, Liam.