How Ireland Teaches Empire

The campaign to keep history as a compulsory Junior Cert subject showed the importance Ireland claims to place on understanding history. But what is actually on the course? Josh Brady investigates how Ireland teaches empire.

Image of The Door of No Return in Ouidah
The Door of No Return, Ouidah (Benin), is a memorial to enslaved Africans taken to the Americas.

“Did you know? “Goods” in medieval times meant much more than the items mentioned. This term was applied to another type of cargo – slaves. At this time, the slave trade was common throughout Europe; between 1450 and 1500 alone, it is estimated that the Portuguese slave trade brought back 150,000 African slaves from their journeys”.

Tucked into a column on the side of the page, this is one of only a few pieces of information on slavery in the history textbook “Footsteps in Time”. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in Junior Certificate history books.

Junior Certificate History has been a topic of debate over the past few years. The subject’s place on the syllabus came into question, it was removed as a mandatory requirement, and, eventually, it was reinstated as a mandatory subject following much public grumbling, including input from President Higgins.

In the aftermath of its reinstatement, it is worth reflecting on how history is taught in schools. There can be no question that for most, Junior Cert level history will be the foundation of all other historical knowledge. Many do not go on to study formally or in any other capacity. Further facts will be added as footnotes to what we learnt from dry and often boring instruction on the subject. 

Matters closer to home

While Irish people often like to laugh and gawk at the poor understanding Britons have of their own history – and it is atrocious – Ireland does not fare much better. From what is taught at secondary school, Irish people could scarcely identify the colonies of the British Empire, or any other empire for that matter. Unfortunately, coursebooks do not give any clear definition as to what imperialism is, if they even use the word at all. The current curriculum employs the term “conquest”.

As the syllabus fails to build an understanding of imperialism, Irish people do not adequately understand the reason for or the extent of  imperialism in other countries. Moreover, there is a tendency to gloss over the role that Ireland played in British imperialism.

No one writes history from an innocent place

A recent NewStatesman article titled The history of the British Empire is not being taught argued that the British school curriculum avoids much of its own imperial past and that “the result has been a vast and widespread ignorance about [Britain’s] past. It means a vast asymmetry of historical understanding, in which people in Ireland or other countries can spend years learning about centuries of violent oppression, only to come [to Britain] and discover nobody remembers any of it.”

This is largely true. Several polls in recent years demonstrate that Britons thought imperialism was largely beneficial to the world. However, it must be noted that imperial history is not entirely absent from British school books. According to Google Trends, the words and phrases “East India Company” & “Irish Famine” spike around October and then again in April, May, and June. One might reasonably assume these spikes are caused by GCSE students. In addition, “William WiIlberforce” and “Slavery” trend during the same months, albeit with more popularity.

In Ireland the populace is not entirely ignorant of the crimes, negligence, and exploitation of the British Empire in Ireland. This is partly due to the fact that events like the 1847 famine are covered quite thoroughly – although a nod to the donations of Sultan Abdulmejid and the Choctaw people wouldn’t hurt. Unfortunately, the buck stops there. Any further analysis of imperialism, as a whole, is severely lacking in our history books. 

Anecdotally, I asked my sister, who recently finished secondary school, what she recalls of empires in history. She listed off “Spain and Portugal conquered the Americas… Miguelon & Columbus. No one wanted to go on the Spice Route… Britain owned America and Ireland… And then later WWII happened.” Unfortunately, this is not as glib a representation as one may think.

A Troubled Atlantic

The Irish Junior Cert syllabus puts a particular focus on events across the Atlantic; noting the roles of Portugal and Spain, and with occasional reference to Britain.

The narrative the Junior Cert history book presents is interesting in a number of ways. For example, “The Renaissance was a period when a great desire for knowledge existed alongside far-reaching social and economic developments. People had confidence in their own abilities”

These lines conjure up images of heroic people willing to travel any distance for knowledge and glory. They fail to contextualise or note the spice merchants who wanted to avoid travelling through the Ottoman Empire. Aside from a certain romanticism, there are other oddities.

“As Europeans pushed further and further inland they came to realise the tremendous rewards that could be reaped in the new world. So in the first half of the 16th century, in the case of Spain in particular, explorers were soon followed by armies. Their job was to conquer the rich native kingdoms for Spain. These armies were known as conquistadores.”

While there is a sense the empire was pursued for financial gain, which is the correct interpretation, it is presented almost as happenstance. 

Footsteps in Time laments that “unfortunately, Christopher Columbus failed to control the settlers or ‘Indians’. Returning home in chains, Columbus… was forgotten”. The same paragraph details the abduction of natives brought to Spain for exhibition by Columbus. The book does mention that Columbus refused to pay Rodrigo de Triana, the first man to spot land. Columbus claimed that he, in fact, spotted the Bahamas before anyone else but failed to mention it after, apparently, three months at sea. However, on a whole Columbus is, instead, passed off as respectable in the curriculum.

While Irish Junior Cert level history seems to go into depth on matters such as American Independence, there is no mention of the “Scramble for Africa” at the 1880 Berlin Conference, where the imperial powers literally put a ruler to Africa to divide it. Irish history books scarcely mention slavery (and again only the Portuguese and the Spanish are referenced).

Sadly, this trend does not stop at the Junior Certificate level. 

According to Liam O’Ruairc, a teaching assistant at Trinity College Dublin, “Irish students tend to have little to say about imperialism unless it’s about our own history under the British empire; very few of them know that Ireland were willing servants and participants of imperialism; particularly in suppressing the Indian rebellion; I found international students, especially the French, were more advanced intellectually and appropriately aware of imperialism.”

Matters only seem to worsen. Unfortunately, some Irish students studying history in university “thought that the Irish were treated equally as bad as African slaves, and that we were victims of imperialism, instead of being willing participants.”


Perhaps most disappointingly, O’Ruairc notes that Ireland’s role in the slave trade is completely neglected. This is not just a problem for students going into university either.

“I’m certain no Irish history department address such an issue; indeed, no Irish historians cover slavery”.

Another teaching assistant, James Greaney, says “If anything I get the impression that plenty of older Irish historians don’t even know why it’s such a big deal (this is only a broad generalisation of course) and to them trying to engage with the myth of Irish slaves – for example – is a waste of time.”

Both Greaney and O’Ruairc expressed disappointment that there has been “virtually no engagement or interest, or even challenge to the Far Right peddling the myth of white slavery”.

The academics both commented on the increasing prominence of the far-right “Irish slaves” myth, that has become particularly politicised as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests.

Recently, there was a “document that the Far Right shared which went viral among Irish Facebook [and] went unchallenged. According to O’Ruairc he “had to tell a few people on Facebook that it was a propaganda piece peddled by white supremacists; and these are people I’ve known all my life who aren’t racist, but bought into the myth”.

“Irish historians are woeful when it comes to public engagement; Ivory Tower can be labelled for many of them” said O’Ruairc.

It is also lamentable that when people do try to broaden their historical horizons beyond the prescribed Junior Cert course there are serious issues about what is available to them.

Greenery notes that a book like “To Hell or Barbados, which is riddled with obvious errors… [is] a third of the price of any of the actually reliable history books on the same shelf. No wonder shit like this spread when it’s so much more accessible.”

All this indicates that the Junior Cert does not set Irish people up to have a clear sense of their own history. As a result, Irish people are generally ill-equipped to counter historical falsehoods, such as the far-right “Irish slaves” myth, and remain unaware of Ireland’s own role in the Caribbean or the Indian subcontinent.

None of this bodes well.