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10 November, 2016 - Speech by Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education & Skills at the Opening of NUIG 1916-2016 Conference

Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom a rá gur mór an onóir dom labhairt libh inniu, tráth a bhfuil tús á chur leis an chomhdháil náisiúnta thábhachtach seo, dar teideal ‘1916-2016: Dóchas agus Dúshlán na Ceannasachta Náisiúnta’.

Is mian liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Dr. Jim Browne, Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh, leis an Aire Humphries, le John Concannon ó Éire 2016 agus leis an chomhfhoireann eagraithe ag Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh agus Éire 2016, as ucht iarraidh orm labhairt libh anseo inniu.

Firstly, let me say what an honour and privilege it is for me to address you today, at the outset of this important national conference, entitled ‘1916-2016: The Promise and Challenge of National Sovereignty’.

I want to thank Dr Jim Browne, President of NUI Galway, Minister Humphries, John Concannon of Ireland 2016 and the combined organising team at NUIG and Ireland 2016 for the invitation to address you.

This is a very important conference, part of NUIG’s centenary conversations but also a key part of the national debate on the legacy of 1916. It is timely that the conference sits towards the end of 2016, offering an ideal space for reflection and, hopefully, a spur to our reimagining of the national vision.

I want, at the outset, to reflect somewhat on the central role that education in all of its various guises has played in the building of the Ireland which we know today.  The momentous events of 1916 set a course which radically changed the political, social, economic and cultural landscape on the island of Ireland forever.   The vision of the leaders had at its core the right of the people of Ireland to be sovereign and looked forward to the establishment of a native Government elected on the democratic principles of self-determination.

Education was and remains a vital part of the architecture of nation building for it is here that the stories and the legacies of the past are passed on from generation to generation.   But education also performs another important function – that of imagining and building the future.   And it is on this issue that I would like to dwell for a moment.

One of the founding visionary statements of 1916 is the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.  The challenge for all of us has been and continues to be to put in place an education system that, in line with the Proclamation, is intended to serve all and make good the promises of ‘equal rights and equal opportunities to all its [Ireland’s] citizens’, and ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’.  Across time this means we have to adapt and change while still holding true to these core principles.   I believe it is one of the great strengths of the Irish education system at all levels that we have been able to provide a very high quality education experience, often on quite constrained resources.

Ireland continues to confront challenges and uncertainties in our globalised world.   It was never so important that the different types of education institutions (especially public education institutions) consider themselves as part of a wider social enterprise, that is concerned with the common good – a common good that can only be delivered by the full resources of general schooling and further and higher education and training, in all their many shades and forms. 

For it is in education that we find many of the things which are vital to building the future.   An intellectual leadership which combines national values and ambition with the clarity of vision to achieve common goals.   A place of connection and community which develop the ties that bind us as we move forward.   A platform for debate and discussion on what matters most to us.   And, sometimes overlooked but central nonetheless, education is where we very often assemble the resources to understand the past and plan the future through the provision of information and data, research, dissemination.   We tend to take these things for granted, leave them unsaid almost.   But they are rich resources and we ignore them at our peril.

The 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising gave a huge and impetus to historical study and revision in Ireland. Having seen the scale and impact of the centenary programme this year, I have no doubt that an even deeper and more holistic impact has been achieved.

The Ireland 2016 programme has always been built on the triple aims of remembering, reflecting and reimagining and this conference will, effectively, help our nation do all three. This year has encouraged us to re-evaluate a host of aspects of Irish society and will have a lasting impact well beyond this Decade of Centenaries.

I would like to use some of my time today to share some information and insights with you on the engagement of the schools sector with the Ireland 2016 programme. The Department ultimately supported close to thirty projects, competitions or resource initiatives under Ireland 2016, so I will highlight just a few.

Probably the most direct and logistically complex aspect of the schools programme was the visit by the Defence Forces to each of 3,300 primary and special schools, presenting the National Flag and Proclamation and participating in a very pupil-friendly event in each school.

I cannot praise the members of Óglaigh na hEireann highly enough for the manner in which they engaged with pupils, teachers and the thousands of members of local communities who attended such events across the nation.

Similarly, our schools embraced the visits with tremendous enthusiasm, but also with great dignity and sincerity. These were events which placed the whole concept of national identity on a very tangible footing, at what we might have once called the ‘chalkface’ in our schools. They have left a lasting positive impression across everyone in the system.

Bhí sé tábhachtach don Roinn go mbeadh ár scoileanna chomh lárnach agus ab fhéidir inár gclár do 2016. Tá ríméad orm a rá gur tharla é sin ón tús. Seachadadh an chéad bhratach chuig scoil bheag i gContae Mhaigh Eo agus an ceann deireanach chuig scoil ospidéil i mBaile Átha Cliath.

Is ríléir go raibh fonn orainn scoileanna a choinneáil i gcroílár an chláir chomh maith nuair a seoladh clár foirmeálta na Roinne sna ranganna inar shuigh na Piarsaigh féin i Scoil na mBráithre Críostaí, Rae an Iarthair, Baile Átha Cliath.

It was very important for the Department that our schools were at the core of as much of our 2016 programme as possible. I am delighted to say that this was the case from the very outset. The inaugural flag delivery was to a small school in Co. Mayo and the final one was to a hospital school in Dublin.

Keeping schools at the core was also self-evident when the formal Department programme was launched, it was done in the very classrooms where the Pearse brothers had sat, at Westland Row CBS in Dublin.

Post-primary schools engaged wonderfully with a National Flag ceremony at Croke Park in March, overseen by the President and by Minister Humphries, and literally thousands of students and teachers took over the Cusack Stand for the occasion.

I won’t mention all of the competitions which were run for and by schools, but I think it is important to point out that a number of these were all-island competitions, focused on themes that have relevance to students wherever they live on the island.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Department of Education in Northern Ireland for its considerable assistance with this aspect of the programme.

Naturally, the whole area of teaching and learning has been the prime focus for the Department in terms of the day to day supports provided under Ireland 2016.

A cornerstone of this support has been our Scoilnet website, which has been bursting at the seams with ideas, resources and links. Many of these were provided by practicing teachers, all of them for teachers.

A very good indicator of the impact of Ireland 2016 in schools can be seen in the number of ‘hits’ on Scoilnet at key points this year. During a four week period before Easter this year, we had over 69,000 resources ‘clicked’, whereas in the same period in 2015, the total was just 37,000. Furthermore, of the most popular resources sought by teachers, the top ten were all connected to 1916 and history.

Up and down the country, our network of education centres contributed greatly in organising schools’ participative opportunities and providing courses for teachers who wanted to upskill and localise their focus on the events of 1916.

Knowing that many of the attendees, and quite a deal of the speakers at this conference come from the discipline of history, I think another important legacy for schools of the Ireland 2016 programme lies in the enhanced availability of historical sources of study.

Archives such as those of the Bureau of Military History, and the Letters of 1916 project have and will continue to fuel a thirst for primary research, not least among our students. They are allowing us to ‘complicate the narrative’ as many a good historian has argued for. Above all, they show us the multifaceted and fluid nature of historical knowledge.

Given the exceptional desirability that the Ireland 2016 programme would encourage reflection and reimagining of the future, I want to dwell for a moment on one other aspect of our schools programme, the one called ‘Proclamation for a New Generation’.

This opportunity for schools to compose their own proclamations, for today’s Ireland, was a central part of what was known as ‘Proclamation Day’ in schools all over the country on March 15th last.

The Proclamation project was by its very nature a perfect opportunity to promote a bottom-up approach to commemoration. It was our students, working at individual and class level, who wrote their schools’ proclamations and filled them with their visions for Ireland in 2016 and beyond.

These proclamations make for exceptional reading. They are testimony to the sense of social justice, tolerance and multiculturalism which our young people want to see across their local communities, and in their Ireland.

Ireland has, for years, promoted active participatory citizenship in its schools, and the schools’ proclamations are a great encouragement to this work.

They epitomise the value of a student-centred approach to learning, one which the Department is seeking to promote far beyond the commemoration of 1916 too.

The schools’ proclamations have also demonstrated the value of active interplay between students and teachers, with the teacher acting as the facilitator of learning, not the sole driver or transmitter of it in any narrower sense.

In speaking of the need to reflect and reimagine, I think we also need to remember that there are huge challenges in the years ahead, for schools, academics and for everyone else, as we face into the centenaries of some potentially more divisive years and events in Ireland.

I think the balance, the focus on different perspectives and on understanding of life 100 years ago which has been so admirably developed during 2016 will stand us all in good stead.

That said, these will still be significant challenges and I am hopeful that some of your deliberations at this conference will also help to illuminate possible avenues through these coming years as well.

In reflecting briefly on what we have learnt about education from the people of 1916, I do not intend to add to the extensive analysis and interpretation of ‘The Murder Machine’ today.

I would, however, like to refer to two other sources of thinking on education from that time.

Professor Joe Lee, once wrote that: ‘James Connolly was in a class of his own by the standards not only of Irish socialist but of Irish capitalist thought of his generation.’

I found Connolly particularly insightful on education too, as it happens. In 1899, he wrote in the ‘Worker’s Republic’:

Society owes a duty to these children – they are the citizens of the future; as their childhood is made happy and healthful, and therefore truly susceptible of receiving education, so will their manhood and womanhood tend to become; so will the civilization they would be worthy of an enlightened people.

Connolly’s core point, about seeing children as the citizens of the future, and leaving them capable of the task of social reconstruction, is a vital one. Education is about empowerment, and about enabling society to improve as each generation passes.

I would also like to refer to the democratic programme of the First Dáil Éireann in 1919. On the matter of education, it declared:

  • ‘It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.’

I have no doubt that the education system, and most definitely our teachers within that, are the greatest bulwark we possess against the vicissitudes of national and global challenges. Whether we are concerned about literacy, numeracy, the digital age, violent extremism or even Brexit, we must protect and advance the cause of education.

This, appropriately, brings me to higher education. Firstly, I want to thank not only NUIG, but almost all of our higher education institutions for your own engagement with 2016 commemorative themes.

The Higher Education sector in Ireland provides a special,  indeed arguably a unique,  place in which we as a community provide the vital time and space to reflect, to research  and to debate and by doing so to contribute to our better understanding of the world in which we live.   The long and cherished tradition of academic freedom is a cornerstone of how we view ourselves as a strong democracy with an important place in the world.    

And despite all of the difficulties which the State has faced over its lifetime, this principle has been protected and I would argue enhanced.  A high quality higher education system is central to the kind of country which Ireland aspires to be - an aspiration shared by those who actively sought the national sovereignty which we enjoy today.   Many of those involved were academics, graduates and students and this is reflected in the strands of the complex narrative which you are considering at this conference.

Your academics and students have collectively brought together an understanding of the complexity of the past andanalysedthis with a view to informing understandings of present and options and ideas for the future.   By better understanding our history and culture – both national and global – we can better engage with the contemporary and with the future.

And looking to the future, it is appropriate that we learn the lessons of the past as we move into the century that follows on from the momentous events of 1916.   We are likely to continue to face major challenges in the development of the State, challenges which can only be overcome by creating a shared sense of a common purpose as a country.   Here again, the role of Higher Education as a place where greater understandings can be reached and specifically where society more generally can engage with important questions which impact on all our lives.

We continue to support our creative and innovative researchers and teachers, empowering them to develop new ideas and cutting –edge expertise that can be harnessed to yield economic, cultural and societal benefits at home and internationally.   We have invested in digitising and making widely available our extraordinarily rich holdings of material from the period so as to promote greater understanding of the complexities of the issues.

Through the Irish Research Council we supported flagship research projects related to the period 1912-1922 where the breadth, diversity and range of the projects are a reminder that Ireland, and being Irish, is complex and can be expressed in a myriad ways.   That the themes included music and identity, commemoration and how we commemorate, Irish soldiers in WWI, and women and revolution gives a flavour of the scale and range of relevant perspectives.

In concluding, I would like to pay particular thanks to the overall steering role of so many esteemed academics on the Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations, under the chairmanship of Dr Maurice Manning. I know there are many of you here today.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.