Sunday, 12 October 2014

Irish Lives in War and Revolution

How were people’s private lives, and their economic and social lives, impacted by war and rebellion in Ireland during the period 1912 to 1923? That question is the basis of an online course by historians from Trinity College that I've completed over the past six weeks.

The question piqued my curiosity as a challenge to the historical narrative I was taught at school in Dublin in the 1970’s. I learned history as a linear plot, nationalism fighting colonialism over many centuries and culminating in the glorious rebellion of 1916. I've since come to appreciate that the reality was a lot more messy and ambiguous than those childish stories, and this course facilitates a well-thought-out investigation of these ambiguities.

The platform for the delivery of the course is FutureLearn, developed by the Open University in the UK. It’s simple and easy-to-use so, as a software-developer, I appreciate that a great deal of thought has gone in to its design. The platform facilitates interaction between the people taking the course and this is one of its most successful aspects.  By liking contributions from others and following them you participate in engaging discussions and after six weeks the depth and breadth of these discussions has become quite impressive.

The time is right for this online course too: with the centenary of this tumultuous decade upon us there have been huge efforts across Europe to make original source material available online. Some of the new treasures I discovered were:

 And there is more material being made available online all the time.

One of the topics I found most interesting was the connection between the events in Ireland and the Great War. I had always seen these as two completely separate things: now I appreciate that the war was a huge influence on Irish society. Many young men volunteered to fight in the trenches, for and alongside their colonial ‘masters’, and one sixth of them died there – this is a history that has long been ignored (or willfully forgotten) in post-independence Ireland. It illustrated the ambiguities of the era when you consider that in 1914 volunteering to fight in the British Army was a valid choice for an Irish Nationalist, whereas by 1919 the ‘right thing to do’ was to fight a guerrilla war against the same British Army, perhaps against your old comrades-in-arms.

Another interesting topic is to consider other life-changing influences at play in the same time: the fight for workers’ and women’s rights, or the expectations brought by cinema and gramophone records. Did these have a greater influence on more people's lives than the wars? It's a possibility. After all, the immediate impact of war and rebellion in Ireland was more limited than that experienced in France or Belgium, for example.

All in all it’s been a fascinating course and a fine piece of work by the three historians behind it, Professor Ciaran Brady, Dr. Anne Dolan and Dr. Ciaran Wallace.

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