Culture in the Classroom (2)
In Northern Ireland there are a number of different school sectors with controlled schools, Roman Catholic maintained schools, voluntary grammar schools, integrated schools and Irish medium schools. How is culture handled in each of these sectors and what are the differences among them?
Irish medium schools, with their emphasis on the Irish language and culture, provide a rich cultural education for children who attend them. Moreover in at least some of the schools there is a strong Irish nationalist ethos as well as an Irish cultural ethos.
Scoil na Fuiseoige is an Irish medium school in the Twinbrook area of West Belfast and according to the Sinn Fein newspaper An Phoblacht (28 October 2004):
Scoil na Fuiseoige, built on the site of the first Twinbrook Residents Association established by Bobby Sands, takes its name from Sands' story - written while he was on the Blanket protest - of The Lark and the Freedom Fighter. Lark is the English word for fuiseog.
Bobby Sands is certainly set up as a role model for the children and an Irish language biography of the IRA hunger-striker was specially prepared for children by Denis O'Hearn of Queen's University and another former hunger-striker, Laurence McKeown, Copies of the book were officially presented to Bunscoil an Iuir, an Irish medium school in Newry, by Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy.
Roman Catholic maintained schools also provide an Irish cultural dimension for children through the teaching of the Irish language and Irish cultural activities, such as Gaelic sports, Irish dancing and Irish traditional music. This was noted by Dr Jude Collins, who was the senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Ulster:
Catholic education supports a sense of Irish identity. The schools don’t talk a lot about this in their official curriculum, but it’s part of what they do. Children attending Catholic schools are helped to see that … Irish music and Irish games and the Irish language are a wonderful source of fun and fulfilment, as well as a rich heritage to be proud of. They give children an Irish lens through which to view the world. [Daily Ireland 24 November 2005]
It was also noted by journalist Malachi O’Doherty:
If you had asked Catholic parents and teachers what the strength of those schools was they would have a range of arguments. … Catholics needed a separate system within which their gaelic culture might thrive. And there was some point in this, too. It’s hard to imagine that had I been sent to a state school rather than to the Christian Brothers that I would have learned Irish or ever wielded a hurley stick. [Belfast Telegraph 28 October 2010]
Even Bishop Donal McKeown, when he addressed the Irish Inter-Church Meeting in Swords on 22 October 2010, admitted that:
There are not a few who have seen Catholic schools as wonderful places for protecting gaelic culture. For some, if it came to a choice between faith and culture, the latter might seem more important.
You couldn’t get it much clearer than that. Roman Catholic schools have a religious ethos but they also have a strong cultural ethos. They are Roman Catholic schools but they are also Irish schools because they teach Irish culture and affirm an Irish identity.
During a visit to one Roman Catholic school I was interested to hear that they even put on a school play about the Irish republican rebel Robert Emmet (1778-1803), who was executed after staging an abortive rebellion.
The situation in the controlled sector is very different and overall there has been a much more tentative and nervous approach to culture. We might expect that in most controlled schools, where the vast majority of children are from the unionist community, they would be able to experience and enjoy the cultures of their community but quite often that has not been the case. For example, a Roman Catholic school will have an Irish traditional music group but how many controlled schools in unionist communities will have a flute band, a pipe band, an accordion band or a Lambeg and fife group. I know of some who do but they are few and far between.
Voluntary grammar schools, other than Roman Catholic grammar schools, are generally fairly circumspect about culture, although some of them have used the Gael Linn programme of Gaelic enrichment.
Integrated schools should accommodate the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland although in some of them there appears to be a greater emphasis on Gaelic culture than might be expected.
The sector where there is most work to be done is clearly the controlled sector. The Ulster-Scots Agency has provided peripatetic tutors in areas such as Lambeg drum and fife and they have also supported Ulster-Scots summer-schemes in schools but such work must be mainstreamed. The cultures of the children should not be relegated to an add-on but should be part of the life and the cultural ethos of the school.
If we are building a 'shared and better future' in Northern Ireland then children should also learn about other traditional cultures but they do have a right, as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to learn about and enjoy their own culture.