The Irish Question a blended lesson

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The Irish Question - a blended lesson

by V. Tenedini

Here follows my unit on the Irish Question, which I present to my fifth year students while dealing with the main issues of the beginning of the 20th century.

The text of my lesson displays contents adapted both from school textbooks ( Now and Then ed- Zanichelli, Millennium vol 2 ed. C. Signorelli Scuola) and visits to authentic Irish sights and exhibitions, namely : The national Gallery Dublin, Collins Barracks – Dublin ).

The unit can also be complemented by:

  • Footage on the Easter Rising and a selection of TV documentaries on more recent incidents

  • poetry: e.g. Easter 1916 by W.B. Yeats;

  • musical videos, e.g. ‘Through the barricades’ by Spandau Ballet;

  • Films: Michael Collins by Neil Jordan,1996, (awarded at the Venice Cinema Festival),

In the name of the father by Jim Sheridan 1993,

Bloody Sunday by Paul Greengrass 2003,

Hunger by Steve McQueen, 2008, (awarded at the BAFTA),

The latter is based on the book ‘The diary of Bobby Sands’, [Published by Roberts Rinehart Publishers. Copyright The Bobby Sands Trust, 1983]

available on

or in Italian published by Castelvecchio editore.

Richard Thomas Moynan, Irish, 1856-1906 'Military Manoeuvres', 1891 National Gallery of Ireland –


The Easter Rising

The road leading to Irish independence was a long and difficult one. Already in 1886 a bill granting Home Rule — that is, full political independence — to Ireland was defeated in the British Parliament: the bill had been promoted by the joint efforts of Charles Parnell, the father of Irish independence, and the Liberal British Prime Minister, William Gladstone Two more Home Rule Bills were rejected until, in 1913, a third one was finally going to be passed. The House of Commons, however, deferred Home Rule for Ireland until the end of the war.

Outraged at such a decision, in 1916 the Irish Republicans organized a revolt known as the Easter Rising. On 24 April 1916 – Easter Monday – the rebels took DubIin`s strategic points by siege (ending up with the GPO); fighting raged for seven days as a small group of poorly armed Irish patriots defied British police and army units. The revolt, however, was ruthlessly put down by the British army and 15 of the rebels, including their leader Patrick Pearse, were imprisoned in Kilmhainhan Gaol and executed. Such a hasty (court-martial like) resolution set the national spirit on fire thus, despite its failure, the Easter rising was the real beginning of Irish independence. (‘A terrible beauty is born’ Easter 1916 – W.B. Yeats)

The authentic Republican Flag on display at the Military Museum Colin Barracks Dublin

The Irish War of Independence

Irish rebels had been supported economically by the Irish immigrants in the US for decades. One of the Irish armed groups was the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, (‘ourselves alone’ in the Gaelic language – founded in 1905) which in the 1918 election won throughout Ireland, except in Ulster, whose population was predominantly protestants, having British ancestry.

The newly-elected Irish MPs did not join the UK Parliament, but on 12th April 1919 set their own Parliament in Dublin ‘the Dail,’ announcing that Ireland was now a republic (having her own republican parliament and law courts).

A War of Independence followed, led by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) under the leadership of Michael Collins and Sinn Féin; in reply the British sent the ‘Black and Tans’, a special police force, known for their ruthless methods. A long and bloody war ensued, which finally led to the signing of a treaty in 1921 and with the establishment of the Irish Free State under the leadership of Eamon De Valera (a survivor of the Easter Rising 1882-1975); Ireland was now independent but still a dominion –with Commonwealth membership. Only Ulster, or Northern Ireland, remained part of the UK (i.e. under the jurisdiction of the British government in London - officially because the majority of inhabitants were of English or Scottish descents.

The Irish Republic. The Anglo—Irish Treaty of 1921, which was not satisfactory to everyone, led to a Civil War (1922-23) in which the IRA split into two factions: the republicans (also called the ‘Irregulars’) on one side and the forces of the New Free State or ‘the Irish Free state army’ on the other. The irregulars were defeated but did not surrender their arms, though, and went on fighting intermittently until they were declared illegal in 1931.

After the 1932 election, however, the new Prime Minister, Eamon de Valera began work towards the foundation of the Republic of Ireland (Eire), which was officially recognized in 1949 putting an end to Commonwealth membership.

The roots of the Troubles

The partition of Ireland left a number of problems unresolved and was the cause of the infamous "TroubIes" in the 60s, 70s, 80s (terrorist attacks both in Ireland and the UK, continuous friction between the catholic and the protestant living in Ulster — the most troubled cities being Belfast and Derry).

In the late 90's a decisive ceasefire was reached, thanks to the commitment of the Blair government (supported by the US president Bill Clinton), and the negotiation of the political Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Sean Keating, Irish, 1889-1977 An Allegory, c.1922 Oil on canvas 102 x 130 cm National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin

An Allegory was painted towards the end of 1922, at a time when civil war was raging in Ireland. It depicts disparate groups of people connected with this event but who, to all intents and purposes, seem to be unaware of each other's presence. The setting is in a parkland before a large gutted house. In the foreground, which is dominated by the gnarled trunk of a tree, members of the regular and irregular armies dig a grave. A coffin draped in the tricolour flag of Ireland lies on the ground beside them. Close by, a clergyman converses with a man in business attire. Two more figures are seated at the base of the great oak tree, a mother holding a child to her breast and a man reclining on the ground, full of brooding intensity.

The painting obliquely conveys two messages: the loss of ideals for Ireland as a consequence of the Civil War, and the artist's personal response to this. After the valiant fight to gain independence, nationalistic ideals were ruthlessly sacrificed for radically different visions of freedom. The reference to the dead and the ruined house behind are reminders of the destructive force conflict. The two figures who dig the grave, symbolically turned away from each other, indicate the internecine horror of civil war. The other figures in the painting are representative of the tragedy that engulfed all sections of Irish society. The glowering, sprawling figure in the foreground is a self-portrait of the artist, registering his bitter disillusionment at this turn of events.

Sean Keating is best known for his treatment of contemporary Irish themes, and also for his portrayal of rugged Irish types. (National Gallery of Ireland: Essential Guide, 2008 - The National Gallery official website:$0040/7/sortNumber-asc?t:state:flow=add17ebf-7569-452b-bd1f-5c548f2946ac)

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