Knowing your country’s history, past or contemporary: I sometimes wonder if it matters. There’s a famous case of a youngster at comprehensive school in the 1960s, who at fifteen years of age couldn’t tell an inspector the name of the prime minister of the day (Harold Wilson). This was held up as a damning example of low standards in comprehensives. My question always was: “What good would it have done her, what would it have proved, if she’d known his name?” Facts are dead things until we do something meaningful with them.
I comfort myself with that conclusion when I discover another fact I didn’t know. This morning, for example – Easter Monday, the anniversary of the Easter Rising – I discovered for the first time that Padraig Pearse’s father was an English stonemason and atheist, who came over here to make a living from the boom in Catholic church building that followed Catholic Emancipation in 1829. He was married twice, with two surviving children from the first marriage (his wife died), then Patrick and Willie from the second. So, since neither Patrick nor Willie married, any descendants are from Pearse’s father’s first marriage.
As for Padraig Pearse himself: he was a Home Ruler in 1912, a dead revolutionary in 1916. His famous call for a blood sacrifice had as much bearing on the need for that sacrifice in the Great War as it did on the need for it in Ireland’s cause. And he was a man who teemed with ideas about education: in the early part of the twentieth century, his ideas about putting the child at the centre of the education system were revolutionary.
Does knowing those facts about Pearse make me or anyone else a better Irish person? I think not. It’s like wearing an Easter lily – good to have, but something stuck in your head or your lapel doesn’t prove a thing. It’s a good starting point, though.