Teaching the Rising

It is ten years now since I first taught W.B. Yeats on a second year course at Queen’s University, Belfast, and many more since I was forced to learn ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by rote in primary school. For those of us who teach outside of Ireland, it can require a shift in our perspective when setting those texts that we know so well to students who do not.

I am a contemporary critic by trade (indeed, the words ‘Twenty-First Century’ are in my job description) but, like most lecturers, I teach inside and outside of my specialism.  My current module, for students on English programmes at the University of Salford,  Revival and Revolution: Irish Literature 1890-1930 is a popular second year option that is taught alongside my colleague Jade Munslow Ong’s core Victorian Literature and her option Gender, Race and Empire. It prepares students for my core module on Modernism in final year, and gives them the contextual basis for Alternative Ulster, the module with the best theme song going.

Revival and Revolution spans the period, broadly, of Home Rule to the Free State. It is understandably Yeats heavy, but we do get stuck into Elizabeth Bowen, George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Synge, Alice Milligan, Sean O’Casey and Augusta Gregory.

Of course, teaching this topic has an added frisson this year as the centenary commemorations get into full swing. This has a twofold effect: there are lots of resources available for teaching and learning but also 1916 fatigue has set in among many Irish Studies academics as email after email arrives proclaiming the Republic. Events are taking place in every corner of Ireland, the UK and the rest of the world and as the communications manager for the British Association for Irish Studies, they land in my inbox with some frequency.

The issue in the classroom is this: how do you discuss the political relevance of this period without falling into easy narratives which elide some of the voices that are often failed by mainstream scholarship? This is where I think literature can act as an interesting counterweight to some mainstream history-writing, you can teach a Pearse speech alongside The Plough and the Stars, or Cathleen Ni Houlihan alongside the writing of Eva Gore-Booth. The literature of the period allows for a variety of perspectives, and hopefully gives our students a wider, richer picture of the time than can be present on our television screens.

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As part of my teaching resources, I’ve compiled a list of a few websites that I’ve found  useful in the classroom for developing this richer picture of understanding which is so important for these literary representations.

Hopefully you find the list useful, and I’d love to hear about your experiences of teaching this period.

  1. The Centenary Programme from the Irish Embassy. I hope as many of my students get to these events as possible, many of them are local to us and involve excellent scholars, such as the programme at the Institute of Irish Studies in Liverpool.
  2. Speaking of Liverpool, this year the conference of the Irish Historians in Britain, on the theme of Irish Revolutions, takes place there. The organisation has produced an excellent resource, a blog which showcases articles on the theme of ‘Alternative 1916′ which are thought-provoking and by some of the best scholars in the field. Great for students and stimulating debate in the classroom.
  3. You could lose hours in the National Library’s online Yeats exhibition, and the sections on myth and the occult are particularly strong.
  4. The Century Project from The Irish Times is good for stoking debate on the relevance of the Rising and Revival to contemporary Ireland.
  5. The socially connected Waking the Feminists site demonstrates that ideas around gender and the Abbey are still contested and vital.
  6. Google’s Virtual Tour of the Rising will be particularly helpful when we look at O’Casey’s mapping of Dublin.
  7. The audio-visual resources of Century Ireland will help us understand the continuum of events during that decade.

Do send me any further recommendations on Twitter. Our excellent library service has allowed me to put together a reading list that showcases the real strength in Irish literary criticism and history-writing about this period, but it’s always great to have a few things up your sleeve in the classroom.

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