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One History, Different Versions

Irish schoolchildren may be uniformly familiar with the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. But the way they differ on its meaning reflects the depth of Ireland's divide.

Irish Catholics and Protestants adopt diametrically opposed views about the famous event, at which England's King William III forestalled James II's attempt to regain the English throne: For Protestants, it was a famous victory. For Catholics, the beginning of the domination of Northern Ireland by the English.

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Now, politicians in Ireland and Britain are proposing that students in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland be taught history in ways that promote understanding between two hitherto opposed communities.

Moves are even afoot to produce history textbooks that can be used in both parts of Ireland.

The idea, says Dublin politician Marian McGennis, is to make the teaching of history in schools part of the process of reconciliation.

"Pupils are too often taught history that is colored by conflicting sectarian and political beliefs," she says.

Ms. McGennis is a member of a joint committee of the British and Irish parliaments out to help schoolbooks take a more evenhanded approach to Ireland's past.

Historians say the neutral approach looks difficult, given the bitterness over more recent events than Boyne, such as 1972's "Bloody Sunday," when British security forces fired on Catholic protesters in Northern Ireland, killing 14 people. Catholics view it as an unwarranted attack. Many Protestants see the event as a security measure needed to contain a riot.

But members of the committee are taking their cue from Micheal Martin, the Irish Republic's education minister, who says "education is the key to reconciliation."

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The challenge, says Belfast-based historian Paul Bew, is to find interpretations "that respect the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions of a divided Ireland. A lot of serious thought has gone into this issue already, but a lot more will be needed," he says.

Schoolchildren in the Irish Republic are taught that auxiliary police, known as "B Specials," in Northern Ireland in the post-World War II period, represented "the armed might of the Protestant state." Textbooks call them "trigger happy."

A standard history text in Northern Ireland's secondary schools describes the B Specials simply as "a mainly Protestant force ... distrusted and feared by the Catholic population."

Sabine Wichert, a historian at Queen's University in Belfast, says the differences of approach show how hard it is to keep sectarian feelings out of the teaching of history. "Only by assuming from the outset that every side is 'right' from their own perspective can the historian hope to understand and explain why things happened in the particular way they did," she says. "What is required is empathy, rather than sympathy."

The real point, Dr. Wichert says, is "not history itself, but what you take out of it, and what use you put it to."

Assuming Northern Ireland achieves a lasting political settlement, and relations with the Irish Republic remain good, "it will probably take at least a generation for history to cease to be a divisive factor," she says.

Efforts to encourage students to learn history in ways that bring people together, or at least help them to understand each other better, are already under way.

Sandra Gillespie, a history teacher at Bangor High School near Belfast and author of a school textbook, "Northern Ireland and Its Neighbours Since 1920," says texts are important. But, she adds, "the real key is how the facts of history contained in books are delivered to children.

"History is not just about learning a body of knowledge. It is about problem-solving - getting people to analyze different approaches to the same problem, and using evidence to produce a logical argument."

Ms. Gillespie says the way to achieve this is "for teachers to press home the point that history is about looking at evidence and evaluating it, not starting from a position of bias."

Sean Connolly, one of Ireland's most distinguished historians, agrees, but warns that making such attitudes stick in peoples' minds will be far from easy.

In his just-published "Oxford Companion to Irish History," Professor Connolly, who comes from the Irish Republic but lives in Northern Ireland, notes that historians are still arguing about Eamon de Valera, the leader of the post-independence Irish Republic earlier this century.

"There is no biography of de Valera that all can agree is satisfactory," he says.

English writer Victoria Glendinning uses vivid metaphors to explain why this is so, and why teaching - and learning - Irish history are such "tricky tasks."

"Irish history writing is not a minefield, since land mines are buried," she says. "It seems, rather, festooned with highly visible razor wire." She adds: "Irish history is still in its brawling infancy."

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