Northern Ireland

Myth and history: the Story of Ireland

St Patrick wrangling snakes on an ancient Irish artifact
Image caption The Story of Ireland tackles long-standing ideas about Irish history

Have you heard the one about the Irish Kings of England? Or that the Romans thought Ireland was inhabited by cannibals? Are the Irish really Celts?

The Story of Ireland is a major new series from BBC Northern Ireland and RTE examining the history of Ireland and its impact on the wider world, from the earliest times right up to the fall of the Celtic Tiger. The five-part series is written and presented by BBC correspondent Fergal Keane.

Over the course of the series Fergal travels across three continents, tracing the events, the people and the influences that shaped modern Ireland.

The veteran journalist said the idea for the series came from watching the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

"When I was watching the signing of the Good Friday agreement almost in a state of disbelief, it did set me to thinking, where did all this come from and where might it all lead?" he said.

"It's a fascinating time in the history of Ireland, because on the one hand you have this economic trauma taking place in the Republic, while at the same time you have the beginning of the resolution of hundreds of years of conflict in the north of the island.

He said The Story of Ireland tackles the misconception that the history of the island is simply one of conflict between the Irish and the English.

"I was a reporter in Belfast for quite a few years and I think one of the problems in the Troubles is that our historical context is very limited, it was really the politics of the last atrocity. What we tried to do with this is to see Ireland in a much bigger sense and to look much further back.

"All nations have their myths of origin. Part of the whole business of creating a nation is that you need a myth and the great myth of the Irish nation is that it was Catholic and Gaelic for all time and forever more, and of course that's not the truth of who we are or who we were.

The series begins by exploring the prehistoric Ireland and examines the myth of the Irish as a Celtic race.

'Different myths'

The first episode contains quite a few surprises, such as evidence of ancient Irish Kingdoms in England and the Roman view of the island as a land of cannibals.

The remaining four programmes take in such events as the Anglo-Norman invasion, Ireland's role in the British Empire, the Great Famine and the outbreak of the Troubles.

Finally, Ireland's economic boom comes under the spotlight, asking how the country's history, as perceived by the rest of the world, has become big business and questions whether this excludes contrary views with a theme very much placed on an 'old' version of Irish history.

At a time of economic and political upheaval, Fergal thinks the question of where the people of this island have come from is essential if they want to work out where they are going.

"It's an important time for this series to come along because there's a lot of gloom around, a lot of despondency. I think people need some sense of perspective, these are certainly very hard times and dreadful mistakes have been made.

"But if we look at the long history of this island, north and south, we see that the peoples of Ireland are very resilient, we're very resourceful, and we have the capacity to get things right and to put right the mistakes of the past, witness Northern Ireland."

History, or various interpretations of it, has of course played a significant role in the turbulent existence of Northern Ireland.

"It's inevitable in a divided society that you get the creation of two different myths of victim hood, myths of sacrifice mixed with large elements of truth, which is what makes them so potent." Fergal said.

'Process of history'

"I've seen it in Bosnia, I've seen it in Rwanda, I've seen it in every single ethnically or religiously divided society that I've reported on, it is not unique to Ireland. The key dynamic in those societies is fear and people tell themselves the history they need in order to overcome their fear and to give them justification for what they do, but fairly rarely is it the real history."

Challenging these narrow versions of history means not restricting the Story of Ireland to just what happened on the island.

The Irish have taken part in historical events throughout the world. From the story of Bernardo O'Higgins, who fought to free Chile from the Spanish to Irish participation on both sides of the Boer War.

Image caption Fergal travels across three continents, tracing the events, the people and the influences that shaped modern Ireland

"If you asked anybody in Ireland about the Irish in the Boer war they wouldn't have a clue, and yet there are people in South Africa who remember that very clearly," explained Fergal.

"And similarly in America, the Irish contribution to the civil war is well-remembered, and the politics that created the great Democratic Party was exported from Ireland to America after it was invented by Daniel O'Connell in the 1820s."

Fergal said he hopes viewers come away from the programme realising that the past was a lot more complicated and interesting than they thought.

"People may have very definite ideas about Irish history, but the whole process of history and of learning is to challenge those ideas," he said.

"The truly open mind is never afraid to challenge anything. You may challenge things and find out you still believe the same thing, but you have an obligation to challenge them."

The Story Of Ireland is a BBC Northern Ireland series with co-funding from RTE and begins on BBC One Northern Ireland on Sunday 20 February at 2000 GMT.

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