It is often said that the Irish educational system has become over-competitive, with a disproportionate emphasis on the points race and so on. This is absolutely true, but the Irish system pales in comparison with the French one. There, for example, as well as the universities, there is a whole range of elite schools (the ‘Grandes Écoles’, dating from the Revolution) to train engineers, administrators, artists, teachers, scientists and even soldiers. These are very difficult to get into, to the extent that there are special secondary schools whose purpose is to prepare students for the entrance exams.
Alongside this, there is a system of national exams, some also dating from the eighteenth century, to become a teacher, a university lecturer or a judge. These are highly competitive, and students usually spend a year or more preparing for them. The best known is probably the agrégation, a teaching licence for universities or higher secondary schools. It is highly competitive – in the history agrégation in 2014, 800 took the exam, but only 100 succeeded.
The curriculum for these competitions changes every two years, and for 2015 and 2016, the agrégation in English (which features the sociology and history of English-speaking countries as well as language and literature) includes an element on the Great Irish Famine. As a result, there has been a series of conferences and events focussing on the Famine and a number of books on the Famine have appeared in French over the last six months.
In December, Cormac Ó Gráda and I spoke at a workshop in Toulouse
and at a conference in Bordeaux.
There was another conference in Paris, also in December.
One of the speakers at the Bordeaux and Paris events was Laurent Colantonio, a scholar of O’Connell and democracy who teaches in the university of Poitiers. He has has co-authored a survey of the Famine with Fabrice Bensimon, a political historian of 19th-century England.
Another book is by Philippe Brillet, a geographer who teaches English and Irish studies in the university of Toulouse.
The last book is a collection of essays published by the university press of Rennes. Half of the essays are in French, half are in English.
For an Irish historian, all these books, the first two in particular, are fascinating to read. They are written for a non-Irish audience by non-Irish writers (there is one Irish contributor in the book of essays) and also for readers who are students of English rather than history. They take a thematic and very structured approach, whereas surveys by Irish historians for an English-speaking (largely Irish) audience tend to take a chronological approach. I’ll order them for the NUI Galway library so that you can judge for yourselves!
Niall Ó Ciosáin