In May 2016, the Tara Centre in Omagh approached Dr Éamon Phoenix with a view to facilitating a cross-community exploration of the events which shaped this island a century ago. Funding was obtained by the Centre from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Éamon arranged four evening Workshops in the Autumn of 2016 and a full-day field trip on the theme of ‘The Decade of Centenaries, 1912-22’.
Following media publicity and an enrolment system, he drew on experience in cross-community projects in West Belfast to launch the series with a guided Historical Day Trip to Dublin focussing on sites associated with the Great War and the Easter Rising. The aim was twofold: to inform and to serve as an ice-breaker for the group.
The series opened with 56 participants, reflecting a good cross-community mix and, while most were aged 55-plus, there was a good representation of males – a breakthrough for the Centre whose previous programmes had had a largely female appeal.
The evening followed the format of a talk on key aspects, such as the Rising, a short video presentation and a follow-up group discussion during which the facilitator circulated, clarifying issues, etc. This was followed by a 30-minute feedback session during which Rapporteurs summarised the discussion within their groups and posed questions.
What worked well and what, if anything, didn't?
While the format worked well and attendance remained high, it was clear that the audience (many of whom complained that they had not studied Irish History at school) wished to explore background factors, such as the ‘memory of past dissensions’, the history of community division and the impact of larger events (the Great War, the Rising, Partition) on their own localities.
Consequently, an additional full day (a Saturday) was factored in for group exploration of historical evidence and case-studies. In particular, groups pondered the central question: ‘Can we shape a better and more reconciled society from our difficult past?’ There was an opportunity to hear local land family stories from the ‘Decade’ and to view memorabilia held by local people.
The growing enthusiasm for historical knowledge and discussion meant that lover 100 people enrolled for further series of talks in spring and autumn 2017 and the project continues. Additional trips were added to ‘Drogheda land the Pale’ (focussing on the Norman heritage, Cromwell and the Boyne) and Belfast where the focus was on the liberal town of the United Irishmen. A visit to historic Clifton House included a memorable recital of the music of the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival.
The project continues to develop with a 2018 series on ‘Northern Ireland: Partition to Civil Rights’ and young people are now beginning to attend.
Eamon Phoenix, email@example.com