Ár dTír Féin: The skills we need for the future

January 3, 2020

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by Ted Fleming, Columbia University

The Carnegie UK Trust-TASC Ensuring Good Future Jobs essay collection describes many of the key challenges faced by workers in Ireland today, and proposes a series of policy and practice changes to ensure good future jobs. First published on 28 November, as a coordinated response to the Irish Government’s first Future Jobs Strategy, this blog series showcases the contributions by key social partners in Ireland to the collection.

I recently found in our attic some well-used primary school textbooks from the 1950s. Among them was Ó Duirinne’s Tír na hÉireann: Leabhar ar Ṫir-eolas ár dTíre féin (The Country of Ireland: A Book on the Geography of our own Country). Its first sentence asks the reader to look at a map of Europe where you see two islands beyond the mainland. The smallest and furthest out is Ireland – “ár dtír féin (p. 5). It states that there is no land that gets in the way of ships going back and forth to America across the busiest trade route in the world (sic). The key phrase is “ár dtír féin” (our own country). This school book in Irish was part of a remarkable project of nation-building with its strong self-images and national pride. Following the disastrous Economic War of the 1930s and the World War of the 1940s, it was time to build “ár dtír féin”.

While some were learning about Ireland (including the route to America!) others were not learning a great deal in this bi-lingual world of 1950s catholic national schools. A view of Ireland as an independent confident nation with its own language and culture was in contrast to the economic reality experienced by many others. From this era, we inherited high emigration, unemployment and low levels of literacy. During the following decades, a great deal of educational energy was expended supporting economic development including free secondary and third-level education, the innovative Institutes of Technology and increased third-level participation. It came as a shock to the system when the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) produced empirical evidence of low literacy levels (Morgan, et al., 1997). There were 500,000 people unable to read the instructions on a box of Aspirin. These many educational interventions have been successful – to a point. Though well-intended these policies have had mixed results. Some people have been left behind.

Literacy is still a priority in further education (FE) courses and is an important piece of the learning landscape as Ireland continues to plot its development as an economy. The current search for a Future Jobs Strategy is an opportunity to reorient the vector of development and maintain literacy as a priority. This is proposed knowing that education is highly valued in our society as a way of enhancing social and economic mobility.

Literacy involves an ability to read and write a range of typical and functional texts but in adult education theory and practice, literacy has a broader definition. It is understood as the ability to engage in contextualized debates and read in ways that are more than functional and focused on the requirements of a job. Reading may involve understanding how society is structured and organized. This reading involves being able to understand that behind “common sense” ways of seeing the world there are more critical and layered meanings. The ability to ask questions, especially about how power is exercised, is an example of what is called reading the world (thinking of Paulo Freire here). One can read or understand global warming in a way that might lead one to think of actions that one might take as an individual, as a community or as a society. This is a form of literacy.

This kind of literacy is not just a matter of decoding the string of letters in a word or the meanings of words in a sentence. It is a matter of decoding context. It is about the matrix of things referred to in a text and things implied by it. For example, take this sentence about the Land League: “it was a struggle for farming land in 19th century Ireland and was about security of tenure and fixed rents”. Literacy is more than the ability to read or understand this set of facts and more than knowing about Michael Davitt. It is also the ability to extrapolate and contextualise the nature of land ownership then and now. Why are property rents so high today? What are the consequences of this? If banks and government and landlords are at the centre of power why are so many homeless today? Are 19th-century evictions connected (or not) to current homelessness?

Many other questions about who we are today might be explored. Travellers, disability, inequality, democracy, a republic, Brexit, climate change could be studied. Literacy of this kind might be described as a form of “social infrastructure” that needs to be at the front of all education and given a priority in public policy, education and training including a Future Jobs Strategy.

We could ask, following a current debate in the United States (Liu, 2019), what does every Irish person need to know? As yet, we have no idea what knowledge or literacies are required to be an Irish citizen. What knowledge is necessary to have the appropriate “social infrastructure” required for a healthy, thriving, egalitarian society? Why build an economy and not a nation? How many people could quote any part of the Easter Proclamation of 1916? It says:

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland…

The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally….”

We have no idea in Ireland what literacy is required to lift us beyond being just an economy to become a Republic, a democracy, a society that works as hard for human rights and worker’s rights and freedom as it does for the economy. Who we are and who we will be is a task that requires, as it always did, literate and critical citizens. We will not Google our way to this.

At least the school textbooks of 1950 had a version of Irish identity. We hardly noticed its hidden curriculum and we can be critical of that too. The current (not so) hidden curriculum is to draw a line around knowledge and literacies that are functional and useful for an economy, and in its focus on training, it ignores education. In the context of lifelong learning and a national jobs strategy, it might be a worthwhile goal to include broader social learning goals. As a result, a competitive economy may result in a healthy, fulfilling and equal society and it may indeed contribute to becoming “ár dtír féin” – our own country!



 Liu, E. (2015). ‘What every American should know’, The Atlantic, 3 July, Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/what-every-american-should-know/397334/

Morgan, M., Hickey, B., & Kellaghan, T. (1997). Report to the Minister for Education on the International Adult Literacy Survey: Results for Ireland. Drumcondra, Dublin: St. Patrick’s College.

Ó Duirinne, S. (n.d.). Tír na hÉireann: Leabhar ar dṪir-eolas ár dTíre féin Edited by An Seaḃac (The Hawk). Dublin: Cóṁluċt Oideachais na hÉireann.