Military History and Stunning Sea Views at Charles Fort

Kinsale, County Cork was one of my favourite spots in Ireland.  The quaint seaside town had small narrow streets, delicious sea food, and a number of local attractions.  Charles Fort located 2km outside of Kinsale is a 17th century star shaped fort.  The distance to the Fort is walkable from the town and the views on the hilly walk of the harbour below are fantastic.

Charles Fort was built by William Robinson, the same architect who built the Royal Hospital Kilmainham that I visited while in Dublin. Designed in the shape of a star, Charles Fort was built to be highly defensible from the water and resistant to cannon fire. However, because of budget reasons the fort was not completed according to Robinson’s original design and the land facing side of the fort was not as defensible as originally planned.  A land based siege during the Williamte War (1689-1691) was successful in defeating the meager land side defense and highlights the flawed nature of Charles Fort.

Mosaic map of Charles Fort

Given how small Kinsale is I was surprised by how busy Charles Fort was during my visit.  There were a couple tour buses and a school group at the site when I arrived.  The site is expansive with layers of fortification to explore, so even though the site was busy there was still lots of room to walk around and not feel crowded. 

There is an exhibition space in what was once barracks that describes the history the area, the building of the fort and the main battles faced by the fort.   The space contains artifacts, text, and audio-visual material that highlight the different occupants of the Fort and the experience of the soldiers who stayed in the Fort. There is also a small photo exhibition in the former power magazine which shows how the power magazine operated and other aspects of military life at the Fort. 

One of the more visual features of Charles Fort is the ‘blast wall’ construction that exists around the perimeter of the Fort.  The thick exterior walls of the fort are surrounded by sections of earth, which are followed by another interior wall.  The sections of earth were included as a means of making the fort stronger in the face of cannonballs.  The earth would absorb the shock of cannonball fire and not crumble in the way that stonewalls typically do.  This practical measure resulted in the present day advantage of an area of land which visitors can walk on and see right to the edge of the fort and into the sea. 

This site wasn’t even on my radar until the owner of the B&B I was staying at recommended a visit to the Fort.  I’m glad I listened to her suggestion as the views from the fort, the history of the site, and the expansive remaining battlements make Charles Fort well worth the visit.  

History Education: Remembrance Day

There was a great segment on CBC’s Morning North today.  It focused on Canadian teachers who visited France this past summer to visit WWI and WWII battlefields as a means of learning more about the Wars, soldier experience and historical landscape.  The idea being that this experiential learning trip would provide the teachers with better tools to teach their students about the World Wars. This particular program is run by the Juno Beach Centre, which offers a number of different education programs focusing on tangible history and remembrance.

The CBC segment highlighted the teachers experience making gravestone rubbings, collecting rocks and dirt and taking many videos and photographs of the landscape.  All of these collected items have the potential to illuminate a segment of the past beyond what is written in a textbook.  For example, one teacher spoke of collecting rocks from the beach at Dieppe to help explain why the assault was such a huge failure.  The rocks on the beach have been smoothed by the ocean, making it impossible for soldiers and vehicles to gain traction on.  By bringing back rocks from Dieppe students are able to touch and actually see what the landscape would have been like for solders. 

Using physical objects to explore the past helps explain history beyond textbooks and make it increasingly tangible to students.  Additionally, the days leading up to Remembrance Day provide a time that many teachers utilize to introduce students to Canada’s involvement in the World Wars.  Personally, other than making poppy wreaths out of construction paper and memorizing In Flanders Fields I don’t really remember learning all that much about Remembrance Day or being taught the context behind the day.  I’m sure it was included somewhere, but the method of instruction clearly wasn’t memorable.

For those people looking for instruction ideas, Veterans Affairs has a number of great resources and guides to focused on Canadian war efforts.  Canada’s History Society also has a number of lesson plans that focus on Canada’s role during wartime. 

The Memory Project

The Memory Project was started by the Historica–Dominion Institute with funding from Canadian Heritage.  The project aims to capture the memories and experiences of all Second World War and Korean War veterans living in Canada.  The project is bilingual and includes oral histories, artefacts, and digitized photographs.   The stories that have been collected so far are available through a digital archive.  This resource is an excellent place for students, teachers, researchers, all of those remembering our past .

When a Siege Is Not Really a Siege.

This weekend marks the 125th anniversary of the Siege of North Battleford. This event as traditionally has been commemorated as a siege by the M├ętis and Cree on the white settlers in what would eventually become Saskatchewan. A recent article in the Globe and Mail, suggests that there may be some problems with the way in which Parks Canada has been reenacting this event.

Tyrone Tootoosis, an aboriginal historian, insists that no siege occurred. Rather the First Nation peoples approached North Battleford due to starvation and that the word siege suggests a much more violent action than what actually occurred. Parks Canada representatives have agreed that the event was not really a siege in the traditional sense and that visitors to the re-enactment will be give the full story. Additionally Parks representatives insist that they always attempt to portray multiple perspectives of historical events.

Attempting to portray multiple perspectives through a reenactment is a fairly daunting task. It is typically the winners who deem a battle worthy of commemorating and it is often the winners who preform reenactments. Granted, the reenactments always include the other side. But, at times this seems as though the opposition are only included so the winners have someone to dramatically defeat.

Is it possible to portray a completely unbiased historical account? Maybe. But this is an extremely complex task and often results in a whitewashed, passionless account of events. Should an attempt be made to portray history as accurately as possible? Yes. At times this may even mean changing the way in which things have traditionally been commemorated or named.

However, historical interpretations are limited by the sources available to historians, and this often limits how events are understood. This is particularly the case in North Battleford and many other events involve First Nation peoples. The oral nature of First Nation society means that written documentation is primarily only available from the settler perspective. Until further exploration of First Nation past through oral history and non written history is explored, it is likely that many historical interpretations will continue to be focused on the settler experience.

Exploring Fort St. Joseph

A few weeks ago while my parents were visiting me, we made a trip to St. Joseph’s Island. Part of this day trip included a visit to Fort St. Joseph. This site was strategically located on coastline of St. Joseph’s. The fort was occupied by the British until 1812, when the fort was taken over by American troops during the war of 1812. The abandoned fort was later burned by American troops. The fort has been designated as a national historic site, the site includes a small museum and the public is able to explore some of the excavated fort’s remains.

The staff at the site recommend that visitors start off by watching an educational video about the fort. This video provides a lot of context on the site, explains why the site is historically significant and examines a lot of the artifacts found on the site by archaeologists. The major downside of the video is that is 15minutes long. Children and even some adults may find the video too long, and a bit too dry. Case in point, my Dad who tends to enjoy military history, fell asleep about 10minutes into the video.

The exhibit portion of the heritage site focuses on what life was like in the fort. It highlights the life of the typical solider, how the officers lives, and includes some information on neighbouring First Nation communities. The majority of the artifacts mentioned in the educational film are on display in the portion of the facility. Somewhat lengthy text panels feature predominately in the exhibit hall. However, there is a small interactive section where children (or big kids…like my parents and I) can dress up in period clothing. This provided a bit of a break to the more traditional forms of historical interpretation which are prominent in the exhibit hall. If nothing else, the dress up corner resulted in much laughter and some amusing photos.

Visitors to Fort St. Joseph are also able to look at the ‘ruins’ of the old fort. A good portion of the fort has been excavated, and pieces of almost all of the original stone buildings can be seen. The ruins provide a nice physical example of the information learned about the fort through the educational video and the exhibit hall at the site. Overall, the visit was well worth the drive down a horribly weathered road.