Coming to terms with historical memory

Roy Johnston reviews History and Memory in Modern Ireland , Ian McBride (ed), Cambridge University Press, £14.99 pbk

THIS IS an edited and extended version of the proceedings of a conference of Irish historians in Britain which met in Durham in 1998, triggered by the 1798 bicentenary, and organised by Marianne Elliott and Roy Foster.

While worshippers of the ‘Holy Grail’ of the Irish republican tradition may therefore be inclined to dismiss this and other such events as ‘revisionist’ this would be a mistake. There is much to be learned from the authors in this collection, who have made a genuine attempt to understand and relate how traditional memory is transmitted, and how it relates to what actually happened.

The editor in an introductory survey nods in the direction of Eric Hobsbawm’s Invention of Tradition (1983), which analyses critically the pre-1914 emergence of European nation-states, with the manipulation of symbols and identities by official elites engaged in indoctrinating the masses top-down.

He credits Corkery’s Hidden Ireland (1924) as a classic treatment of proto-nationalist memory. He steers a course between T W Moody’s “positivistic faith in scientific method” as a “crusader against error” and “Bradshaw’s bardic notion of the historian as custodian of tradition”. He seeks to “...scrutinise collective myths and memories, not just for evidence of their historical accuracy, but as objects of study in their own right”.

Alan Ford, a theologian in Nottingham, and an authority on the Protestant Reformation in Ireland, gives a comparative study of Protestant and Catholic martyrology in the 16th and 17th century political contexts.

These played a part in embedding the Irish struggle in the overall European political scene, and in giving Irish proto-national identity a Catholic flavour, strongly linked with the Counter-Reformation.

Roy Foster (Oxford University) gives interesting insights into the memory of 1798, beginning with a poignant interview with Bob Barton in Glendalough, whose father was a friend and neighbour of Parnell.

The 1898 centenary was hijacked by Catholic nationalism, to the extent that D P Moran rejected Wolfe Tone as an Anglo-French atheist. Niall O Ciosain (Galway) goes into the complexity of the memory of the famine, confirming the present writer’s impression of its unspoken ubiquity.

Kevin O’Neill (Boston College) analyses the impact of the famine emigrants on the American Civil War: they were militarised in favour of the Union, influenced by British support for the Confederacy. The Fenian episode followed. He remarks in passing that their descendants were demilitarised by the Vietnam experience.

Luke Gibbons (DCU/Notre Dame) trawls Joyce for historical memories: ‘...the corner of St Stephens Green where Wolfe Tone’s statue was not.’ The foundation stone had been laid in 1898, to public acclaim, but by 1904 the site had been hijacked for the Boer War memorial.

David Officer (Ulster Peoples’ College) goes into the memory of the Somme in Ulster Unionist mythology.

David Fitzpatrick (Trinity College Dublin) chronicles the somewhat uneasy history of commemoration in the Free State, given the civil war context.

Joep Leerssen (Amsterdam) gives a welcome detached comparative continental view of the complexities of Irish and British official memorialising.

Edna Longly (Queens University Belfast) courageously attempts to do justice to the complexity of memorialising in the recent Northern Ireland decades of troubles. She takes issue with Leerssen, evokes Yeats for ‘Great War’ background and develops arguments around elegies by Heaney, Durcan and others.

The concluding chapter by George Boyce (University of Swansea) attempts an overview, ending on a positive note rooted in the 1798 Presbyterians: “...democracy and pluralism triumphantly proclaimed...”, though with a caution to the effect that “controlling the transmission of the past in ways that would help stabilise the present... runs the risk of distorting the past in ways that make it harder to understand the present”.

Altogether this book is a commendable and balanced attempt to relate perceived memory to actual history in the current political context.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-05-22 17:34:54.
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