The advantages of biography

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Volume 21

The centenary of the revolutionary decade will focus public attention as never before on the events that led to partition and independence. Given the current context—relative stability in the North, economic crisis and political disenchantment in the South—there is potential for a more honest engagement with this formative period than in previous major anniversaries. But what are the potential downsides, aside from commemoration fatigue and, in the North, the inevitable opportunities for coat-trailing and conflict?

One concern is that public attention will be focused on an outdated historical approach characterised by high politics, a chronological succession of major events and a narrow view of history as the struggle for independence and the process of state-formation. Social developments that shaped people’s lives, such as the National Insurance Act and the winning of universal suffrage, will receive less attention than the use of violence by small numbers of people. Ironically, this comes at a time when the family, gender, health, poverty and other facets of ordinary people’s experiences are increasingly the focus of scholarly research.

Another concern is that the compartmentalised nature of the commemorative process may result in a fragmented historical understanding, with forces such as class, gender and competing ideologies being understood in isolation—or opposition—to one another rather than as interdependent agents of historical change. Selective commemoration of events such as the Covenant, the Lockout and the Rising may reinforce rather than challenge simplistic perceptions of the past. Biography offers a possible solution: the complexity of individual lives—whether those of the great and good or ordinary people—invariably necessitates acknowledging the diverse, and sometimes conflicting, pressures that shape history.

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