Commemorations and ‘shared history’: a different role for historians?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2013), Platform, Volume 21

George Cruickshank’s depiction of the massacre of loyalists by insurgents at Scullabogue, 5 June 1798—‘Unfortunately, the role of the United Irishmen and the relevance of their ideals in the main theatre of rebellion, Wexford, were far from clear in the historical record—unlike the sectarian conflict and appalling violence, which dominate the sources.’ (W.H. Maxwell, History of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland [London, 1852])

George Cruickshank’s depiction of the massacre of loyalists by insurgents at Scullabogue, 5 June 1798—‘Unfortunately, the role of the United Irishmen and the relevance of their ideals in the main theatre of rebellion, Wexford, were far from clear in the historical record—unlike the sectarian conflict and appalling violence, which dominate the sources.’ (W.H. Maxwell, History of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland [London, 1852])

States have long had an interest in how key events in their past are commemorated, and historians have equally long been complicit in promoting dominant political mythologies. Since the development of professional, academic history, however, its practitioners have tended to view commemorations more as opportunities for attempting new interpretations and for critiquing the official version. Yet when the event commemorated has clear implications for ongoing conflict and attempts at reconciliation, historians can come under intense pressure—if only, perhaps, unconscious and internalised—to prioritise contemporary political concerns over their primary duty to engage critically with the sources.

 

This, I believe, happened in Ireland in the late 1990s, when the bicentenary of one of the bloodiest and most divisive episodes in modern Irish history—the 1798 Rebellion—coincided with the final stages of a complex ‘peace process’ aimed at ending the decades-old conflict in Northern Ireland and based in large part on a blurring of historical memory. The Irish government was extremely anxious to find some way of commemorating the Rebellion that did not emphasise the sectarianism and violence that were also key features of the ongoing conflict there. They found it in the idealism of the Rebellion’s ostensible organisers, the bourgeois United Irishmen, whose Belfast origins and emphasis on a union between Catholic and Protestant were particularly helpful. Unfortunately, the role of the United Irishmen and the relevance of their ideals in the main theatre of rebellion, Wexford, were far from clear in the historical record—unlike the sectarian conflict and appalling violence, which dominate the sources. In the decades prior to the bicentenary a highly complex picture of Irish politics and society in the 1790s had been developed, yet many Irish historians of the period appeared to endorse the state’s idealistic, one-dimensional approach to the Rebellion as a ‘United Irish Revolution’. I analysed the bicentenary in detail in Rebellions: memoir, memory and 1798 (Lilliput, 2004) and speculated on the reasons why historians endorsed the official line in a new chapter in the second edition (2010). Now the relationship of professional historians to the politics of commemoration comes into focus again with a decade of contentious centenaries under way, and it may be useful to ask whether we can learn anything from the highly politicised event of that time.

Tom Dunne—‘I analysed the bicentenary in detail in Rebellions: memoir, memory and 1798 (Lilliput, 2004) and speculated on the reasons why historians endorsed the official line in a new chapter in the second edition’ (2010, inset).

Tom Dunne—‘I analysed the bicentenary in detail in Rebellions: memoir, memory and 1798 (Lilliput, 2004) and speculated on the reasons why historians endorsed the official line in a new chapter in the second edition’ (2010, inset).

The bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion exemplified for me a mistaken approach to the idea of ‘shared history’—one that attempted to force competing ideologies and opposing communal memories into a construct projected as a lost consensus of ‘United Irishmen’. This was subsequently obliterated, nationalists believed, by political conflict and false consciousness. What was proposed, in effect, as ‘shared history’ was a reconfigured nationalist formulation. A different approach to shared history, however, has long been available and has been proven to be healing in other areas of conflict, while also giving historians a more challenging, and professionally meaningful, role.

In the aftermath of World War II, historical commissions were established across Europe as key components of the process of reconciliation: former enemies could move on, it was believed, having put the terrible events of the war in shared historical perspective. Introducing the excellent 2009 American Historical Review Forum on ‘Truth and Reconciliation in History’, Elazar Barkan commented on how this approach has been extended to three ongoing situations of historically inflected conflict or controversy: the treatment of Jews by their Polish neighbours during World War II; Turkey’s responsibility for the massacre of Armenians during the First World War; and issues arising from the recent wars in former Yugoslavia. In each of these cases, he points out, ‘historians from across national and ethnic divides’ are attempting ‘to write shared narratives of past events as a way of contributing to present-day conflict resolution’. The aim of these historians is ‘to promote reconciliation through collaborative work to produce a shared history’. The experience of attempting this in each of the three areas is discussed in the essays that follow. There are clear political obstacles to reconciliation in all of these cases, but Barkan also emphasises the challenges involved for historians. ‘Can historical narratives that are explicitly intended to influence ethnic and national relations be written without violating professional commitments and standards?’ he asks, and concludes that ‘participation in collaborative work with a political goal clearly presents challenges to historical research’. Responding recently to the current official emphasis on reconciliation as the proper aim of Irish commemorations, John A. Murphy has pointed out that a historian’s primary duty is to historical research and not to historical healing, but it is worth asking whether there are ways of making that primary duty compatible with the political agenda of reconciliation.
98_small_1357570530Although the conflict in Northern Ireland was as historically based as any in the world, the complex negotiations and interventions that nudged the peace process forward faced resolutely away from attempting to confront or understand the past and towards the fantasy of a clean slate through vague but uplifting and often ingenious linguistic formulations that allowed all sides to feel good and claim victory—‘parity of esteem’ and ‘the totality of the relationships among the people of these islands’ being the best known and most enduring. The blurring of history to a series of agreed aspirations and nostrums was felt to be necessary to achieve progress, to create a platform for a permanent peace and a fair inclusive society, but it came at a very high cost, not least for local communities, whose profound historical and cultural differences were not addressed. There was an alternative—to set up a mechanism for honest engagement with the past—but that seems never to have been considered seriously. This is a major reason for the continued fragility of the process, evident, for example, in the ongoing ghettoisation behind so-called peace walls, in the failure to extend power-sharing to local level and in the persistent rumblings of sectarian and republican violence, accompanied by the old rhetoric of historic grievance. The limitations of the process are also evident in the inability of politicians north and south of the border—despite the stability and relative success of the power-sharing Executive system for more than a decade—to use the upcoming series of commemorations to redress this major deficiency and to work towards a genuine mutual historical understanding. Instead, it seems, there will be a continued ghettoisation of the past to match that of today’s Belfast communities, each unchallenged comfort zone given a vacuous ‘parity of esteem’ and fitted into another superficial ‘shared history’. The lessons of European engagement with history-based conflicts have not yet been learned—nor those of the bicentenary of 1798.
The ‘peace line’ at Lanark Way, West Belfast—‘[In the North] . . . profound historical and cultural differences were not addressed . . . This is a major reason for the continued fragility of the process, evident, for example, in the ongoing ghettoisation behind so-called peace walls, in the failure to extend power-sharing to local level and in the persistent rumblings of sectarian and republican violence, accompanied by the old rhetoric of historic grievance’.

The ‘peace line’ at Lanark Way, West Belfast—‘[In the North] . . . profound historical and cultural differences were not addressed . . . This is a major reason for the continued fragility of the process, evident, for example, in the ongoing ghettoisation behind so-called peace walls, in the failure to extend power-sharing to local level and in the persistent rumblings of sectarian and republican violence, accompanied by the old rhetoric of historic grievance’.

Thus the ‘Advisory Group’ of historians assisting the Irish government’s ‘Consultation Group on Centenary Celebrations’ (TDs and senators) promises—in a clear echo of the slippery language of the peace process—that it will consult widely, ‘at all times acknowledging the multiple identities and traditions which are part of the historic story of the island of Ireland and Irish people world-wide’. The Northern Ireland Executive was slower off the mark, belatedly appointing two ministers—one ultra-unionist from Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and one from ultra-nationalist Sinn Féin, the parties that now determine the opposing narratives there—to ‘jointly bring forward a programme for a decade which will offer a real opportunity for our society to benefit economically and continue its transformation into a vibrant, diverse and enriched place to visit’. Both sides could agree on the tourist potential, if nothing else, and to that end promised commemorations involving ‘inclusivity, tolerance, respect, responsibility and interdependence’—no mention of historical understanding.

A more imaginative approach to inclusivity has been signalled by the Belfast City Council subcommittee who envisage dealing with the 1912–14 period in terms of ‘Shared History, Differing Allegiances’, which does at least gesture towards the international model. There are also encouraging developments at local level in Northern Ireland, involving oral history projects and cross-community organisations, notably ‘Healing through Remembering’, which are exploring novel ways of promoting a true shared history at local level. There has also been an important intervention by the Irish Times in an editorial of 29 September 2012, which urged that we ‘go beyond grudging tolerant understanding of the other’s history’ by developing a greater understanding of ‘the interconnectedness of our stories’ as the best way of ‘celebrating our different narratives’.

This has happened to a significant degree already in relation to the Irish dead of the First World War, beginning with initiatives by individual politicians on both sides of the border and culminating in the participation in Remembrance Day ceremonies in Northern Ireland by the taoiseach and tánaiste in 2012. Recent attempts by some Gardaí to commemorate their RIC predecessors may also be a sign that this is an idea whose time has come.

Some of the 31 volumes of the 1641 Depositions—‘Making original sources widely available, as in the digitisation of the 1641 Depositions, is also crucial in encouraging people to engage with the complexities of their past at both communal and individual levels’. (Trinity College, Dublin)

Some of the 31 volumes of the 1641 Depositions—‘Making original sources widely available, as in the digitisation of the 1641 Depositions, is also crucial in encouraging people to engage with the complexities of their past at both communal and individual levels’. (Trinity College, Dublin)

Nevertheless, if the First World War has become recognised neutral ground, the official approach on both sides of the border to the upcoming centenaries of the events that still define their politics and which culminated in the institutionalisation of difference in partition has been characterised by fear and containment rather than reaching out. Highlighting the importance of ‘the two political establishments’ working together to ‘help set the tone’, the former Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson, pointed out to the Oireachtas ‘Consultation Group on Centenary Commemorations’ the ‘danger that people who do not have such a benign view could hijack them’. One of the TDs echoed the fear ‘that some of these commemorations may be taken over by hard-line people from both traditions’. Thus the aim of this group appears to be to save the people from ‘bad’ history by promoting non-contentious ‘good’ history. It would be interesting to know what advice they have had from the ‘Advisory Group’ of historians in this regard.

Not surprisingly, then, most official pronouncements and the writing of most commentators lack any sense that there is, more fundamentally, a duty to engage with the contemporary sources, and to help groups and individuals to confront divisive traditional views that don’t stand up to such an engagement. Only President Michael D. Higgins in a number of speeches has combined the need to commemorate ‘in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect’ with making ‘historical accuracy a cornerstone of commemoration’. That is where historians must take the lead. Fear of causing offence, an obsession with ‘balance’ and all the other manifestations of this damaging ‘political correctness’ can only lead to a bland, meaningless history that may get political establishments safely to the end of the decade but will do nothing to promote greater understanding. Indeed, as one of the government’s ‘Advisory Group’, Diarmaid Ferriter, has pointed out with admirable bluntness:

‘Commemorations should be divisive. They should create a certain discomfort. You don’t have to please everyone. History is about conflicting interpretations.’

No other stance should be possible for professional historians. So how is this compatible with the idea that they might collaborate to produce a ‘shared history’ incorporating perspectives and narratives from all traditions, as Barkan proposes?

One basic key approach, common to all the areas of conflict surveyed in the American Historical Review forum, is a collaborative effort to agree as many as possible of the attested facts of a situation. An important and encouraging Irish example of this is the major Trinity College Dublin project on ‘The Dead of the Irish Revolution, 1916–21’, which ‘seeks to determine, for the first time, how many people were killed’. Making original sources widely available, as in the digitisation of the 1641 Depositions (http://1641.tcd.ie/) and of the 1901 and 1911 censuses (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/), is also crucial in encouraging people to engage with the complexities of their past at both communal and individual levels. The decade of divisive commemorations just begun could be anchored in a cross-border initiative seeking to establish and agree the basic facts of the key defining episodes since the early seventeenth century that have been at the root of the murderous sectarian and political polarisation of the recent past—a polarisation now masked rather than confronted. Such an initiative would encourage and coordinate the work of local history groups and promote the wider accessibility of sources. It would have clear political ambitions but would be conducted on professional academic principles. Many Irish historians might be wary of engaging with such a project, but the question of its value is worth posing. Few of them would be content to be described simply as ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’, but most come from one or other tradition and are alert to the sensitivities involved. In addition, local history groups and community organisations representing or combining clear opposing loyalties could be made part of the process.
As a starting point the ‘Advisory Group’ might research the European experience since World War II and seek the assistance of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, a non-governmental organisation based in the Hague (of which Elazer Barkan is co-director, http://www.historyandreconciliation.org). Its current project, ‘Facing the past—searching for the future’, shows how this approach can be applied to even more challenging and contentious areas than establishing basic facts, producing, for example, a ‘shared narrative’ written by a group of scholars with various backgrounds, coming from Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia, titled ‘A Myth Factory: Political Myths in the Former Yugoslavia and Successor States’. In Ireland such initiatives seem a long way from the concerns of politicians, who have more invested in clouding than in clarifying historical memory. But there is nothing to prevent historians from giving a lead and, indeed, we would appear to have an ideal vehicle in the long-established cross-border Irish Committee of Historical Sciences, now a committee of the Royal Irish Academy. At the height of ‘the Troubles’ I was its secretary, then its chair, and have attested in Rebellions to its important if low-key contribution at that time. Perhaps it is already embarked on some initiative along the lines I am suggesting, or perhaps the Irish government-appointed Advisory Group of Historians is so engaged. So far, however, we have heard very little from either group—or, indeed, much from individual historians beyond their contributions to the blizzard of conferences already engulfing us. Something more systematic and sustained than conferences, worthy and important though these can be, is surely required of historians over this crucial decade. Are we up to the challenge?  HI

Tom Dunne is Professor Emeritus of History and part-time Lecturer in Art History at University College Cork.
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