Memory and history (repeating)

Published in Editorial, Issue 5 (September/October 2020)

editorIn reviewing the contents of this issue (back to our usual 72 pages, by the way) I was struck by the complex relationship between the related but distinct categories of history and memory. Topics relating to the onging ‘decade of centenaries’ (Terence MacSwiney’s death on hunger strike, pp 32–4, p. 70; the Belfast pogrom, pp 28–31; the Swanzy riots, pp 40–1) or earlier are beyond our personal memories and lie unambiguously in that foreign country known as ‘the past’.

In this issue, however, we also mark the 50th anniversary of the Arms Crisis (pp 46–9, p. 69), which for many of us was once part of our ‘present’ (albeit as child prodigies in some cases!). We think we ‘know’ it in a way that the events of 1920 are personally unknowable. Yet in relation to the area that was to become Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, there is a remarkable—and depressing—congruence between the events of 1920–2 and 1969–70.

In the former period, Catholics (25% of Belfast’s population) were to account for 53% of the c. 500 killed in communal violence. The response of the newly established southern Provisional Government was the ineffectual and counter-productive ‘Belfast boycott’ and the commissioning of a report, Facts and figures of the Belfast pogrom 1920–1922, in order to ‘… deal with the mountain of lies by which the entire world had been duped and the poor Catholics of Belfast choked’. As Kieran Glennon explains in this issue, however, by the time it was ready for publication, in August 1922, civil war had broken out in the South and the plight of Belfast’s beleaguered Catholics would be ‘quietly forgotten by the Provisional Government’.

Nearly 50 years later, in August 1969, when Belfast’s Catholics again found themselves under attack, Taoiseach Jack Lynch made his famous TV broadcast and promised not to ‘stand idly by’—which, just as in 1922, is precisely what happened.

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