THE BIG BOOK: FORGETFUL REMEMBRANCE: social forgetting and vernacular historiography of a rebellion in Ulster

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780198749356

Reviewed by Angus Mitchell

How do we orientate the divide between what is publicly acknowledged and what is privately remembered?

For anyone who has followed the debate over commemorative politics and legacy problems in Ireland, there is now a shelf-full of books published since the late 1990s unpicking the complexities of cultural memory. One of the achievements of commemoration is how it has challenged historians to respond to the relationship between remembrance and forgetting. The reckoning is simple: in order to forget, we must remember.

The most complex classification of forgetting suggests that, beyond acts of intentional disremembering and the passive loss or disregard of what happened, forgetting is a complex instrument. Social anthropologist Paul Connerton has outlined a typology of forgetting. He distinguishes between repressive erasure, prescriptive forgetting, forgetting that is constituted in the formation of a new identity, structural amnesia, forgetting as annulment, forgetting as planned obsolescence and forgetting as humiliated silence. Guy Beiner has written a profoundly detailed book that is principally about the formulations of what he terms ‘social forgetting’. He answers a straightforward question: what happens when communities persistently endeavour to forget inconvenient events?

The event under examination is the 1798 Rebellion in north-east Ulster—the Turn-Out. Many participants in Ireland’s most remembered republican revolt before 1916 hailed from Protestant and Presbyterian communities of counties Antrim and Down, but the legacy of their involvement in insurgency was rendered uncomfortable following the Act of Union in 1800. The recollection of participation alongside Catholic rebels led to a process of disavowal of the memory, followed by a realignment of loyalties. Beiner takes the reader on an intense and captivating odyssey through the looking-glass of social forgetting.

In the opening chapter, historiographical issues introduce the reader to the rich field of Memory Studies and its quite awkward confrontation with traditional forms of capitalised History. As Beiner admits, this is a book that breaks out of the fortress of History as it has been studied in the halls of the academy and transports us into the realm of histories, which reflect the myriad ways in which the past is routinely recalled in discreet social and cultural interactions. With great subtlety, Beiner critiques traditional iterations of his discipline that adopt such a defiant stand against ‘myth’ and vernacular renderings of the past. Beiner’s focus is on the folkloric, the oral and the antiquarian. He moves you through the spaces in between—those tales that shaped the dynamics of the popular and the collective. Retrieving the interlocking structure of narratives and secret scriptures that have undergone mutilations and dismemberment, silencing and disremembering is necessary, he explains, to the paradoxes and contradictions of 1798.

Can forgetting happen in advance of an event? In recent years, Beiner has introduced ideas of pre-memory and pre-forgetting. He argues that, in the social construction of Irish martyrs, events are both remembered and forgotten in advance of their happening. The protomartyr William Orr, whose execution in 1797 set the schemata for the martyrdoms to follow, notably those of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, provides evidence for the case he is making.

Once the rebellion was defeated, strategies of oblivion were encouraged through the instrumental use of history to sanitise understanding. The reader is reminded of Sir Richard Musgrave’s ultra-conservative account compared, for instance, to the work of United Irishman Charles Hamilton Teeling. Efforts to impose amnesia led on to contested accounts, supported by different sources, as the divide between loyalist memory and republican counter-memory evolved and deepened.

The heart of this study leads you through the labyrinth of intersecting storytelling traditions. Songs and gravestones become Beiner’s documents. He shines his analytical torch into the nooks and crannies, reading the ambiguities as he exposes the public secrets and psychic concealments. This is micro-history at its most refined and refining. He registers the different editions of works to figure what appeared in one and not in the other. There are brilliant moments of discovery, such as his description of the compounded legend of Betsy Gray, a folk hero to both republican and loyalist traditions.

The analysis is particularly engrossing in the scrutiny of the various nineteenth-century antiquarians and collectors of ’98 traditions, such as Samuel McSkimin, R.R. Madden, the Revd Classon Emmett Porter, William McComb, Hugh McCall and Samuel Ferguson. He dwells at length on the women who saw cultural nationalism as an outlet for their own radical feminism, notably Alice Milligan, Ethna Carbery and Lady Mulholland.

For this reader, the highpoint of the study unlocks the antiquarian world of F.J. Bigger, who is positioned at the centre of the Cultural Revival in Belfast. In describing the coterie of nationalists who congregated around Bigger’s library fireside at his home, Ardrigh, we are reminded of those journals and societies, notably the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club and the Henry Joy McCracken Literary Society, in which local interest in the past was incubated.

But the commemoration of the centenary in 1898 revealed, too, the ‘multiple conflicts that lurked beneath the surface of professed unity’. Such confrontations were innate not just to the deadlock between Orangemen and Irishmen but also in the bitter rivalries between constitutional and republican nationalists. Such tensions led to acts of decommemoration: the defacement and the deliberate destruction of monuments, most notably those of Roddy McCorley and Betsy Gray.

There is, however, one fault-line in Beiner’s thesis here, namely his analysis of the influence of 1798 on the generation involved in revolutionary politics in Ulster before 1916. It must be asked: has Beiner participated in a deliberate act of social forgetting himself? In the opening paragraph of the Preface, he ‘aspires to comprehensiveness’, and many readers will reach the end of this 700-page, extravagantly footnoted volume with a sense that no stone has been left unturned. Yet, granted his extraordinary command of the field and his knowledge of F.J. Bigger and the Ardrigh circle, Beiner avoids anything but superficial reference to the Ulster Protestant involvement in the 1916 Rising that was deeply entangled with the aspirations and traditions of the United Irishmen and ‘impregnated with the spirit of Tone’.

Cursory mention is made of the Quaker Bulmer Hobson, the key strategic organiser of grass-roots republicanism, who recruited other Protestants such as Seán Lester and Ernest Blyth into the secret republican ranks of the Dungannon Clubs, Na Fianna Éireann and the Freedom Clubs. After reforming the IRB and preparing the ground for insurgency, Hobson went on to publish a biography of Wolfe Tone and republished R.R. Madden’s The United Irishmen: their lives and times at the height of the War of Independence. Yet these works are not even referenced in the bibliography. Beiner makes nothing of Roger Casement’s prison writings (released in the UK’s National Archives in 1995), which refer at length to his identification with Wolfe Tone. There is no mention of the Ulster-born essayist Robert Lynd, son of a Presbyterian minister, who organised the Gaelic League in London and wrote extensively about the Tan War. In reducing the Ulster Protestant dimension of the 1916 Rising to a few boneless references and some brief, partial footnotes, Beiner reinforces a strategy of oblivion that has permeated historical enquiry for over a century.

This elision might be explained by the formation of the profession of academic history after 1922 and its confrontation with a discipline that developed to buttress and legitimise partition. The requirement to construct a united Protestant front in Ulster that might demonstrate a loyal and staunch tradition produced a new framework for social forgetting. Beiner introduces his chapter on ‘Restored Forgetting’ in the short twentieth century with an insightful comparison of the Ulster Catholic experience to the erasure of Palestinian rights to commemorate their plight, described as ‘memoricide’. Such cross-cultural insights (and there are lots of them) disclose how commemoration often drives non-compliant memories either underground or into exile.

A more contemporary insight into the ‘continuous past’ is explained through consideration of several prominent Ulster intellectuals, notably Estyn Evans, Seamus Heaney and the playwright Stewart Parker. Some histories, notably Flann Campbell’s The dissenting voice, sought to retrieve the intersections between radical Protestant and socialist voices in Ulster. But these artistic and radical offshoots lead on to the burst of excitement accompanying the bicentenary and the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. With a new determination for peace and reconciliation, the Turn-Out was reframed as integral to the process of building a sense of ‘parity of esteem’. As someone quipped, the question changed from being ‘who fears to speak of ’98’ to ‘who fears not to speak of ’98’. Here the detailing of the exhibitions, events and TV productions demonstrates how histories can be transformed into heritage. The story does not end there, however, and Beiner takes us deeper into the vagaries of big data, algorithms and ‘web-memory’, where forgetting is no longer possible.

In drawing conclusions, Beiner returns us to a more theoretical context of Memory Studies and positions the Ulster experience in a broader context of wars of decolonisation. The residue of bitterness and suffering resulting from the violence of imperial retreat led to new demands for amnesia and a duty to forget in the transitioning into peace and forgiveness. French Algeria and the Spanish Civil War feature in this analysis of how forgetting could be imposed by a State authority and often required the complicity of historians in the creation of harmonies of silence. Beiner avoids, however, drawing attention to Britain’s various legacy issues in, say, Kenya or Australia, but government policies enforcing forgetting were met by campaigns of ‘memory activism’, mainly from oppressed minorities and left-wing groups.

Forgetful remembrance is a work of exquisite detail and theoretical sophistication that challenges the very parameters of the troubled intersection between history, memory, legacy, commemoration and heritage. It says something of Beiner’s standing that both Roy Foster and Peter Burke flew out to Israel to deliver papers at the seminar convened to launch this monograph. The book receives further radiant endorsements from Jay Winter and Pierre Nora, doyen of Memory Studies.

It is too early to tell how more traditional approaches to Irish history will be tested by the implications of Beiner’s argument. In the final paragraph of this riveting study, he throws out one last challenge: in restoring the validity of vernacular historiography and rescuing it from the deep waters of the River Lethe, the relevant question is no longer whether the subaltern can speak but whether the historian can listen.

Angus Mitchell is a historian and lives in Limerick.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568