Learning from 1798?: Northern Ireland’s Upcoming Decade of Commemorations

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image Last year, the Lilliput Press released a new extended edition of Tom Dunne’s Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize winning book, Rebellions: Memoir, Memory and 1798. First published in 2004, Dunne’s book provoked considerable controversy with its critique of the ‘commemorationist’ history that Dunne believed dominated the 1998 commemorations of the 1798 Rebellion.

The book blasted the involvement of politicians and historians in the creation of what Dunne sees as a sanitized, counterfactual and politically correct portrayal of what 1798, especially in Co. Wexford, was all about.

Dunne, Professor Emeritus of History and part-time Lecturer in Art History at University College Cork, was in Belfast back in June to take part in a Healing Through Remembering sponsored discussion, ‘How Have We Remembered? Preparing for a Decade of Commemorations.’

I hadn’t read Dunne’s book the first time around, but listening to him talk prompted me to secure a copy of the new, extended version. I wasn’t disappointed. The book is thoughtful and methodologically unique, in that unlike most works of history, it includes a memoir section in which Dunne reflects on his childhood, his time as a Christian Brother, his training as a historian, and how his family’s history drove his interest in researching 1798.

The extended edition also features Dunne’s reflection on the reception the book received. There is an interesting section recounting how the memoir section of the book led to him being asked to testify before the Ryan Commission on clerical sexual abuse.

But of most interest to me in this post is Dunne’s feeling he was deliberately marginalized for challenging the government line on the 1998 commemorations.

Dunne says the government line was that 1798 was all about Ireland’s proto-democratic forebears pursuing the non-sectarian ideals of liberty, democracy and fraternity.

Dunne perceives this as a rather cynical effort to fit 1798 into the narrative of the peace process and the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, as well as to allow Irish people to avoid honestly facing up to sectarianism and violence – both historically and in the present day.

To support his argument, he offers analysis of how the rebellion in Wexford followed earlier patterns of sectarian, agrarian violence. He also devotes a chapter to the killings in Scullabogue, a notorious incident where 126 mostly Protestant men, women and children (there were 11 Catholics among them) were burned to death by the (mostly Catholic) rebels in a barn.

Dunne contends that the facts of what happened in Scullabogue have been deliberately repressed, both before and during the 1998 commemorations, noting that this reflects and reinforces local folklore.

On this point, he confesses that his uncle, from a nearby town, had told him that:

‘there was a barn there where Cromwell burned the Catholics’, and although Dunne knows this never happened, ‘This was said sincerely, as a well-known fact’ (p. 264).

In a similar vein, Dunne recounts how the frenzy of commemorations in 1998 led to a historian inventing a Wexford ‘senate’, composed of Catholics and Protestants, which was supposedly meant to guide the ‘Wexford Republic’ of 1798. Dunne says the Senate was passed off quite successfully as a historical fact – despite the lack of evidence that it ever existed (p. 119-123).

Although I am of the view that it is healthy for there to be competing interpretations of historical events, I find these examples of the twisting of history quite chilling.

Part of Dunne’s purpose in his discussion at Healing Through Remembering was to caution against this kind of manipulation of historical events. He also warned against the temptation of using history to make us feel better about ourselves, saying:

“If we see Peter Robinson praising the idealism of 1916 and Enda Kenny doing the same for the Ulster Covenant, this will lead to blandness. It will be a decade of commemorations from which we’ll learn nothing.”

He then offered three lessons that could be reflected upon from Ireland’s experience of commemorating 1798:

  1. Excessive sensitivity to all traditions, motivated by a desire not to offend, does not lead to good history.
  2. Historians should not become involved with official government commemorations, which force them to adopt a politically expedient narrative. Historians should be true to their interpretation of the evidence, even if it forces us to confront unpalatable facts.
  3. The key to meaningful commemorations is emphasizing the local. Local history initiatives can shatter the meta-narratives of official “commemorationist” history.

Reading the book reinforced for me one of the final points Dunne made during the discussion. He said:

‘You can’t look at local history in depth without understanding that it is more complicated. Coordinated local history initiatives, such as gathering stories into archives, can slowly over time get people to think about different versions of history and to see through simple stories. This can encourage communities to think critically about the past.’