Derry Essay 3: Sharing our Past, Sharing our Future

A couple of years ago at an event to promote the Walled City cultural tourism attractions at Stormont, Martin McGuinness talked about ‘Derry’ and ‘Londonderry’. With those two words he gave explicit recognition to the multiple narratives that are required to tell Northern Ireland’s story.

The story that Derry/Londonderry wishes to tell entwines Colmcille, Plantation, 1689, and Free Derry with a cultural story that brings us into the present day.  What was impressive about that event was how this rich and difficult past was being promoted through a unanimous voice: Apprentice Boys standing shoulder to shoulder with ‘Battle of the Bogside’ veterans.

A few years ago my own organisation, The Heritage Lottery Fund, funded a project to look at the names of people commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial, the very centrepiece of the Walled City itself.  The project researched the names of those who were commemorated, having lost their lives in the First World War.

The results showed that 52% were Protestant and 48% Catholic.  For the first time in generations many within the nationalist community were introduced to the idea that this iconic symbol, so long seen as belonging to the Unionist community, was a part of their story as well.  Family members long forgotten could now be remembered with pride.

Another encouraging sign came for me when Arlene Foster a HLF project, The Whitehouse, a project with strong Williamite connections, described the Williamite wars as part of a broader European story; a story which saw Catholic Europe and the pope celebrating the defeat of King James.  This is another great example of the traditional sectarian narrative being overturned in favour of a more objective reading of history.

Part of the problem with dealing with the past is not what we remember but what we forget.  Identities and false histories are often carved from partisan interpretations of what has happened.  Unhelpful facts are deliberately forgotten and useful exaggerations are grafted on.  Historical identities cannot therefore be relied upon and can be often seen as the sum of some very unreliable parts, leaving us with the disastrous consequences of prejudicial thinking.

So are we starting to see a slow thaw around the edges of our competing narratives allowing for other ideas and views to be absorbed?  And just how open are our minds to a re-evaluation of our own understanding of the past?

But how can we search for a shared history when our experiences hardly add up to a shared past.  What is called for is a more honest reading of the past, one that does not attempt to sanitise, reshape or rewrite while attempting to fulfil an equality agenda that is hard on social engineering and soft on historical facts.

Perhaps what we are starting to see in a more careful use of words, and a broad historical perspective from our politicians, is recognition that with the many different perspectives of the past that there is, in a democratic society no single narrative that can ever outweigh or be allowed to obscure all others.

It was to explore such ideas that The Heritage Lottery Fund ran a conference on the topic of heritage and identity.  Some of the ideas which where explored were profoundly interesting and challenged rigid interpretations of historical fact.

William Crawley, the conference chair, summed the day up when he commented that ‘our cultural and political traditions sometimes approach the past with such divergent concepts, codes and creeds that the truth itself is lost in translation’… and he called for the development of ‘a common historical grammar’.

Perhaps that is the experiment we are seeing in Derry/ Londonderry today?  I certainly hope so.  While there are still many social problems that need to be solved in that wonderful city there does seem to be a genuine commitment to forging a future which is shared by all of the City’s citizens.

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  • DerTer

    Thanks for that. My own tuppenceworth as regards the obscuration of the Derry past is that students of mine gasped in disbelief that policemen in RUC uniform attended mass in St Eugene’sCathedral in the 1960s.

  • andnowwhat

    I think Derry is, as it has done for many years now, leading the way.

    I really wish it was replicated throughout the North but I really can’t see it.

  • glencoppagagh

    ..surely they shot a few mass goers or at the very least whacked a few old ladies over the head with batons?

  • Magazine

    Derry has been leading on this, at least in an urban context, for quite a while now. Often overlooked or downplayed by the big brother in Belfast which, for various and valid reasons of scale, geography and perhaps tradition, has never seemed to enjoy the basic foundation of intercommunal connection to build on. Its a small city and everyone knows everyone else, and even more so when you get down to those with an activist interest in history and heritage. The demographics clearly help this too – nationalism is so secure in the City that it can afford to be interested in and supportive of Unionist heritage and the flipside of this may be that some unionists have worked harder to engage and promote ‘their’ history and identity to ensure that its preservation and promotion. Whatever the cynicism that will be out there about the sectarian inter-relations in the City, these connections do exist, they are real and they are feeding in to the City of Culture. Last week saw a Plantation project launched in Derry in which Irish and Ulster Scots linguists, Apprentice Boys and Republican ex-prisoners and local community historians are all working together to look at shared and divisive history in an open and constructive way. Its just one of many similar projects that have taken place over the last few years and it is precisely on this sort of platform that any City of Culture bid must be rooted.

  • Seamus Crawley

    My great great uncle’s name is on the monument. His name is Jim McIntyre, I believe he was thirty years old and from Rosemount. It sickens me to see terrorist RUC, UDR and other loyalist terrorists being remembered in the same light as these brave men. The use of the Poppy in remembrance to British terrorists is a slap in the face to the real heros who fought to free all small nations; all small nations but their own!

  • Clearly Paul is speaking here about popular history and the big touchstones (‘Milestones or Millstones?’, as the popular UTV history series was called), and perhaps he should have pointed that out a bit more. The trouble with so much of the ‘shared history’ idea is that revolves around these touchstones, and never really penetrates the real ‘silent histories’ beneath. I suspect, and Paul clarifies it here in some respects, that this is because there is perceived to be more heritage tourism and peace-building potential (strictly in that order) behind the big national myths. There is, consequently little or no interest in or support for community history projects that want to explore and examine the real shared history – that of workers, women, neighbourhoods, events and movements that eschewed communal identities, conflicts and mythologies. Even, to choose a random topic, something as innocuous as the history of Derry’s cinemas would be interesting to locals and visitors and was very much a shared experience. Or Gwynn’s Institute, or the site of the old Gallows at the base of Bishop Street. Admittedly, partly this is a result of the colonisation of some community education work by those determined to see and develop historical analyses through the prism of their national allegiance and ‘struggle’, very appropriately seen by Benedict Anderson as ‘such limited imaginings’. This is not only completely ahistorical, it actually perverts the past to suit the present, but there’s undoubtedly more of it on the way if this essay is anything to judge by.