Are we ready for sharing the past?

Culture Minister Nelson McCausland’s speech “Commemorations and a Shared Future“to the Institute for British-Irish Studies in UCD last week was a thoughtful and sincere attempt to find Shared Future themes in the rash of centenaries from the Ulster Covenant of 1912 to the foundation of the Free State and the Northern Ireland in 1921. But straight away Nelson epitomised the problem as much as  the solution. He was all too eager to insert unionist correctives into the nationalist narrative he still believes prevails – which I suppose it does at street level. Is that quite the right role for  a minister representing the cross community government?  ASs a unionist, he is wary of the continuing pull of 1916.

However I must also sound a warning note as regards the legacy of 1916.  There is the real danger of a veneration that could encourage and assist those dissident republicans in Northern Ireland who want to indoctrinate another generation of young men to pursue the nihilistic path of violence.

Rather than back away, wouldn’t it be better to face up frankly to the romantic appeal of 1916 that stretches well beyond republicans of any stripe and go on to debate equally frankly the limitations of the physical force tradition – introduced in that era by the signatories to the Ulster Covenant in their own blood, so much admired by Patrick Pearse?

Top down history doesn’t really work. For interested readers who are a bit vague about the actual history , I recommend Richard English’s “Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland” which discusses nationalism from today’s perspectives and has an excellent  bibliography.

See how even a generally favourable review can cause controversy between the reviewer and the reviewed. 

Yes, it might even be valuable to draw together the threads of the different experience of events and experiences from 1912 to 1921 in a spirit of open appraisal. While there is no “right” version of history, the exercise would challenge the foundation myths of the political parties. Would they and the grass roots be up for it? And how many would be prepared to listen rather than talk? Sharing  the past could be even more difficult than sharing the future.

  • Kevin Barry

    Nelson and a somewhat one sided look back on history, shock.

  • BW: “signatories to the Ulster Covenant in their own blood”

    PRONI: “Contrary to popular belief, only one signature is believed to have been in blood, that of Frederick Hugh Crawford, who was to become the Ulster Volunteers’ Director of Ordnance.”

  • Nelson does pop history. A quick summary is given below (as if you need it).
    Unionist commemoration = good.
    Republican commemoration = bad.
    A couple of notes on content. The Ulster-Scots Agency/Academy did try and promotoe the 400th anniversary of the 1606 Plantation. They did this by offering to fund any research that showed that counties Antrim and Down were ‘waste’ at the time (i.e. that no-one was displaced since no-one lived there). Most serious academics baulked at the prospect of being associated with supposed ‘research funding’ tied beforehand to a specific result. Since no-one played ball, expect to see an academic institution strong-armed into this in the near future.
    I imagine that his projected study of the unionist communities in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal will be along the same predictive lines.
    The National Museums Northern Ireland flagship (formerly the Ulster Museum), which is under Nelson, does not currently employ any archaeological curators. An odd concept for a museum with an exceptional prehistoric collection (never mind medieval reliquaries etcetcetc). And one that will see its disregarded as a serious museum in the near future. Perhaps Nelson doesn’t like prehistory and doesn’t want it shared.
    Notable centenaries include any that are of significance to unionism, plus 1916 (as a lesson of how bad republicans can be). Forget gun running, the Irish Volunteers, the War of Independence, pogroms etcetc. Noticeably 1916 conveniently gets tied in with various bugbears of Nelson’s – the GAA, Trade Unions and (???) Irish dancers. He forget to mention people spoke Irish in the crowd that day as well. The template for good commemoration is 1690, of course.
    As to presenting the Ulster Covenant as a human rights document, the bipolar logic behind that is phenomenal.

    Seriously, that’s a contradictory lecture to deliver at a conference on shared histories. What it makes abundantly clear is that Nelson does like shared histories – as long as it is his version and tastes.

  • Brian Walker

    Yes , guys, all very erudite. Historians of any kind won’t touch telelogical history with a bargepole, but is there an idea here worth adapting? Can looking back help to create a new society? If so, how? Obviously the Institute of British -Irish studies thinks so, although they’re located at the end of the island where these things are not so raw. If not, end of story.

  • Rory Carr

    Aah! the “limitations of the physical force tradition” – now there’s a salutary topic for reasoned debate. We could always have George W. Bush and Tony Blair along to add their thinking on the matter.

    Having said that, there is no good reason why we cannot (indeed, should not) re-examine our history afresh in an attempt to draw lessons that allow us to progress in the light of our mistakes, however we need to be very, very careful not to preset any agenda that is designed merely to suit the preordained visions of those who know best.

    As a footnote to Nevin’s interesting aside on Fred Crawford being the sole signatory of the Covenant in his own blood may I say that I had the experience of losing more than a little of my own blood in Fred Crawford’s house.

    Don’t be alarmed, it was all very benign. I was a child patient in the 1950’s in Crawford’s former home which was acquired by the Health Service and converted into a children’s hospital for the treatment of tuberculosis and weekly blood-testing was part of the regime. During my time there treatment and facilities were excellent and although it was the first time I ever faced sectarian rancour (including from one senior nurse who claimed she was a former Catholic now converted to Protestanism) my memories of my duration there are happy and I am glad to say that all but one child survived their potentially fatal illness, and that an infant diagnosed too late for effective intervention.

  • Brian, we probably can but I can’t see Nelson as the person to push it as he is such a committed ideologue.
    Personally I think it is about sharing spaces not history (history is mediated, space is experienced). For a start, if you take the first World War, I doubt any work has yet been done on inventorying the surviving buildings/locations associated with recruitment, training, embarkation etc in (say) Belfast and Dublin. Similarly, buildings associated with the civilian experience, places used by soldiers on leave or recuperating. Since WWI has now completely passed beyond the memory of living people is a completely mediated experience. Currently a lot of the mediation revolves around the motivation for individuals taking part (like the signed in blood motif that has grown around the covenant). A lot of which is speculative since most thinking/rememberance of WWI revolves around commemorative architecture which is (effectively) materialising the contemporary (i.e. by definition WWI memorials are later than WWI and reflect a historical view of the war).
    Identifying and re-presenting a handful of such buildings in Belfast, Dublin and elsewhere would provide spaces where people can go to that lack the politic frission of the post-WWI commemorative landscape (and all that means in Ireland, north and south).
    Instead, I’d offer people a chance to walk together in the shoes of their predecessors (since we all pretty much have someone who fought). Perhaps it would be more pertinent to have people visit the embarkation dock and look through the eyes of a 30 something father going off to war in 1914 (and all that would concern them) or get into the head of an 18 year old in an enlistment office in December 1917 who would surely be under little illusion as to what was in store for them.
    I think that is sharing history in a meaningful way but not a way I could see Nelson remotely signing up to (never mind how he would play out the Covenant, 1916, War of Independence etc).

  • dundonald voter

    actually i find it hard to take anything nelson mccausland says seriously at all. i mean anyone who promotes a dialect (north antrim speech) as a language has to be treated with severe caution. this is a man who is the heed yin of the ulster scots (ballymoney speaker) board. and in fact the new mp for strangford actually wants to have part of his opening speech in this dialect. have the looney’s taken over the asylum? as for these words of wisdom from nelson However I must also sound a warning note as regards the legacy of 1916.  There is the real danger of a veneration that could encourage and assist those dissident republicans in Northern Ireland who want to indoctrinate another generation of young men to pursue the nihilistic path of violence. does this now mean that we cant have anymore 12th celebrations in case their are a few nutters who might want to take up the challenge to day? does this mean nelson that people who march behind a band in the name of the great freedom fighter brian robinson might want to go out and kill a catholic shopkeeper? God spare us from the dup!! (and their ideas of what is history and the interpretation)

  • Granni Trixie

    Leaving to one side McCausland trying to pull rank on the Museum, at least he has created space for public debate.
    Who decides or who ought to decide on represntqwtions of say the troubles for us all? For instance there is an blue, enamel sign on the wall of a Lisburn Rd terrace which is a remnant from the Womern Together organisation which had an office there in the 90s. I think it ought to be preserved in a museum – many were involved in the many strands of the peace movement, the experience is just as meaningful to us as say the OO or the GAA seems to be for other people.

    Once a certain well known person was organising a symbols exhibition in the 90s. I got in touch with them asking would they like some items to represent the peace movement (anorak that I am this is the troubles memoribilia which I collect)….what was I told but “we already have a symbol of peace ,the big dove used in South Africa”.

    So Nelson has his agenda,I have mine but he apparently ahs clout. However, I do think we need more debate about how we represent out past – cant all be left to the usual suspects.