Still, flattered as I am by this attachment to my country, I have to admit that Bastille Day in Belfast has little to do with France — just as Orange parades are remote from the Dutch dynasty of that name. Both events reveal more about Northern Ireland in the 21st century than they do about other countries and epochs. They tell us that although violence has largely ended, and Catholics and Protestants grumpily share power, they are still deeply divided — and keen to use any historical symbol to prove how different they are from one another.
It would be nice to believe that the determination of a few history buffs to celebrate Bastille Day marked a desire to break the cycle of religious violence — after all, the French Revolution was anticlerical. But most of the time, the only thing that unites Northern Ireland’s competing versions of the past, and their exponents, is a determination to exclude any real sense of shared memory.
And from the Irish Times
But not so long ago the Orangemen were our bad guys, and always in the wrong. In Catholic mythology the Twelfth was held on a beautiful sunny day –“God’s a Protestant” – and during the Troubles it was a major media occasion. We’d troop up there every July, and the British and international media would send some of their best people, although in fact we could have written the story without leaving our offices: this was a tribute both to our certainty and the Orangemen’s love of routine.
For our part, the Southern journalists, I think I’m correct in saying, thought the Twelfth was a) a reliable and unchanging filler story in the midst of a long summer and b) very far away. I remember leaving my house in Dublin early one Twelfth, going north to cover a march, and a man was walking down our street whistling The Sash in the sunny morning air. It was a strangely lovely moment. I was most surprised to hear this tune literally on my own doorstep, and of course should not have been.
If you cannot imagine yourself wanting to riot against Catholic emancipation, say, or becoming an early Tory and signing up to fight with the Old Pretender, or cheering on Prynne as the theatres are closed and Puritanism holds sway … knowing is not enough. If you cannot feel what our ancestors felt when they cried: ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ or, indeed, cried: ‘Death to Wilkes!’, if you cannot feel with them, then all you can do is judge them and condemn them, or praise them and over-adulate them.
History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even – if we dare, and we should dare – a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.