“the only thing that unites Northern Ireland’s competing versions of the past…”

A couple of articles worth considering in relation to this time of the year.  Via Newshound, Pierre Ranger in the New York Times

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.

As I’ve mentioned before, on “the ability to dehumanise large tracts of fellow human beings“, whether in relation to past or recent history it’s worth noting, again, this from Stephen Fry

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.

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  • Interesting. I have wondered would I have been a Schindler. I doubt it. I might given the provocation risk me, I would never risk my family. Not for anything. I might not have been an official Nazi, but only if I was officially allowed not to be.

    The other thing is it all gets further away. Hardly anyone alive today fought in the second world war. Probably no one is alive from previous battles or wars. No one remembers the famine, not ‘remembers’. Even the troubles, most young (ish) people have not known the deprivation at the root of the violence, they grew up on other peoples memories and other peoples hatred. All conflicts ought to be required teaching in schools, but who would be unbiased enough to trust with the teaching.

  • Pete Baker


    It’s important to consider the generalities of the proposition rather than focusing on the most extreme example offered.

    The imagination of the considerer, rather than reliance on unreliable ‘eye-witness’ accounts.

  • Seymour Major

    “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”

    This is an important point. In the future, we might just find a way to celebrate an historical event which can be shared by both communities.

    This time of year is about the Orangemen commemorating their favourite set of historical events. Come Easter, it will be the turn of the Republicans.

    The Good Friday Agreement is still in its early stages of evolution, politically, but I believe that in the longer term future, it will be hailed as a landmark which gave rise to peace in Northern Ireland and formally drew a line under the troubles.

    We might be able to commemorate that event in the future, perhaps not on Good Friday, for obvious reasons, but perhaps on May 23rd. That was the day on which the agreement was sealed in a referendum in 1998.

  • Pete Baker

    ‘It is important to consider the generalities of the proposition.’

    Is that what the north has been doing all these years. I disagree. I think it it vital to, as far as possible, put ourselves in the position of all sides when we consider historical causes of events.

    For example. Nazis industrialised brutality and murder. The Nazi party won a very close election to get into power so clearly not all Germans were Nazi, but all Germans carry the burden of their guilt. You think about that and see where it leads, and whilst you are thinking about it, try and imagine what you would have done. and then stretch it to other conflicts closer to home.