Do Historians Help or Hinder when Dealing with the Past?

What role might historians play in addressing the legacies of Northern Ireland’s troubled past? That was the topic of a seminar hosted today by Healing Through Remembering, Do Historians Help or Hinder?: Preparing for a Decade of Commemorations.

The role of historians is seemingly hot on the British Government’s agenda, with Secretary of State Owen Paterson recently floating the idea that historians are better equipped than lawyers to sort through the events, stories, and traumas of the Troubles.

Those who are suspicious of the British Government’s motivation for championing historians might see it as an attempt to wiggle out of state responsibility (and therefore accountability) for what happened during the Troubles.

Be that as it may, the main speaker at the HTR event, Ian McBride, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern and Irish History at King’s College London, provided some food for thought on the role that historians might play in such a process.

At the start of his remarks, McBride asked us to consider whether historians can be healers. Here, he admitted that this idea might seem at first absurd, but asked us to bear with him …

McBride then said that he liked the idea of community story telling – much of which goes on within Northern Irish communities and much of which has been facilitated by grassroots groups like HTR. He said that the telling of stories can have a ‘levelling’ effect, because they encourage people to identify with others’ human experiences.

He said this process was about ‘truthfulness,’ where people had the chance to tell their story and have it listened to by others with (hopefully) open minds. He said this had the potential to promote empathy for different perspectives on a contentious and troubled past.

At the same time, McBride said that academics were the worst sort of people to facilitate a storytelling process. For him, where academic historians come in is standing at arms’ length from all these various stories, and relating them to one another.

But McBride cautioned that we can’t expect historians to produce a tidy narrative about the Troubles. He said that historians would inevitably offer up open-ended verdicts, emphasising that violence has many causes, and that this would produce no straightforward lessons. He pointed out that historians routinely disagree with each other, which would further muddy the waters.

This open-ended perspective on history does not fit in with the agenda of some groups and parties that want to use the past to ‘blame’ others or to have their version of history confirmed. This also raises questions about whether the historians of this generation have sufficient distance from the Troubles to sort through the competing stories and versions of the ‘truth,’ and to offer some sort of weighing up – and assigning of various degrees of responsibility – for what happened.

McBride’s perspective actually seemed to fit quite neatly with what Paterson has (albeit unofficially) proposed – a documentary centre that would collect stories about and perspectives on the past, which historians could then evaluate. As Paterson has said,

“There might also ultimately be a role for a panel of historians to interpret all the available material with a view to producing the authoritative history of the Troubles.”

McBride’s discussion was set in the context of the upcoming decade of commemorations, which includes the 1912 Ulster Covenant*, the 1916 Easter Rising, and the Battle of the Somme. There was a sense among those attending the seminar that while the commemoration of those events has the potential to be divisive, they also represent an opportunity to think more deeply about the past. This would mean that those who are celebrating the events who have to think critically about their own ‘side’s’ shortcomings and biases. They would also have to consider the perspectives of those who do not see those events as something to celebrate.

The meeting was facilitated by Queen’s University’s Dominic Bryan, a lecturer in Social Anthropology. Initial responses were provided by Karen McCartney of the Ulster People’s College and HTR member Laurence McKeown.

* Thanks, Nevin, for catching  my error, I’ve now replaced Solemn League and Covenant with Ulster Covenant …

  • Gladys, it’s called the Ulster Covenant.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Another day……another seminar……about……me (more or less).
    Actually its not a lot different from the point I made at last weeks Slugger event….that peoples stories were actually more important than “conclusions”. Now that what I said is in some way supported by an academic, I suppose I should in some way feel “validated” although funnily enough I thought I was right even before I had academic support.

    Historians CAN facilitate the process. Record the stories ….leave it as an archive. My preference is for any individual to tell one story (which might be AGAINST his/her communitys image) in return for telling TWO which support an his/her community.
    In some ways this seminar compliments Dominic Bryans module at Queens… with the School of History. The module contrasts historical myth with histoical fact. All very interesting……and totally irrelevant.
    Symbols are merely symbols…….well we kinda knew that.
    No meaning in an Irish flag or British flag.
    Just pieces of cloth……we can burn them. Hooray.
    But a Tottenham Hotspur shirt is somehow different.

  • Zig70

    I’ve come to like fjh’s posts. But Spurs, case of icarus wings, ever destined for mid table, 9th on a good year, 11th on a bad year. Bit like Alliance. Time they got back to 10th.
    For me the knowledge of history is sooo important. It’s a shining sword to the ignorant bigots. Story telling is an art, Hitler had it, as did Jesus. It’s a shining sword for the bigots against us moderates. Story telling is such a joy for a late night but you have to always be willing to change your mind. Was it Dick Cheney – there are things we know we don’t know?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Wasnt that Rumsfeldt?
    The mis-use of History is bad.
    The use of History good.
    Yet it pervades everything.
    Maybe it would be better if everyday was groundhog day where nothing from the past was retained.
    But yet we need it……even for something as mundane as a football match. Not a Spurs fan myself…..must have chosen it at random.
    But I would imagine a Spurs fan would get more out of defeating Arsenal at Highbury than just the 3-2 scoreline.Football would have a lot less meaning if Manchester United v Everton did not have a Wayne Rooney subtext.
    Or United v Real Madrid (Ronaldo)
    Or United v Citeh (Tevez).

    And of course any movie on say American Civil War or song about the Civil War is enhanced by a knowledge of the History.
    Watching Coronation Street would be meaningless if we didnt know Leanne and Nick had been married before.

  • Rory Carr

    Much like that last sentence is meaningless unless we know what it was that Leanne and Nick had been married before. Was it before the Fall of Rome, the Siege of Kilkenny? And, while we’re at it, who the hell are Leanne and Nick?

    The historian must not make assumptions about the reader’s knowledge nor take for granted a shared cultural background.

  • Brian Walker

    Gladys, it sounds like a good discussion.

    Naturally on the proposal to release documents to a panel, everyone would be acutely sensitive to the charge of the State whitewash. There would have to be safeguards, namely…

    a widely drawn panel- not only of historians,

    broad sponsorship,

    wide access with restrictions agreed and
    declared in advance and discussed case by case in the published texts.

    The reputations of the writers. They have a lot to lose.

    Theirs would be only be the fist draft.. In my view this should not be a once only exercise. .

    Just as tricky would be to get the grassroots (shall we call them) to talk.

    Ian McBride knows well of which he speaks. He recently wrote an excellent history of 18th Century Ireland – The Isle of Slaves. The preface sets his work in the context of the writing of history and its relationship to our own time.

    McBride presumes to attack the great revisonists from Moody to Beckett who purported to write “scientific” history, Their work was “just as partial and self serving as the nationalist mythmakers they replaced,” part of the “ideological backlash to revolutionary repulbicanism,.” he contends. The modern Troubles enhanced the appeal of their approach.

    Later research notably of Irish language sources and greater attention to the grass roots, he says, ” has had ther practical effect of reasserting the prinacy of the nationalist struggle.”

    But here too Mc Bride lays about him. For the 18th century,he rejects the ” nationalist paradigm” of the Victorian age.

    So what’s the message? Modern historians are no medieval chronicers writing to please a patron.They are contentious folk and nobody’s lacky. Often they make their own reputation at their distinguished predeccessors’ expense.
    ( not unlike politicians). .

    History is continually rewritten in the light of our own time but not arbitrarily. There is still much left to find out about the 18th and other centuries. The search of truth is both continuous and paramount.

    Not a bad maxim for opening up the contemporary archives.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I mean that Leanne is at it again with Nick having previously been married to him. Shes currently engaged to Peter the dry alcoholic who is helping Carla who is the former business partner of Nick. Carla fancies Peter and knows about Nick and Leanne.
    Or……er so Ive been told. Obviously I dont watch it myself. But my point is that in order to get full pleasure out of Corrie, you have to know the background.
    Its impossible to understand Politics without understanding History…..which is why so many journalists are so bad.

  • White Horse

    There aren’t too many historians who tell us that power comes from other than the gun.

    I have always found that the subject conflicts heavily with belief in God.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Historians help us understand the past.
    I don’t see how they could hinder ?
    Unless it is a bad historian.
    In which case,his/her peers,will surely point out the mistakes ?
    Anthony Beevor…….presents the facts,and lets the reader interpret them.
    As is the way of all good historical writers.
    One does not read a Tim Fat Coogan book about pira,without reading a few more,(how shall we put it),less green tinted glasses view !!

    I have legalised robbery,called it belief…………..I have ran with the money,hid like a thief…………rewritten history with my armies and my crooks………invented memories,I did burn all those books…………….as Mark Knopfler may,or may not have written about El Beardo Adams 😉

    Our very own Fitz ‘understands history’ from a West Belfast point of view…………..I ask in all humility,is that REALLY understanding history,or just MOPE history ??

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I suppose when young folks leave the Whitla Hall, clutching the little parchment that says they do indeed have the skills to weigh a historical argument….they are entitled to feel some sense of being validated.
    I dont think that I understand “History” from a West Belfast point of view…… would be insulting if anyone suggested that and Im sure that wasnt your intention.
    But I do understand “Life” from (among other points a view) a West Belfast experience. Again Im sure thats not a lesser experience than living for a considerable time in any area/s.
    Im sure none of us would make that kind of silly point.

  • joeCanuck

    I would be a little wary of instant historians. It takes some time before the effects of things happening today can be put in a fuller context when more information becomes available. One example being government documents under the thirty plus years rule.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Of course. But if theres one thing worse than “instant historians” its people who are not even historians.

  • RepublicanStones

    Historians, the sort not saddled with any particular agenda (except an honest appraisal) are vital to dealing with the past. Particularly where you have conflicting narratives at play. In a year in which we lost a historian who concerned himself with our own little island and also lost another who was perhaps one of the worlds foremost exponents in the field. Whether we agreed with Peter Hart or not, his work did polarize (questionable sources aside). Now some might say that that doesn’t help when dealing with the past, but it shouldn’t be the job of a historian to ‘strike a balance’. Tony Judt was immense, the biographer of Europe since WW2, he shed the marxism and Zionism of his youth, which no doubt freed him to have a more critical eye, but allowed his detractors room to manouver. Perhaps the point is that by asking or expecting historians to help us deal with the past, we should meet them halfway and help them, by checking our own long held biases/ideologies and simply evaluating what they provide for us without any kind of tinted glasses on. It is the historian, more than any other profession, who will keep us from making the mistakes of the past.

    And in case any of you don’t know what you want for Christmas yet –

  • JJ Malloy

    Without honest historians we would be left with our unadulterated ancient hatreds

  • DC


    You should check out the page below for a European take on some of the problems with engaging academics and historians when trying to make sense of a violent past; however, below it focuses on German expellees post-WWII from Poland and there is some cut across in relevance to Britain and Ireland, victor and vanquished; in my opinion the bigger debate is beyond the Troubles, going farther back, perhaps to the plantation, when the seeds of the current problems were well and truly baked in:

    The conflict between Poland and Germany over expellees is becoming ever more emotional. What is at stake is no less than the collective memory of Europe and the victory of an ultimate narrative of the Second World War and its consequences.

    This is the problem with unionism and nationalism – both try to create a collective memory and battle for an ultimate narrative to be exported and sold like a product in a bid to gain wider political and moral support for their cause.


    The German Federal Republic should remember its victims, and where appropriate, the loss of its eastern territories, in its own way. To this day the expellees have the feeling that they have paid a higher price for the war than other Germans and that they have not received sufficient compensation from the rest of German society. According to Tomasz Szarota, the center is, above all, “about a reconciliation between the expellees and the other Germans.” This reconciliation, i.e. moral atonement, appears to be justified.

    Has such a reconciliation ever happened with ‘mainland Britons’ and those Protestant/Unionists left over in Northern Ireland – carrying on this UK political project – a hangover from British expansionary projects, has this ever happened, as at times the disconnect is large that I’m sure many feel that they are expellees in NI left to wither on the tit of British subvention?

    Or is this kind of thing just all too distance now, did the victor, if it was Britain at one point, not need to come to terms with an ugly past at some point? Or is this now cemented and a done deal with consociationalism at Stormont, proof of the two communities, one part gets to share in the politics of the UK, the other retains its aspirations but plays a shared part in running this place as well as co-equals? And was Irish independence proof enough in its own right of the Irish finanlly giving the British the two fingers – the Irish then became the victors?

    Nevertheless, it is a shame that it will be a national, not a pan-European, center. That Erika Steinbach does not have a seat on the foundation’s advisory committee is of mere symbolic significance. The controversy surrounding the BdV President is actually an expression of deeper-seated political and inter-cultural problems, problems which have been personalized for far too long. The issue is Germany’s and Poland’s unresolved common past and diverging historical perceptions.

    Up until the peace process I would have said these issues applied to Britain and Ireland – the two sovereigns, in need of reconciling the shared history: for Germany replace it with Britain, and for Poland replace it with Ireland.

    The efforts of Germans to bring about Franco-German reconciliation have had a model character. In the case of Poland, things have not been so straightforward. There is more underlying aggression, whereby the pain of expulsion and the territorial losses, the extent of one’s own responsibility and the German image of Poland play a role.

    I reckon it will be hard for the Troubles to have an agreed and shared history among all people here if the preceding violence and wars conducted by Britain going back through the centuries is not laid down first, and debated and agreed by both Ireland and Britain with its own respective historians in tow.

    When it comes to English-speaking Tories – the likes of Owen Paterson – coming to Northern Ireland, even if he did then offer thousands of economy-busting and nation-bankrupting inquires I still reckon the more militant in Sinn Fein still would be both depressed and unimpressed in tandom by it:

    “I could stand on my head and catch flies with my feet, it wouldn’t make any difference…I am misrepresented, distorted and insulted.”

    But thankfully times have moved on, the EU has developed soothing old national sores between Britain and Ireland – plus given the recent financial crash, once again in politics the primacy of economics shines through.

    How to sell products and do good region/nation-building trade is the key to the livelihood of any nation and region, and old enmities are dissolving in the face of globalisation and better access to markets; access to the market under EU laws is there for all and a level playing field is to be had by all member states wishing to participate.

    Which is why both Britain and Ireland have been caught up in the banking crash and toxic-credit trap!