Review of Guy Beiner’s “Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster”

“This is the past and it has to stay in the past. We don’t want to see any more of it.”

Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster, Guy Beiner, Oxford University Press, 2018.

Over the weekend the PSNI were called to manage an incident with a car bomb within the Walls of Derry. The car was parked in Bishop’s Street, just by the courthouse and directly across the road from the Masonic Centre that is in the “Volunteer Bishop”, Bishop Hervey’s original eighteenth century town house. The political response to this presage of an implied return to violence was immediate. The Mayor of Derry John Boyle stated, “This is the past and it has to stay in the past. We don’t want to see any more of it.”

Councillor Boyle’s statement raises the commonly misunderstood issue of what the term “the past” actually means to us all here in the north of Ireland. Of necessity the bare term means very different things to very different people here, but the desire for the pervasive presence of aspects of our past to simply “go away and stop bothering people” has been a constantly recurring themes since we all voted on the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Of course such a retreat from our social memory, such a call for collective amnesia, raises similar issues to those raised by the terrible experience of personal amnesia. And like personal amnesia, these problems affect the minute by minute exercise of our everyday lives.

Dr. Guy Beiner’s Forgetful Remembrance Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster addresses the very texture of how we work locally with our pasts. It contains just over six hundred pages of intense historical illustration and argument, supported by an encyclopaedic knowledge of how the conflicting political interpretations and the emotions raised by the social memory of the 1798 Rebellion have been interpreted and reinterpreted over the past two centuries locally.

This is possibly the most important book that has been written to date about the very particular, politically inspired, social remembering and social forgetting of our history in the north of Ireland. Dr. Beiner is perhaps uniquely placed to sensitively analyse our historical experience from every possible angle. He looks on our history with both an outsider’s and an insider’s eye. His own experience as an Israeli national has exposed him to a very similar experience to our own, through Israel’s long sustained violent civil conflict since its inception, a deeply personal experience which enables him to particularly empathise with every nuance of our local political scene and licenses him to offer very unique insights. Guy is currently a senior lecturer at the Department of General History of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and holds a PhD from the National University of Ireland. He has held numerous fellowships over the past decade which have enabled him to carry out research focused on our vernacular historiography and its unique processes of social forgetting and of social remembrance and commemoration.

To articulate this massive corpus of research, Dr Beiner has avoided what he describes as the “fetishizing” of academic memory studies and has linguistically drawn on older local terms such as “disremembering”, which the antiquarian P.W. Joyce described just over a century ago as “out of fashion in England but common in Ireland.”

In his introduction he references our encoded habits through Heaney’s words,  “Northern reticence, the tight gag of place…a land of password, handgrip, wink and nod…where tongues lie coiled,” of communication through “hidden transcripts” where the delicacy of exchange is coded for constrained areas of mutual recognition. This can close off understandings from the broader public sphere, and avoid the inevitable public disagreements of a community where people have been long divided by their politics.

Inevitably, Beiner addresses the realities avoided through the popular history of evasions and simplifications, where the complex currents of a century long transformation of Presbyterian dissenter radicalism into Loyalism and Unionist Conservatism have been publicly reduced to the crude idea that the alliance of Dissenter and Catholic in1798 was an inexplicable anomaly in an unbroken tradition of Protestant against Catholic and Planter against Gael. He identifies this as a product of the moment where “the shift of identity towards Unionism created what may appear to be classic conditions for collective amnesia, encouraging public effacement” of earlier identities and commitments. In his Introduction “Sites of Oblivion,” he explains these complexities and contradictions, while suggesting that in reality, “liberal Ulster suffered a slow death, and perhaps never fully died at all.”

Beiner’s chapter headings eloquently illustrate the trajectory of his argument, “Amnesty and Amnesia: The Aftermath of 1798”, where the conscious process of effacement is set in motion as a condition of re-entry into the social world of the province. He then works through the muting and fictionalising of memory through the first half of the nineteenth century in “The Generation of Forgetting”. “Regenerated Forgetting” covers the rediscovery of the experience with, for example, the conscious Antiquarian excavation of the memories of older people during the lead up to the Irish Cultural Revival, alongside the conscious act of rebuilding of the Protestant imagination as an entirely Unionist phenomena. The latter given impetus when Henry Cooke could point to Daniel O’Connell’s appropriation of earlier pluralist anti-Union sentiment to create his project for Catholic emancipation, building a counter movement where Dissenter liberals were over many decades slowly acclimatised to a growing commitment to an Ascendency led Conservative Unionism.

His chapter on “Decommemorating” describes how the Unionist response to the centenary commemorations of 1898 developed a new pattern of challenge through an active destruction of monuments and attacks on commemoration events – things which were increasingly seen, not as a community experience, but, as part of a growing sectarian polarisation.

Later chapters take us through the interpretations and reinterpretations of 1798 over partition and during the troubles, focusing on contested ideas about the 1998 commemorations and Ulster Museum exhibition. In conclusion he draws comparatively on similar issues of such the effects of the active effacement of memory and history in instances across the globe. “Social forgetting beyond Ulster”, with the experience, for example, of Vichy France, the Holocaust and the Asociación para Recuperación’s engagement with Spain’s Francoist past all employed as illustrations. 

Across the entire book Dr. Beiner compellingly supports his interpretations with endless, very fully described and analysed, examples which make the book highly valuable also as a reference book for frequently obscure texts and interpretations of 1798. For anyone genuinely trying to honestly understand and pass beyond the encoded sources of our current political confusions and enmities, Beiner’s book offers an atlas of an historiographical landscape which has been rendered both familiar and yet strange by the very processes of highly selective remembering and the counter-disremembering which he addresses throughout the book.

And regarding Councillor Boyle’s injunction on the necessity to forget? He is of course referring to the selective memory of our past, which constantly fuels the encoded misunderstandings between us all. What we need is a far greater understanding of our history and of the processes which, through many politicised propaganda versions in popular histories, have crippled and stunted our understanding of who we have been, and how this engages with who we now are. To this end, Beiner’s book is essential reading.

—–

Forgetful Remembrance is to be launched at Queen’s University Belfast on Thursday 24th January 2019 between 5:00-6.30pm in the Lanyon Building, room 0G.074.  Both Dr Guy Beiner and Dr Peter Gray will speak at the launch. It will followed up with an interdisciplinary postgraduate workshop on memory studies in Ireland, led by Guy Beiner, on Friday 25 January at 10am.