‘Looking at how we got here can help us deal with the present and the future’, argues historical geographer

A better understanding of our history is important as a means of bringing our society together, believes Anthony Russell of the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Foundation.  “One of the things that we have been trying to do in the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Foundation is to use history as a tool for reconciliation, rather than something that has to be fought over,” he explains.  “Looking at how we got here” can help us to deal with the challenges we face today, says Anthony in the latest Forward Together podcast.

“And one of the things we tried to do in the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Foundation is to identify myths and to challenge those myths in a variety of ways,” Anthony adds. That has involved performances of historical events taking place within religious settings in which those events are explained and placed in context.  In doing so, they challenge the assumed connections between religious affiliations and political attitudes.

“I think there’s great hope in that,” says Anthony.  “People looking at history, at the 1788 rebellion, the Great Famine, John Mitchel, with an openness to look at history and to learn from history.”

Part of that reconsideration of history includes recognising the connections and common causes between Presbyterianism and other non-conformist Protestantism with Catholicism in the past.  “Oh very much so,” says Anthony, “and I think that’s one of the great values of the 1788 commemoration with the very strong identification of the [Thomas Paine book] Rights of Man.”  The Rights of Man had a massive impact.

Explaining history through personal stories is important, stresses Anthony.  “Of course history is open to interpretation, but the idea of storytelling is very, very powerful. And Stalin was right –  a million people is just a statistic. People pay much more attention to one person’s story…. it’s very, very hard not to have empathy with any victim when you hear their stories.”

Looking at today’s society through the eyes of a historical geographer Anthony says that he sees parallels with other places.  “I think we have to recognise, and the voters have recognised it for us, that there are two ethnic communities here and we should not underestimate the power of ethnicity. I always refer to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. You had 60 years of a dominant totalitarian regime.  Once it was peeled back the first thing that popped to the surface was ethnicity and we’d be very foolish in the north of Ireland to ignore just how deep ethnicity is. “And we may not like it, but any problems we have have to be approached by recognizing that we have two very distinct communities…. In practice it means not doing what we’re doing at the moment. And that is that we have two blocks which are intent on maximizing the power of that ethnicity.”

There are strong connections between the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Foundation and Canada – where Thomas D’Arcy McGee was a cabinet minister.  (He was born in Carlingford, raised in Cushendall, emigrated to Boston, returned to Ireland and became a leading republican, wanted for treason, escaped to America and then Canada, where he became a father of Canadian Confederation, but opposed the Fenian movement – a supporter of which assassinated him.)  Anthony reflects on how, in Toronto, the Orange Order has shrunk and its once substantial parade is watched by a few hundred observers who are unclear about what is happening.

There are challenges today for unionism in Northern Ireland.  “In the past when a unionist peered over the border onto the South, they saw exactly what they had predicted a hundred years ago – a priest-ridden Free State…. Southern society has changed enormously and, of course, much, much more liberally.  Despite the apparent lack of notice by the DUP, I think the unionist community is very well aware that geographically and demographically that change is happening.  They will have to accommodate that – and that puts a major responsibility on the nationalist and republican community to be generous in their response.”

The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.


  • Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.

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