‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.’
Whilst they seem much in keeping with his thoughts, the words of American novelist, poet and activist Maya Angelou may not have been in the mind of Irish President Michael D Higgins when, in December 2020, he launched the first of a series of Machnamh 100 Conferences, the central aim of which he stated as: “encapsulating meditation, reflection, consideration and thought’’
Continuing in the context of interest in “our shared past and our futures together” the President extended an invitation to” reflect on that tumultuous period of 100 years ago and what it means for us today” and suggested that ”we are all challenged to engage with our shared past in a manner that is honest, authentic and inclusive, and that, if commemoration is understood in this way, it might assist in healing the wounds of conflicts, recognise different narratives as to their cause and their repercussions, that cannot, and should not be forgotten.”
In the presentation which can be accessed on the President of Ireland website further reference is made to the need to:
“…avoid amnesia, remember in full, taking all of the diverse perspectives and experiences of what happened into account, with a willingness to hear the stories that might prove less comfortable and give space to the perspectives that might challenge each other and consider the marginalised voices, the disenfranchised and voices overlooked in recollections of the past.”
In a more recent interview in the Guardian newspaper, President Higgins, in laying the ground for a second conference which will feature contributions on ‘Empire: instincts, interests, power and resistance’ offered a sharp critique of British imperialism and a “feigned amnesia” around the “disinclination of both academics and journalistic accounts to critique empire “and contrasts “British forgetfulness with Ireland’s reflections on its war of independence and partition a century ago.”
The comments display the characteristics of a mind already made up and it will be interesting to note the content and range of analysis at the Conference beyond the emotional inclinations implied in the comments of the President. By imposing interpretation on ideas yet to be explored there is the potential for jumping from assumption to a self-fulfilling conclusion without the due inquiry and reflection previously advocated and this does not serve enlightenment or scholarship well.
Beyond the ‘what about’ nature of an article which appears in the Daily Telegraph and cites “Irish nationalism as being as guilty as the British in re-writing history” the thinking of President Higgins reflects a more ideologically and nationalist perspective than before, in this case of British historiography and Ireland’s analysis of its past. In doing so both invite consideration and reflection.
The claim that academics are disinclined to critique ‘empire’ seems unfair and only partially informed. There is a range of publications, research and courses which address this in relation to India, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in terms of policy, actions and consequences.
Where this not the case students would not be able to avail of academic critique on topics including the East India Company, Clive, the Opium Wars, the Scramble for Africa, colonial administrations in Australia and New Zealand, Amritsar and the famine in Bengal during World War Two.
Study is grounded not just in terms of European historical narrative but also in critical and cultural thinking as referenced in, amongst others, orientalism, exceptionalism and settler colonialism.
Works like Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire when contrasted with Empire by Niall Ferguson which one reviewer describes as addressing the ‘triumphs, deceits, decencies, kindness and cruelties of the British Empire, facilitate healthy debate and commend further study.
This is hardly faux amnesia and portrays a willingness to challenge, revise and re-evaluate which the President dismisses too readily and which is absent in Ireland more than he seems prepared to acknowledge or is it, that it is under a surface below which Ireland is unwilling to look? The hostile response to the suggestion of including the RIC in public commemoration and reflection may well be an indicator.
Closing the book on an heroic narrative using politically favourable terminology to sanitize sectarian violence does not begin to address what lies between the lines during this decade of centenaries, in particular pertaining to the partition which created two states on the island of Ireland.
The contrast which the President makes between Ireland and Britain may not be as marked as he suggests and is only partially addressed in the cultural and political re-habilitation of those who served in World War One and the provision of a Centre near the river Boyne.
Speaking recently from the University of Notre Dame, Western Australia where he is Vice-Chancellor former British Diplomat, Newry born Professor Francis Campbell suggested that, in contrast to the circumstances which led to the creation of Northern Ireland, the War of Independence 1919-1921 was not a sectarian war. President Higgins may or may not concur. Many in public life in the Republic of Ireland do.
To differ from this view is contentious and this was much in display during a conference located at Maynooth to examine the experience of Southern Loyalism in Ireland after partition where some of the debate over the experience of and reduction in numbers of Southern Loyalists in the new state and the reasons for this became heated.
There was a variety of factors – the movement of military personnel, falling birth rates -but this does not detract from the evidence in news coverage, compensation records, publications, personal accounts and family memories, in addition to academic research, which challenges a conventional view denying that individuals, their families, homes and property were targeted, intimidated and killed not merely because of their political loyalties but because of religion where the two merged.
They were not all in the RIC, spies or informants. Nor where they all occupants of the Big House.
Modern Ireland may have put this history behind it but it is still part of the history. As one elderly member of a Protestant fellowship in 2016 said during a chance conversation: “You know what it was like for us down here.” In fact, I didn’t and it was this remark which prompted further interest in the history of the period.
In her book ‘Rebel Prods ‘Dr Valerie Jones cites examples of individuals from a Protestant background who embraced membership of the Gaelic League, the IRB, Cumann na mBann and similar organisations. Some participated in the events of Easter 1916. Others however were mostly loyalist and seen as ‘an enemy within.’
During the war of 1919-1921, the truce and the Civil War which followed acceptance of the Treaty, in Cork, Leitrim, Kildare, Cavan, Kerry, Monaghan, Westmeath and Donegal, men and women were intimidated, killed and ‘disappeared’.
Homes, shops, Orange Halls, Freemason Halls and Churches were burned and businesses boycotted because of politics, religion and a mixture of the two. Property was taken and land re-distributed. An estimated 20,000 refugees left for England. Some of these acts sparked reprisals in Northern Ireland and vice-versa.
Has this been addressed adequately in what President Higgins lauds as ‘Ireland’s reflection on its war of independence and partition.’
If so, then the President will feel justified in claiming a higher moral ground than he apportions to British reflections on the Empire. If not, one has to hope that a sense of victimhood has not prompted his remarks.
If so, the words of Maya Angelou provide further food for thought:
You may not control all of the events that happen to you but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.