This is another in our series on 'Dealing with the Past', written by guest contributors and designed to encourage constructive reflection - this article is written by Dr Dominic Bryan, Director of Institute of Irish Studies (Queen's University Belfast) and Reader in Social Anthropology
We are in the midst of what has been coined the decade of commemoration. Starting with 1912 and the signing of the Covenant in Belfast, through strikes, onto the Rising and Battle of the Somme in 1916 and before we know it the War of Independence, the setting up of Northern Ireland and the Civil War. All, apparently, key moments in our history to be remembered through rituals, museum exhibitions and countless newspaper articles and TV programmes. Circling around all these events are the historians of early 20th century Ireland to tell us about the complexity of what happened. And we are told that we should remember and commemorate those that died ‘for us’. Indeed, their deeds are frequently described as ‘glorious’ and captured in statues and memorials, usually of men in uniform.
There is so much that makes me uncomfortable about this process it is difficult to know where to start. First, we must be clear, commemoration is not about memory it is about identity. It is about people expressing political identities in the present. The events that take place are not fundamentally about the past, the history is just the clothes we get dressed in to perform the politics of the present and our hopes for the future.
Second, the events chosen are very particularly designed to tell predominantly national stories. Key to our political world are, what Benedict Anderson called, ‘imagined communities’, large groups of people who are taught to feel bonded (and bounded) to the idea of a nation. Actually these groups are so politically diverse that you will struggle to find anything that can be said to consistently held in common except a particular view of the past. And this view of the past needs to be constructed and reconstructed. That is where commemoration comes in.
What is more powerful than standing in ‘communion’ with those (usually men) who, we are reassured, died for us? We are in spiritual union with their ghosts. Except of course we are not. Most of them had a very limited idea about what they were dying for and no idea about the world 100 years later. We will rarely, for example, be asked to remember the many millions that died in the horrible industrial work places of the nineteenth century because it offers an inconvenient narrative for our respective countries. Much better, apparently, for our countries to commemorate those that died ‘for us’, against ‘them’, than those that died for the production of massive capitalist profit.
Third, we are assured that it is important to know our history because that tells us who we are. Except is does not. It tells us a particular story that ignores all of the understandings of identity provided by sociologists, social psychologists, political scientists that view the identity production as a fundamentally contemporary social act. What we remember, and how we remember it (and indeed what we forget), are the result of contemporary political social relationships. Those that worry about young people not knowing ‘their history’ (why do they need to own it?) are really worried that those young people won’t embrace the group identity. That is why the curriculums at our schools treat the teaching of history as so important, and also exclude most of the social and political sciences.
Fourth, is the idea that we need to remember the past so not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Noble, for sure, except that this is exposed as a lie by so many of the conflicts in our modern world. It is precisely the invocation of the past that calls men to arms in the present. It is the victims, those that sacrifice or died ‘for us’, that are invoked to reassure and justify the violent actions of the present. David Reiff in his powerful polemic Against Remembrance reminds us that ‘over again, we have been confronted by the reality that nothing is more socially uncontrollable and, hence, more dangerously politically than a people who believe themselves victims’ (p.102).
And so commemoration is not an education in history. It is the production of a particular historical narrative appropriated by political forces to underpin particular social arrangements through an invocation of past sacrifice. The professional historians might join the commemorative party to offer complex ‘myth busting’ education but they are really the Time Lords of rituals designed to bring the past into the political present. Being educated about the past is one thing, commemorating it is a totally different practice altogether.
There is more to come. Be warned, as we reach the end of the decade of centenaries the 50th anniversaries of Civil Rights marches and the outbreak of conflict in Northern Ireland will be upon us. This area is so sensitive that it is still barely taught in schools. However, the rituals and memorials that already litter the north are about to be added to. But to what end?