Nav­i­gat­ing the con­tested wa­ters of North­ern Ire­land’s re­cent past

Book is a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to the act of ‘re­mem­ber­ing the Trou­bles openly’ Re­mem­ber­ing the Trou­bles: Con­test­ing the Re­cent Past in North­ern Ire­land

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Freya McCle­ments

Edited by Jim Smyth Univer­sity of Notre Dame Press, $40

For the re­viewer in search of a quo­ta­tion with which to sum up the work un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, Re­mem­ber­ing the Trou­bles of­fers an em­bar­rass­ment of riches. “Among the more abid­ing clichés about the Ir­ish and their trou­bles is that they are locked into his­tory,” writes Jim Smyth, be­fore go­ing on to cite Sir Ken Bloom­field’s rue­ful ob­ser­va­tion that “an­niver­saries are the curse of Ire­land”. For the his­to­rian ATQ Ste­wart, “In Ire­land, all his­tory is ap­plied his­tory. The past is present.”

Such is the com­plex­ity of the challenge faced by Smyth and his fel­low con­trib­u­tors – to nav­i­gate the con­tested wa­ters of North­ern Ire­land’s re­cent past with charts drawn from col­lec­tive mem­o­ries that are in­her­ently sub­jec­tive and un­re­li­able.

It proves to be a dif­fi­cult task. As the con­trib­u­tors rightly point out, even the ter­mi­nol­ogy used is fraught. “The past” and its twin, “deal­ing with the past”, are re­ferred to in quo­ta­tion marks; so too is “the Trou­bles”, the eu­phemism adopted to de­scribe a con­flict which killed more than 3,700 peo­ple. “North­ern Ire­land” is used be­cause “no agreed upon term is avail­able”.

Ian McBride, in the op­ti­misti­cally ti­tled “The Truth about the Trou­bles”, ref­er­ences the va­ri­ety of sub­mis­sions made to the Heal­ing Through Re­mem­ber­ing project (2002), which ranged “from lengthy dis­qui­si­tions with ci­ta­tions of Bour­dieu or Der­rida to the brief dec­la­ra­tion that loy­al­ist and repub­li­can paramil­i­taries de­served to ‘Rot in Hell’”.

For the aca­demic, it is a test­ing land­scape, but it is to the credit of each of these es­say­ists that its com­plex­i­ties and con­tra­dic­tions are not only ac­knowl­edged but em­braced. This is no “mono­chrome re­mem­brance of the past”. In­stead, each of the key ac­tors in the con­flict – the Pro­vi­sional and Of­fi­cial IRA, loy­al­ists, the Bri­tish army – is con­sid­ered in a sep­a­rate es­say which sheds a crit­i­cal light on how they are per­ceived in col­lec­tive mem­ory and their roles in cre­at­ing and per­pet­u­at­ing those mem­o­ries through acts of com­mem­o­ra­tion.

In­sight­ful anal­y­sis

Most strik­ing are the par­al­lels drawn be­tween these or­gan­i­sa­tions: the way in which com­mem­o­ra­tions and memo­ri­als are used to be­stow le­git­i­macy and also to re­in­force di­vi­sion; the cul­ture of se­crecy which of­ten sur­rounds the past de­spite very pub­lic acts of re­mem­brance; and the con­tem­po­rary pur­pose served by these and by “of­fi­cial” ac­counts of the past.

Smyth’s ar­ti­cle, “Mill­town Ceme­tery and the Pol­i­tics of Re­mem­brance”, of­fers an in­sight­ful anal­y­sis of the Belfast grave­yard as the “repub­li­can Ceno­taph” – the site of “fu­ner­als as po­lit­i­cal theatre” with a strong “visual vo­cab­u­lary” on its memo­ri­als and in­scrip­tions which are “his­tor­i­cal texts as well as finely-cal­i­brated po­lit­i­cal state­ments”.

“The INLA/IRSP one even man­ages to com­bine the an­cient sym­bol of Ir­ish Chris­tian­ity, the Celtic cross, with the sym­bols of con­tem­po­rary re­pub­li­can­ism, the Easter Lily, and of late 20th-cen­tury in­ter­na­tional rev­o­lu­tion­ary chic, a raised fist clutch­ing an AK47 as­sault ri­fle against the back­ground of a red star.”

Per­haps most rev­e­la­tory is the work on the se­cu­rity forces, which have sel­dom been con­sid­ered in the con­text of re­mem­brance. McBride points out that the Bri­tish army, RUC and UDR usu­ally mourn their Trou­bles dead in largely closed spa­ces, and Aaron Ed­wards, in his chap­ter on the Bri­tish army, posits that this is due to the “sub­cul­ture of anonymity” among the se­cu­rity forces.

It seems in­cred­i­ble that, when the Bri­tish army left North­ern Ire­land at the end of Op­er­a­tion Ban­ner in 2007, 250 memo­ri­als com­mem­o­rat­ing sol­diers killed in the Trou­bles were re­moved by the Min­istry of De­fence.

This was os­ten­si­bly be­cause they could not guar­an­tee the se­cu­rity of the memo­ri­als, Ed­wards writes, but also be­cause the “pro­lif­er­a­tion of sites of mourn­ing did not serve the state’s pen­chant for the ‘chan­nelling of re­mem­brance’” and the dy­nam­ics of state-led com­mem­o­ra­tion which sees army deaths com­mem­o­rated on col­lec­tive mon­u­ments re­gard­less of time or place.

An in­ter­est­ing par­al­lel is drawn by McBride, who charts the “po­lit­i­cal and de­mo­graphic re­treat of union­ism” west of the Bann through its lack of own­er­ship of pub­lic spa­ces, and gives the ex­am­ple of Derry’s Guild­hall Square, “once the pre­serve of the city’s union­ist es­tab­lish­ment, [which] pro­vided the stage for the dra­matic broad­cast of David Cameron’s apol­ogy to the Bloody Sun­day fam­i­lies”.

As a jour­nal­ist who was present on that day, I would add that many of the thou­sands watch­ing were fully aware of that sig­nif­i­cance and of the in­her­ent sym­bol­ism of the fam­ily mem­bers emerg­ing from the Guild­hall it­self – the former seat of the union­ist-dom­i­nated Lon­don­derry Cor­po­ra­tion – to pro­claim their loved ones’ in­no­cence.

In­deed, it is the fluid nature of mem­ory – coloured by per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and in­ter­pre­ta­tions, and re­in­forced or un­der­mined by the con­text of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics and by the rit­u­als of com­mem­o­ra­tion that mark North­ern Ire­land’s cal­en­dar – which poses the great­est challenge to the his­to­rian.

McBride’s as­sess­ment of the Bloody Sun­day Jus­tice Cam­paign – that it demon­strates “the re­mark­able ca­pac­ity of re­pub­li­can­ism to rein­vent it­self, suc­cess­fully in­ter­na­tion­al­is­ing the elab­o­rate rit­u­als that grew up around the an­nual com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 14 un­armed pro­test­ers killed by sol­diers of the Parachute Reg­i­ment on 30 Jan­uary 1972” – would be strongly re­futed by the cam­paign, which con­sciously avoided af­fil­i­a­tion with any po­lit­i­cal group­ing and once suc­cess­fully sued a news­pa­per which claimed oth­er­wise.

If any­thing, this il­lus­trates the dif­fi­cul­ties in­her­ent in any study of mem­ory – that, as Smyth puts it, “what some peo­ple be­lieved, or be­lieve, to be the case, no mat­ter how in- ac­cu­rate they were or may be, are ‘facts’ in their own right, and facts which call for anal­y­sis”.

James W McAuley, in his ar­ti­cle on loy­al­ism, quotes Homi Bhabha that re­mem­ber­ing of­ten in­volves “a putting to­gether of the dis­mem­bered past to make sense of the trauma of the present”.

‘Venge­ful time’

The fi­nal es­say in this col­lec­tion is a per­sonal one, an ac­count by Belfast-born Cathal Goan of his fa­ther’s ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing forced to drive a bomb into the city cen­tre in his bread van. It’s based on a state­ment writ­ten by his fa­ther which had lain, for­got­ten, in a bank vault in Co Done­gal un­til af­ter his death in 2001.

The re­flec­tion it pro­voked in Goan – that Taken from Ris­ing Late by Derek Ma­hon (Gallery Press, 2017) it was “such a vi­cious and venge­ful time” – is surely a use­ful an­ti­dote to the sani­ti­sa­tion of the past that is con­tin­u­ally be­ing wrought by both “of­fi­cial” acts of com­mem­o­ra­tion, and by time it­self.

In that con­text, Re­mem­ber­ing the Trou­bles serves as a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to the act of “re­mem­ber­ing the Trou­bles openly”.

Freya McCle­ments is a writer and jour­nal­ist based in Derry Arc lamps so bright tonight the thrushes sing as though at day­break or the start of spring think­ing it’s sun­rise, and in fun or fright pur­sue their thing at dead of night in light of or in spite of it –

a pop group pip­ing in the branches, one clear black­bird no­tice­able above the din, not like McCart­ney’s learn­ing how to fly with bro­ken wing and sunken eye, but loud in its anx­i­ety.

He’d rather be pre­sag­ing lousy weather - a down­pour or a storm, one or the other; but the blaze gets him go­ing, the gold beak wide open with a fright­ened shriek in a far cor­ner of the park.

Not for the ly­ing light and not for us he sings, dis­tinc­tive in the mid­night cho­rus, but for the liv­ing shad­ows whited out, his fierce song an in­dig­nant shout in the bright pierc­ing dead of light.

Fitzwilliam Square Fam­ily

Maria Lynskey, who’s un­cle Joe Lynskey dis­ap­peared in 1972, at one of the ar­eas where he could have been buried, in Oris­town, Co Meath. PHO­TOG­RA­PHER: DARA Mac DÓNAILL

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