RTÉ presenters Joe Duffy and Myles Dungan look at two distinct historical events from different angles, and both bring fresh perspectives
One of the more durable cliches about Anglo-Irish relations is that while the English never remember history, the Irish never forget it. At the very least, Ireland seems to have a historical parallel for every occasion. Sure enough, on Thursday, as Theresa May struggles to prevent her Brexit deal unravelling, Fiona Kelly finds two separate references to Michael Collins negotiating the Anglo-Irish treaty as she surveys the newspapers on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Given how that worked out for Collins, it’s probably best for May not to hear such comparisons.
Even so, there are signs that the old chestnut on historical awareness no longer holds true. It’s not just that many English seem keen to evoke the past these says, with Brexiteers harking back to Victorian visions of Britain as a global trading powerhouse. As Joe Duffy discovers on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), some people in Ireland feel important parts of our history have been forgotten.
On Monday, Duffy talks to Bernie McNally, who was injured in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 1974, about her criticisms of a new Junior Certificate history textbook which fails to mention the atrocity, which left 34 people dead. McNally says she is disappointed but not surprised at the omission, as she feels “they’re trying to airbrush us out of existence”. She expresses disappointment that three Dáil motions seeking access to British documents on the bombings have been ignored (“what kind of lily-livered politicians do we have?”) and concludes that “we don’t get the same recognition that the victims do in the north of Ireland”.
Such statements are understandable given the trauma endured by McNally and other victims. But Duffy, a bit of a historian himself, seeks to bring some balance to proceedings: “A lot of the victims up north feel they’ve been forgotten as well.” He also gamely tries to suggest that all this might be consigned to, well, history. “What do you think of people who say this is all behind of us?” he asks. “It doesn’t go away for us,” McNally replies.
Not that Duffy thinks the past should be forgotten. For one thing, he is working on a book about the children killed in the Troubles, as he mentions several times. Moreover, his programme has always been at its best when airing the unheard stories of those marginalised by officialdom. As if to emphasise this, Duffy also talks to Margaret English, whose father Hugh Watters was killed in a Dundalk pub bombing in 1975, only for her family to be sidelined afterwards.
Though she refuses to feel bitterness about her father’s murder, English nonetheless recounts many poignant details. “We ran around looking for Daddy,” she says of the bombing’s aftermath. Despite the appalling crime, English says the Garda never called to her family by way of investigation. It what seems to be a common theme (McNally also says she had no contact from the Garda), English says the State has ignored her attempts to discover the identities those responsible. “I would say the State has hurt us more than the people who actually murdered my dad,” she says. This particular English history isn’t going to be easily forgotten.
One event is still conspicuously remembered in both Britain and Ireland, however, in the form of last weekend’s centenary commemorations for the armistice that ended the first World War. But as The History Show (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) underlines, the event has long been viewed with ambivalence on this side of the Irish Sea. Hosting proceedings with his usual engaging aplomb, presenter Myles Dungan speaks to local historians Tom Burke and Cathy Scuffil about the experiences of those Irish soldiers who survived the trenches only to return to a country in flux.
By way of example, Burke recounts a remarkable double booking at the Mansion House in Dublin on January 21st, 1919, when a reception for members of the former prisoners of war from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was followed by the meeting of the first Dáil in the same building. The same day also saw the first shots fired in the War of Independence, when two RIC constables were “murdered, killed, assassinated, whatever word you want to use” by Irish volunteers at Soloheadbeg. “It’s an interesting piece of symbolism,” Dungan remarks, lest anyone miss the wider point.
The changing perceptions of the war are made concrete, as it were, in the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge in Dublin. Pointedly built outside the city centre in 1931, the gardens were nonetheless funded by the Free State government. But, as veterans’ parades slowly ceased, the memorial fell into disrepair, and were only renovated in the late 1980s. “It reflects our attitude as a nation,” says Burke, “because we went through that process of indifference to rediscovery to regeneration.” Overall, it’s an intriguing discussion on how our view of the past is coloured by contemporary contexts.
Of course, some events are so disputed they continue to haunt us, be it the Dublin bombings or the “Ballymurphy massacre” in Belfast in August 1971. As an inquest opens into the latter incident, which saw 10 people killed by British soldiers over three days in west Belfast, reporter Tommie Gorman talks to presenter Christopher McKevitt on Monday’s News at
One (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), and hears from relatives whose emotions remain palpably raw. McKevitt, though alert to the charged subject, also suggest that the inquest may merely be raking over old coals: “For many people, it’s history.” Maybe so. But for many others, to paraphrase James Joyce, it’s a nightmare from which they are still trying to escape. Let’s hope it doesn’t repeat itself.
‘‘ As Theresa May struggles to prevent her Brexit deal unravelling, Fiona Kelly finds two separate references to Michael Collins negotiating the Anglo-Irish treaty as she surveys the newspapers. Given how that worked out for Collins, it’s probably best for May not to hear such comparisons
Joe Duffy: at his best when airing the unheard stories of those marginalised by officialdom