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Home Uncategorized Troubles with Remembering; or, The Seven Sins of Memory Studies

Troubles with Remembering; or, The Seven Sins of Memory Studies

Guy Beiner
Remembering the Troubles: Contesting the Recent Past in Northern Ireland, by Jim Smyth (ed), University of Notre Dame Press, 218 pp, $40, ISBN 978-0268-101749 Memory, unlike history, works best when looking backwards. Let us therefore begin at the end. The bottom line for an assessment of the collected essays on Remembering the Troubles, edited by Jim Smyth, is conveniently summed up by Thomas Bartlett in a blurb on the book’s cover: “the volume is a highly significant addition to the slim corpus of essential works on the Northern Ireland Troubles”. Now that we have the routine business of book reviewing out of the way, let us proceed to consider some of the underlying complications in the study of historical memory. These problems can be illustrated with reference to how they are tackled by the contributors to this “sparkling collection of essays” (to quote Brendan O’Leary in another of the blurbs on the cover). The psychologist Daniel Schacter, addressing the conundrum of “how the mind forgets and remembers”, famously diagnosed seven “sins of memory”.1 Keeping in line with this Catholic-inspired tradition, I will identify seven sins that weigh down the interdisciplinary field of Memory Studies, but it should be admitted that the choice to frame the critique around a typological number is arbitrary. There are many additional malpractices out there. I am even tempted to suggest that disputes over these transgressions are part of what keeps this particular field of intellectual inquiry alive, making it so interesting for our times. A preliminary caveat is needed in order to acknowledge what this book is not about. Curiously, for a collection on remembering issued in 2017, the publication is steeped in obliviousness. The so-called “cultural turn”, which to a large degree has shaped the scholarship of the “memory boom” of the last three decades, seems to have somehow passed over the contributors. In the chapters, historical remembering is mostly seen in political terms, avoiding the all-encompassing prism of “cultural memory” that has come to dominate Memory Studies. This is essentially a volume of studies by historians (with a notable exception in the eminent broadcaster Cathal Goan), who have unwittingly, and rather ironically ‑ considering the editor’s scathing criticism of Irish revisionism, played to the stereotypical image of Irish historians as primarily concerned with political history. That said, the approaches to political history are broadly conceived, so that consideration of society and, to a lesser degree,…

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