Historians and the Commemoration of Irish Conflicts, 1912-23
History and commemoration are not incompatible, but the proper relationship between these two pursuits is contested and uneasy. As participants in the public debates and manifestations associated with the current ‘decade [sic] of commemorations’, historians should warn planners against the perils of adopting bad history when designing their commemorative programmes. Though many may reject the very concept of’good history’, few would deny that historical research is capable of identifying elements of falsification, distortion and undue political influence in the way that past events are narrated. Academic historians are not privileged arbiters of historical truth, but they should be better equipped than most people to detect appealing but flawed narratives. Let us first consider certain aspects of current and potential commemorative practice that seem to me to embody bad history.
One of the strongest and most admirable impulses behind public commemoration in contemporary Ireland, North and South, is the desire for pluralism. Who would cavil at the notion that we should commemorate victims as well as victors, unionists as well as nationalists, women as well as men, ‘ordinary’ folk as well as public figures? Yet it is all too easy to achieve the spurious appearance of ‘inclusivity’in commemorative ceremonies, events or exhibitions by adopting simplistic and misleading dichotomies. If concentration on these dichotomies involves the marginalisation of other groups, historians should try to complicate the picture. For example, though it is better to commemorate the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) divisions in tandem rather than individually, this dual focus does a grave injustice to members of the 10th (Irish) Division, still often ignored, as well as the one-third of Irish servicemen who had no connection with any Irish unit.
A connected problem is excessive focus on 1916, the year of the first Battle of the Somme and the Dublin insurrection, or rebellion. Since Easter Monday and 1 July have long figured so prominentiy and divisively in the commemorative calendars of Irish republicans and Ulster unionists respectively, the idea of weaving these episodes into a seamless sacrificial narrative is almost irresistible. Yet by concentrating on a single year marked by massive casualties on the Western Front for the 16th as well as the 36th Divisions, the broader legacies of the war are neglected. The dramatic character of the rebellion and the first day’s battle on the Somme, though splendid material for graphic commemoration, fails to convey the slow and messy course of political change in Ireland or the monotony and attrition of trench warfare.