Commemoration: perpetually remembering while perpetually forgetting

Dr Paul Mullan is the Director of The National Lottery Heritage Fund in Northern Ireland and Honorary Professor of Practice at Queen’s University of Belfast. He recently completed a PhD exploring how the past is remembered in a divided society. He chairs the Decade of Centenaries Roundtable which includes museums, libraries and other engaged organisations.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but commemoration is not an exercise in remembering better, it is an exercise in forgetting. Commemoration works by removing all the complicated and contradictory aspects of the past to make a political point in the present. In this way commemoration is always owned by one part of the community, it seldom if ever speaks to all of us at the same time, and almost always divides: that is its purpose. Significantly, through commemoration we learn little about the past.

Yet back in 2010, the then Taoiseach, Brian Cowan, outlined the challenge and opportunity of the Decade of Centenaries. He outlined how an entwined narrative could emerge from ‘separate histories – British and Irish, orange and green, republican, nationalist, unionist and (and) loyalist’. His vision was for ‘the process of commemoration to recognise the totality of the history of the period, and all the diversity that encompasses’. For Cowan commemoration could be shaped to serve the needs of reconciliation by putting the history back in and complicating the narrative. The scene was set for the Decade of Centenaries on both parts of the island.

Recognising the challenge of the Decade, The Community Relations Council and The National Lottery Heritage Fund developed a set of principles for remembering to help shape a more constructive process of engaging with the past. It was not our desire to try and control how the centenary events would play out, but more to help encourage the context setting which would help people understand more about the period which was so formative in the establishment of the two jurisdictions on this island. So, over the last 12 years we have seen the commemoration of the Ulster Covenant, the First World War, the Easter Rising, the establishment of the Northern Ireland state and, in 2022, we have arrived the anniversary of Partition.

Broadly, the period has been successful, we have got through The Decade without conflict, and, despite the odd controversy, we have learnt more about what happened 100 years ago. Our museums have run exhibitions, the media have printed articles and broadcast programmes, and community groups have engaged in exploration of their own local stories and connections to this period. What has been common to all is the recognition that to think about the past a more plural understanding is required.

Exhibitions at the Ulster Museum have tackled ever more contentious topics, bringing a depth of understanding to them by placing multi-perspectivity at their heart. Belfast City Council has reimagined City Hall to connect it more fully with the changed and more plural demographics of Belfast. This was achieved despite the challenge of the flag protests, and with agreement from all the political parties.

On reflection, the Decade of Centenaries may have been the easy bit. In our state of perpetual commemoration, we are now moving into the period of 50-year anniversaries of The Troubles. A period where we are faced with the challenge of lived experience. While we may have forgotten about the atrocities of the 1920s, as with the Altnaveigh and Weaver Street massacres, to name just two, we cannot afford as a society to go the same way with this more recent period. To do so would be to dehumanise us further as a society: if we cannot share each other’s pain, who are we as people? The danger of defaulting to a form of equal opportunities mythologising around commemoration gets us nowhere, and it is impossible to separate out the individual acts of loss which mark the last 50 years. Now more than ever it is vital that we start to remember better and remember collectively.

The Critic Edna Longley once proposed the construction of a monument to our past which we conveniently forget where it was put. However, the pain of the past cannot be so easily swept aside. I believe that the Decade of Centenaries has shown us how to remember better. Building on the principles for remembering, which puts the facts of the past at their core, ‘remembering better’ sets a number of tests: are we remembering inclusively as opposed to selectively; are there gaps and silences in the narratives we are presenting; when we remember are we privileging one narrative over another; and, in exploring the past, do we create a simplistic equivalence between narratives?

Dealing with the past is not easy, as we have found over the 20 plus years since the Good Friday Agreement. But the Decade of Centenaries shows that it can be done. It was the Historian ATQ Stewart who once said that ‘To the Irish all history is applied history and the past is simply a convenient quarry which provides ammunition to use against the enemies in the present. Maybe we need to stop commemorating and remember better?

An online seminar on the Decade of Centenaries is being held on Tuesday 22 February at 10:30am – 12:30pm. You can find more details about the event and register to attend (before midnight tonight, Monday 21 February).

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