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Remembering the conflict… April 16, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.

Colin Murphy in the SBP has an interesting thought. Reflecting upon the legacy of the statements recorded by the Bureau of Military History in regard to our understanding and knowledge of the 1916 period and after he notes that:

These statements (which are freely available online at bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie) are an extraordinary resource. After a century in which commemoration of the Rising has veered between extremes of patriotic fervour and revisionist disdain, the witness statements make it impossible to harness the Rising cleanly to a political agenda.
They capture its complex, chaotic and often ugly reality. That virtues such as heroism, courage and generosity shine through that is all the more remarkable.

And he notes that:

The value of these statements highlights the loss that is the collapse of the Boston College Belfast Project, which had compiled an oral history archive of the Troubles.
Watching some of the Bureau of Military History statements given life on stage at the Abbey last week, it was striking how vivid and intimate they were; how real and immediate this history became. Among other things, it allowed tragic deaths, otherwise forgotten, to be remembered.

He continues:

Much has been alleged as to who and what were responsible for the Boston College project’s collapse: inadequate contracts; overconfident guarantees of confidentiality; excessive zeal by the PSNI, who sought the archives as part of their investigation into the murder of Jean McConville. In any case, it has effectively destroyed the chances of any similar project happening, at least under private ownership.

But he draws a positive conclusion from that experience when he asks:

…could the state draw on the experience of the Bureau of Military History to set up an equivalent to document the Troubles and the Peace Process?
Were commitments of confidentiality (till after the death of all participants) to be enshrined in legislation, it may be that sufficient confidence could be established to create a new archive. That could be an enduring legacy of this period of commemorations.

One can see the problems immediately. To even engage in such a process, let alone to give guarantees as regards what would effectively be non-prosecution of those who made statements that by their nature would implicate themselves and perhaps others, would be a significant political and legal step. How would it be regarded from the perspective of those (in all quarters) in the North? There is no question that it would, almost inevitably, have to be a process that was entered to on an all-island basis.

It is also, without question, not something to be undertaken lightly, and I would have to wonder if the present government could credibly do so, or whether it would have any inclination to do so. Moreover it is hardly contentious to suggest that – as has been demonstrated – the events of the period from 1968 to the mid to late 1990s are perhaps still too close, the conflict too pointed. And yet, the BMH had to deal with a Civil War, and a War of Independence, and perhaps the political dynamics north and south where despite that history there has been some useful engagement (again from all quarters, albeit to varying degrees) and a willingness not to let the past hold the future to hostage, or not entirely, points to the potential for such an approach.

Either way a very intriguing proposal and one worth consideration.


1. Joe - April 16, 2015

Word of warning re oral history. People don’t always tell the truth. Sometimes they embellish or leave out bits or plain invent. Very good Irishman’s Diary in the IT a week or two back about a Redmondite councillor in Monaghan in 1916. His 1966 reminiscences about being on O’Connell St during the Rising and his attitude to the Rising were very much at variance from the historical record of Co Council minutes from the time.
In 1966 he remembered being gung ho to join the men in the GPO, in 1916 he is recorded in Co Council minutes excoriating them.


Robert - April 16, 2015

No one who’s done any oral history interviewing at all is unaware of the problematic nature of the activity; there isn’t one among us who has perfect recall, especially of events where one is firmly on one side of a contentious issue where rationalising and justification can be there from the beginning.

Brian Williams, the US news anchor, is a case in point. The consensus among memory boffins is that he most likely wasn’t making up his story about being shot down; he genuinely believed it as his memory of the event was really a memory of a memory of a memory. Etc.

The job of an oral historian is to record the accounts of individuals; not to judge the veracity of those accounts. If there are enough interviewees then the inconsistencies will be ironed out and if there aren’t, well, aspects of that interview can be put into the ‘unverified’ column.

As for such an exercise being carried out by the state: that’s unworkable, IMO. Rather a university should be given control of the project, and given assurances that the interviews won’t be used in a court case. No immunity need be given; just a guarantee that any subsequent proceedings won’t feature the interviews as evidence.

Given all this, I think it’s a project that could benefit future historians (indeed, all future Irishmen and Irishwomen) enormously, once a sufficient time has passed that the project can be made public.


que - April 16, 2015

Yet such re-remembering of history is how societies maintain some cohesion after the fact. Pretty it ain’t but there is a type of sociological thing going there when people do that. They are still idiots though.


2. Dr.Nightdub - April 16, 2015

” And yet, the BMH had to deal with a Civil War, and a War of Independence…”

Although there was no ban on discussing the Civil War as such, and numerous BMH statements do cover it, the majority deal only with the War of Independence i.e. the “good war” as opposed to the “bad war.” Incidentally, most of the northern statements don’t stop at the Truce or at the Treaty, reflecting the fact that there was a single continuous war there until 1922.


3. CL - April 16, 2015

“Brian Williams, the US news anchor, is a case in point. The consensus among memory boffins is that he most likely wasn’t making up his story about being shot down; he genuinely believed it as his memory of the event was really a memory of a memory of a memory. Etc.”- Robert, above.
And the same is true of Hillary Clinton’s memory of her involvement in the Irish peace process.


4. CL - April 16, 2015

Certainly the huge disparity between the numbers who marched into the GPO on that fateful day and the much higher numbers who marched out needs to be investigated by reputable historians.


5. fergal - April 16, 2015

But aren’t we all guilty of rewriting the past- to a greater or lesser degree. Who hasn’t tried to make themselves look better while talking about past events.
The one i like best is the Spanish Civil War- around 200 Irish fought for the Republic but 600 went to ‘fight for’ Franco. Listening to some peolple you would think it was vice versa.
Was it not Michael D who unveiled the memorial to Tommy Patten on Achill Island- when during the Spanish Civil War Labour refused to back the Republic.


6. roddy - April 16, 2015

The Boston college was never a genuine history.Despite the spin it had only one objective and that was to bring down Adams by using anti peace process elements to make allegations against him.


7. lcox - April 16, 2015

A lot of serious OH work is also about understanding what people mean today when they speak about the past. Of course history tied to written sources is also making statements about the present as much as talking about the past (though this is not always acknowledged, particularly on the right).

History relies on sources (written or oral) which are always produced by social agents, with an agenda, for specific purposes: texts lie or misunderstand just as much as can happen in interview. Part of the historian’s work is to be critical about the nature of their sources and to work hard on understanding what they do and don’t say.

The value of OH by definition is in uncovering unofficial versions of events – not only movements’ versions of events as against states’ (etc.) but also how ordinary participants, those who lost out internally, people from different social backgrounds etc. experienced the same event. Italian oral historians did great work deconstructing the PCI’s “heroic history” of the resistance and showing the greater complexity of how it was for workers, women, peasants etc. – without for one moment suggesting that resistance as such was the right thing to do. But it is always a problem when a party leadership controls the writing of history.

I’m not sure however whether there is any institution that could be sufficiently trusted at this point to carry out a good oral history of the conflict at this level, including universities. Even if something worked on paper, it would have to be immediately credible to participants on both sides, in many different organisations and with a range of trajectories vis-a-vis their past positions and currently existing leaderships.

From my own experience as a researcher, I don’t think I would trust the states involved to keep their promises in this respect, abide by their own legislation, or encourage others to place much faith in them. Sad to say.


WorldbyStorm - April 16, 2015

Yeah, ten years ago, even five, I suspect it would have been much easier to get the ball rolling on all this. Now? Not so much.

On the point of lies and misstatements and agenda’s, having done a fair bit of research that depended upon on occasion unreliable first hand accounts it doesn’t seem to me to be clear how one can get around that side of things bar hoping that cumulatively there will simply through dint of multiple accounts be sufficient weight of evidence that will allow analyses to be made that have some degree of credibility. But as you say one has to go in eyes open and recognise that subjectivity and worse is baked into the mix from the off.


Gewerkschaftler - April 17, 2015

Icox – I share your suspicion that the state (north of south) has still too much to hide to run such a highly desirable oral history project without bias.

In halfway decent country we would fund a university or two (like Maynooth :-)) to do the job and make the research publicly available at no charge, funded by progressive taxation.


Gewerkschaftler - April 17, 2015

north or south


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