And is that necessarily a bad thing? Reading Roy Foster’s comments on the 1998 official Irish commemoration of the 1798 rebellion, and noting his discomfort at ‘the extent to which professional historians were involved in the repackaging and alteration of emphasis’ (228), I wonder whether there is any firm ground to stand on in this context.
Contemporary historians tend to regard our knowledge of the past as an accumulation to which we can add once we have ‘joined the conversation’. We examine what is already there, sift and test, then offer our own finding, in the hope that it will remain on the pile, that it will withstand the sifting and testing of others.
So can we with certainty accuse a historian of ‘alteration of emphasis’? Are we ever certain that the emphasis which prevails in academic circles is incontestable?
In this light, perhaps commemoration is inherently anti-historical: it implies making a firm judgment on the value of something that happened, or at least what happened. You can’t share a memory that you can’t express, and all expression carries emphasis.
And public rituals, like private ones, have a purpose. Just as we are comforted, at a funeral, by the eulogy which retrieves the memory of our dead friend from the wreckage of his dying, so national commemorations can be employed to restore those aspects of the past which inculcate hope rather than despair.
Foster is right to point out failures in adherence to the facts, but commemorations are for all, including those who have no interest in complexity. This is itself a fact. And, in that case, is there no merit in choosing not to highlight those aspects of the past that serve to perpetuate division?
While I would wish to find nothing but accounts of ‘how it really was’ in historiography, from a public monument I welcome a message of hope for the future. Foster laments the loss of focus on the sectarianism of 1798. But what is the point in inveighing against the Irish political class for its choice not to dwell on agrarian violence or sectarian sentiment? Would it not have been irresponsible to emphasise these without an exhaustive accompanying explanation of the events which provoked them and the circumstances by which they were perpetuated?
This is a young nation, but one which spent the nineteenth century under a barrage of negative propaganda from the popular press and the ruling, academic and chattering classes of its ‘mother country’. Are we really not allowed to emphasise the positives in our past for the sake of our present and future?
Foster, Robert Fitzroy. The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making it up in Ireland. London: The Penguin Press, 2001. Print.