May 11, 2017 § 19 Comments
I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story. Of course, that is bloody obvious. But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US. He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War. The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.
He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War. And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC. He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.
And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory. There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts. But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials. Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative. They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.
In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal. This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance. And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man. In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.
The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then). Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.
An example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52). The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million). It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland. The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo. But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.
But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event. And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event. How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen? Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland). So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?
I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.
April 23, 2015 § 4 Comments
It’s the tail end of the semester, and I’m marking stacks upon stacks of papers. I am teaching Irish History this semester, for the 5th time in the past 3 years. Irish history tends to depress me, as it is largely a story of imperialism and resistance, with great atrocity on both sides. The Famine, in particular, gets me down. The ambiguity of Irish history is difficult to come to terms with, as well. It’s also very hard to teach Irish history, especially here in the diaspora. Whenever I’ve taught Irish history, my class is overwhelmingly (over 90%) comprised of the sons and daughters of the diaspora.
It’s difficult because we of the diaspora have been raised on simplistic narratives of British malfeasance and Irish heroism; these stories are deeply ingrained in the American and Canadian Irish diasporas. But, Irish history is massively complicated. My students have a hard time dealing with the fact that the Irish continually lose when they rebel, in large part because of in-fighting or because only a small part of the country rises up. I explain, partly to remind myself, that this is because the idea of Ireland as a country is a 19th-century creation, growing out of the Catholic Emancipation and Repeal movements led by Daniel O’Connell.
O’Connell is the one who re-drew the “Irish nation” from one that was Protestant (the Ascendancy, of course) to one that was Catholic. But even then, Ireland was a divided nation, by religion (as it was during the Ascendancy, obviously). So the idea of a unified Ireland is an elusive one.
My students handed in papers on Sebastian Barry’s brilliant novel, A Long, Long Way, last week. It is the tale of young Willie Dunne, the son of the Chief of Police of Dublin, who enlists in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War. Willie is shipped off to Flanders to fight the Germans, like a few hundred thousand of his fellow Irish Catholics did. But, he is subjected to British anti-Irish attitudes on the part of many of his commanding officers. And when he’s home on furlough at Easter 1916, he’s pressed into action against the rebels at the GPO in Dublin. He’s confused. He doesn’t understand who he’s fighting, thinking, at first, maybe the Germans have invaded Ireland. When he realizes he’s shooting at fellow Irish men, he’s even more confused. And, like most Irish Catholics, he gets radicalized in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, when the British respond with draconian punishments for the rebel leaders. This leads to a rift with his father, who is a Unionist, despite being Catholic.
One of my students writes of an epiphany he has had regarding Irish history. He says it’s easy to be anti-British when you read and learn about the atrocities they committed in Ireland. But, when you learn of the brutality of the rebels during the Irish Revolution, things become more complicated. He’s left rather conflicted about Irish history, about the justness of either side, or the moral evil of both sides.
Of course, it need not be an either/or situation. I always fall back on Joep Leerson’s idea that ambiguity is part and parcel of Irish history, it is a “both/and” situation. And, ultimately, I have been reminded as to why I love Irish history: it is ambiguous, it is complicated, it is not simple.
And I suppose this is why I love teaching; feeling worn out from teaching all this Irish history, I am energized reading of my student’s epiphany.
February 11, 2015 § 3 Comments
I’m reading Guy Beiner’s masterful study of the folk memory of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland for my Irish Public History class. In it, Beiner, like nearly every single Irish historian of the past two decades, goes off on Irish revisionist historiography. For those who are unfamiliar with the wars of Irish Historiography, revisionism in the Irish context dates back to the 1920s. In that decade, young scholars, educated at English universities, became frustrated with the fundamental lack of critical studies of the Irish past. Thus, centred around T.W. Moody and R. Dudley Edwards, they began to re-assess Irish history. They eschewed myth and folk tale for fact. They abhorred Irish nationalism for its warping of Irish historiography. They sought a dispassionate, “value-free” national historiography.
Revisionism became the dominant vision of Irish historiography for a period from the 1930s through to the 1990s. In the late 1980s, however, revisionism came under attack for its inability to deal with the more traumatic events in the Irish past. One of the problems with revisionism, critics charged, was that in its desire to view Ireland as un nation comme les autres, it whitewashed calamity: 1641, 1798, 1847, 1916, 1922, etc. At its fundamental core, revisionism is incapable of processing the fact (I know, ironic) that Ireland was an English, and then British, colony from roughly the 13th century until the 20th (there is also the complicating factor of Northern Ireland, still a constituent part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland).
I certainly have no great love for the revisionist project, in part because it denied the colonial fact of Ireland. This means that those moments of atrocity, most notably the Famine, get played down. Revisionism tends to shy away from criticising the English/British for their actions in Ireland. But sometimes, as during the Famine, it is simply the fact of the matter that Britain did little to alleviate the starving and misery in Ireland whilst at the same time continuing to export food from the nation.
However. In reading Beiner’s devastating critique of revisionism, I am reminded that it DID serve a purpose. Once. A long time ago. When Moody and Edwards were organising their critique of Irish nationalist historiography, their corrective WAS a necessary tonic. Moody argued that nationalist histories were harmful to an understanding of the Irish past, arguing that it was a matter of “facing the facts of the Irish past” as a means to countering the falsehoods of mythology. In the 1930s, for a newborn nation, this was an essential process. The problem is that revisionism went too far and was never able to accord to its internal contradictions. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t once necessary.
December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments
I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend. Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here. My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw
upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.
As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials. I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem. Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover. Some of the trials took place here, though. Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.
But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events. I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria. But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England. Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs. In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts. There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica. The economy was suffering. Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.
Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace. Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston. In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts. All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.
The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland. What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that. Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries. Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.
Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland. She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title). But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.
October 8, 2014 § 5 Comments
Marc Bloch is one of the most influential historians ever. An historian of mostly medieval France, he, along with Lucien Febvre, founded the Annales school of historiography in the late 1920s. The Annalistes preferred examining history over the long durée, and across various periods of time. They also advocated a more complete history than one of generals, presidents, prime ministers, and other so-called Great Men.
Bloch met his end at the hands of the Gestapo on in Saint-Didier-des-Champs, in France, on 16 June 1944, ten days after D-Day, as the Nazis realised they were going to lose France. Bloch had been a member of the Résistance since 1942. He was captured by the Vichy police in March of that year and handed over to the Gestapo. He was interrogated by Klaus Barbie, and tortured. It was a sad end for a great man.
Bloch had served in the French Army during the First World War, and remained a member of the Army reserve in the interregnum between the two wars. He was called up into action during the Second World War and was on hand for the baffling collapse of France in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg attack in May 1940. That summer, he wrote his blistering and searing account of the Fall of France, Strange Defeat, not knowing if his words would ever see the light of day. The book was published in 1948, four years after his murder, and three years after the war ended.
Bloch is unflinching in his critique of French High Command, and France in general, for the collapse of its Army in 1940. In part, he blames the High Command’s over reliance on a false reading of history, that led it into a state of pathetic stasis, incapable of recognising that 1939-40 was not 1918, and that the Second World War was a different war than the Great War. In this passage, he makes a passionate argument for what the study of History is.
History is, in its essentials, the science of change. It knows and it teaches that is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical…the lesson it teaches is not that what happened yesterday will necessarily happen to-morrow, or that the past will go on reproducing itself. By examining how and why yesterday differed from the day before, it can reach conclusions which will enable it to foresee how to-morrow will differ from yesterday. The traces left by past events never move in a straight line, but in a curve that can be extended into the future.
I assigned this book for my historiography class, and was deeply struck by this passage. I’ve re-read it four times now, it goes against what our culture thinks history is. Our culture thinks history is exactly what Bloch says it isn’t, that it can teach us to avoid the same mistakes over and over again.
I was thinking about this in light of my Irish history class dealing with The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell last week. O’Connell led the movement for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, succeeding in 1829. He the turned his sights on the Repeal of the Act of Union (1800), which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In this, he failed. He failed because times had changed, and attitudes were different. In the early 19th century, many in Britain, and even some amongst the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, had come to the conclusion that the denial of civil rights for Catholics in Ireland was not a good thing, and that Emancipation was necessary. Three of the staunchest opponents of Emancipation came around to O’Connell’s way of thinking: Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary; The Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, and King George IV). In the 1840s, though, when O’Connell’s Repeal movement reached its apogee, he did not have a groundswell of support in Britain (or amongst the Protestant Ascendancy) for Repeal. Thus, he failed because O’Connell failed to learn the proper lessons of History.
We would do well to remember Bloch’s maxim. Even we historians.
May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Tomorrow, Thursday 29 May, I’ll be appearing on CKUT, McGill University Campus Radio’s programme on Oral History, O Stories. The show will be hosted by my old friend, Elena Razlagova, a professor of Public History at Concordia University. I will be talking about Boston College’s Belfast Project, and the fallout therefrom. So tune in around 2pm tomorrow, I’ll be on around 2.30. You can tune in the old fashioned way, on your radio at 90.3 fm, or on CKUT’s website.
March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments
I’m currently finishing off my Griffintown manuscript, and continuing the endless revisions of the PhD dissertation it was based on. By this point, “based on” is loose, like when movies claim to be based on a book, but you can’t really see the book in the movie. Anyway, right now I’m revising the sections on Irish nationalist sentiment amongst the Irish-Catholics of Griff in the early 20th century. And so, I’m reading Robert McLaughlin’s Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912-1925. McLaughlin’s work, like mine, is part of a growing movement amongst historians to challenge a decades-old belief amongst Canadian historians that Irish Catholics in Canada couldn’t care less about what happened in Ireland. This is a refreshing change.
McLaughlin, unlike most of us who study the Irish in Canada, focuses on both sides of the divide, looking at both Catholics and Protestants. This is what makes his book so valuable. Off the top of my head, McLaughlin’s is the only book-length study to look at the Protestant Irish response to agitations for Home Rule and outright independence for Ireland in Canada.
As such, McLaughlin spends a fair amount of time discussing Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionists in Ireland. I talked about Carson in class the other week in discussing Home Rule and Unionism. I had a picture of him up on the screen, blown up behind me. When I turned around, I kind of jumped, not really expecting Sir Edward to be so big and glaring at me. The picture, however, is beautiful. Sir Edward looks out contemptuously at his audience, his lips pursed into a sour look, as if he had just smelled some Catholics. His jawbone is fierce, and his hair slicked back. He looks for all the world like a hard man. But, of course, he wasn’t. He was a knighted politician. But he was also the perfect avenue into discussing the “manliness problem” of the late Victorian/Edwardian British Empire, and the response, created by Lord Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts, “muscular Christianity.” Sir Edward looks like he could tear you a new one as easily as argue the merits of Unionism versus Home Rule. And, in turn, this allowed me a direct entré into the Gaelic Athletic Association’s concept of “muscular Catholicism,” which turned muscular Christianity on its ear for Catholic Irish purposes.
At any rate, back to McLaughlin and his quoting of Sir Edward. Sir Edward wrote to his former Conservative Party colleague, Sir John Marriott in 1933, long after Irish independence and the partitioning of Ireland:
The Celts have done nothing in Ireland but create trouble and disorder. Irishmen who have turned out successful are not in any case that I know of true Celtic origin.
I find this humourous. See, by Sir Edward’s day, there was no such thing as a “true Celt” (not that Irish nationalists didn’t speak this same language). By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant, were a wonderful mixture of Celtic Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Spanish, English, Welsh, Scots, and so on that no one was a “pure Celt” or pure anything. But, of course, that myth persisted and still persists today.
I still have people come up to me today, in the early years of the 21st century, and want to discuss the “real Irish” or the “pure Irish” or the “real Celts” in Ireland. After disabusing them of the notion that there is such a thing (anywhere in the world, quite frankly, we’re all mutts, no matter our various ethnic heritages), I am left to just shake my head.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.