2nd Commemoration Series event held: ‘How Have We Remembered’

Healing Through Remembering’s second discussion seminar in the series on Commemoration took place on Friday, June 24.  The seminar was entitled ‘How Have We Remembered? Preparing for a decade of commemorations; an opportunity for discussion’.  Guest speakers Prof. Tom Dunne and Prof. Margaret Kelleher shared their insights into the previously contentious commemorations of the 1798 Rebellion and the Famine to see what could be learned for the commemoration of upcoming anniversaries. HTR board member, Geraldine Smyth, facilitated the discussion.

1798 Rebellion Commemoration

Tom shared his experiences of the bicentenary commemorations of the rebellion in 1998, giving particular attention to events in his native Wexford.  He highlighted how the brutal realities of sectarianism on the ground were glossed over and romanticised in the ‘commemoration frenzy’ of 1998, resulting in a manipulation of truth in the idealised official account. Dunne emphasised that it is at the level of local history that a counterbalance can be found – local history will uncover numerous narratives and is the key to commemoration.  He sought to highlight this point by drawing attention to the sectarian massacre of 113 Protestants in the barn at Scullabogue, which he described as a ‘denial of history’.  His argument presented a challenge to many of the assumed understandings of the 1798 Rebellion and resulted in some stimulating questions from the audience.  Tom left us with a powerful quote from Thomas Davis: ‘Educate that you may be free’.

The Irish Famine Commemoration

Margaret sought to highlight how the Famine has been commemorated both in Ireland and in the United States.  She linked her arguments to discussions on what it means to remember and ways of remembering.  She highlighted the tension that can exist between state commemoration and local community commemoration.  Prof. Kelleher sought to explain that even though community remembrance may not be entirely accurate, it has a significant spiritual resonance.  The interrogation and analysis, as well as the respect of these patterns of culture are extremely important.  She drew the audience’s attention to various Famine memorials, both in Ireland and the United States, showing how each chose to commemorate the Famine in differing ways.  A lively debate followed on from this and looked at issues like ‘anonomysing’ victims as a way of misleading the past, the need to create a balance between accuracy & sensitivity and the reduction of mass atrocity to symbols. It was felt that leaders and educators need to make ‘acts of translation’ e.g. linking the Famine to the issue of world hunger and how this can help us learn about the past but make the link to the future – a commemoration should not be a fixed event, doomed to repetition.

In response to a question on how to engage politicians and resources on respectful commemoration while moving away from the notion of symbols as a representation of historical events and atrocities, Prof. Dunne closed with the point that if culture and commemorations are viewed by politicians as a ‘game-changer’ in relation to the Peace Process they will attract attention and funding.