Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster, by Guy Beiner

Georgina Laragy on how common cause came to be consigned to the corner of people’s minds

March 14, 2019
Battle of Ballynahinch
Source: Alamy
Battle of Ballynahinch: part of a wider rebellion started by an organisation whose radical ideas were shared across Catholic and Protestant communities

This book is a natural sequel to Guy Beiner’s excellent Remembering the Year of the French (2007), which examined how the arrival of a small French expeditionary force off the West coast of Ireland during the 1798 rebellion generated “a body of folklore” that became crucial in constructing social memory of the event in that region. This new work examines the same rebellion and its memory in Ulster right up to the present day.

The Ulster setting is significant because sectarian division resulted in “social forgetting” rather than remembering. Beiner’s micro-historical approach explores the “disinclination to remember” atrocities such as the Battle of Ballynahinch (10 June 1798), in which some 400 rebels were killed by British forces.

From the outset, the “agenda of forgetting historical conflicts” was firmly embedded in Ulster’s experience of 1798. The United Irishmen, the radical political organisation that started the rebellion, was composed of religious and social groups that historically had been in opposition. The extent to which the radical ideas of the organisation were shared across Catholic and Protestant communities (conformists and Nonconformists alike) is evident in the numbers: there were 117,000 United Irishmen in Ulster by 1797.

A prerequisite for such a combination was forgetting that Catholics and Protestants had been on opposite sides of violent conflict during the 17th century. In the following century, dissenting Protestants in Ireland (Presbyterians in particular) found common cause with Catholics because both groups were excluded from political life on religious grounds.

The rebellion led to the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland in 1801. Subsequently, the campaign for Catholic emancipation strengthened ties between Irish nationalism and Catholicism, while Protestants of all hues began to align themselves more closely with the British state. By the centenary of the rebellion in 1898, Catholic and Protestant cooperation during the rebellion was an aberration that was forgotten in loyalist and nationalist narratives. Both communities looked to the 17th century for political configurations that were more relatable in the 19th- and 20th-century context, especially after 1920 and the creation of Northern Ireland.

Adopting the term “vernacular historiography” from medieval studies, Beiner points out that it “consciously steers clear of the artificial divides between oral and literary cultures that lie at the heart of the conceptualization of oral tradition”. While historians simply refer to the “Rebellion” or “’98”, the variety of terms used locally, particularly in the 19th century, to describe the events – “the Ruction”, “the Troubles”, “the Turn-Out” and “Pike time” – demonstrate a key difference between official and vernacular historiography.

From a public history perspective, Beiner traces historiographical developments from Herodotus to Howard Zinn, locating the roots of a conflict about how history is written and with whom historians ought to engage. In setting out the “social process of history making”, he argues that historians should consider the spaces beyond national histories and official commemorations to where “forgetful remembrance” is often a deliberate social process involving reticence, private remembering and commemoration. This “façade of silence” is viewed as an essential social tool particularly in mixed or unknown company – a tool that is not confined to 1798 or indeed Ulster.

Adopting a chronological approach, Beiner demonstrates a breadth and depth of research that is breathtaking (and also brings in unexpected links to Simon and Garfunkel and Basil Fawlty). His erudition and humanity make this a compelling and highly readable work.

Georgina Laragy is Glasnevin Trust assistant professor in public history and cultural heritage at Trinity College Dublin.

Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster
By Guy Beiner
Oxford University Press, 736pp, £35.00
ISBN 9780198749356
Published 1 November 2018

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