Who fears to speak of '41?

Sat, Mar 2, 2013, 00:00

HISTORYThe Shadow of a Year: The 1641 Rebellion in Irish History and Memory, By John Gibney, University of Wisconsin Press, 230pp, £25.50

John Gibney’s latest book begins with a colourful description of the opening in 2010 of an exhibition on the 1641 uprising in the Trinity College Dublin library by the then president, Mary McAleese, and Ian Paisley, former first minister of the Stormont executive.

It was “an incongruous double act”, according to Gibney. Yet their presence on the same platform, to reflect on one of the most savage sectarian episodes in Anglo-Irish history, which resulted in the violent deaths of thousands of Protestants and Catholics, spoke of hope for the future. More than a decade after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, leaders of the nationalist and unionist communities could now seemingly approach the past more constructively and convivially. Such assumptions clearly underlie current government thinking about the “decade of commemorations” to mark the centenary of the Irish Revolution (1912-1922).

The role of historians in these acts of remembrance, however, requires careful consideration, if only to avoid the mistakes of the poisonous “revisionist” debates of the 1980s. It is clearly not the job of academics to package, or indeed distort, the past to fit current political agendas. As Gibney’s study shows, the traditions of the oppressor and of the oppressed, of the coloniser and of the colonised, are not easily reconciled.

Despite the understandable desire for peace and reconciliation across the island, recent riots in Belfast, including increasing incidences of sectarian attack, demonstrate that conflicting interpretations of the past remain as relevant today as they were in the 17th century.

But who fears to speak of ’41? Gibney quotes the historian Walter Love, who wrote almost 50 years ago that the uprising “was for some 300 years the most celebrated, discussed and controversial event in Irish history”. This fact might surprise readers raised on a staple diet of Oliver Cromwell at Drogheda in 1649, King Billy at the Boyne in 1690 and the revolt of the United Irishmen in 1798.

More recently, however, a glut of publications on 1641 has appeared, prompted largely by a project at Trinity College Dublin, which conserved, transcribed, digitised and made freely available online (at 1641.tcd.ie) the entire collection of witness testimonies by those Protestant settlers forced to flee from the insurgents.

Biased version

The 1641 Depositions, as they are known, are of course heavily biased in favour of the Protestant version of events and barely mention the plight of the Catholics. They subsequently played a key role in creating and sustaining a collective Protestant identity, where perception and prejudice often trumped reality. More specifically, the statements constitute the chief evidence for the sharply contested allegation that the 1641 rebellion began with a general massacre of tens of thousands of settlers.

The Protestant elite badly needed to justify the mass dispossession of the Catholic landowning class that took place over the course of the 17th century. The alleged barbarity of the Irish rebels in 1641, officially commemorated by the colonial authorities every year, provided ideal ammunition for this task. Catholics bitterly rejected the state interpretation of events, blamed Protestants for triggering the violence and questioned the scale of the killings.

The problem is where to start your history. If you begin in 1641 the Catholics appear as the aggressors, but this conveniently ignores the previous century of violence, as the English state completed the military conquest of Ireland, overthrew the old Gaelic order and established plantations in Ulster and elsewhere.

Gibney is not interested in the minutiae of events in 1641 as such but, rather, sets out to examine their legacy in Irish history and memory from the mid 17th century to the present, an enormously ambitious task. In an effort to avoid being swamped with material, he restricts himself to material printed in English and focuses on certain key historians, who he feels made a major contribution over the centuries. The result is a lively, engaging romp through 300 years of intellectual invective, but as the historical debate hardly developed beyond sectarian name-calling, it is ultimately a rather depressing, sterile experience.

As Gibney readily admits, we know nothing of the reception of the ideas discussed here and therefore learn little of how 1641 might have impacted on popular memory, either Protestant or Catholic. The historical arguments may well have been restricted to a handful of scholars, although glimpses of evidence provided in the book strongly suggest otherwise. What is known of the annual commemorations of 1641 and the violence that sometimes accompanied them? The National Folklore Collection might not contain much material directly relevant to the uprising, but surely, given that the vast majority of the population spoke Irish, there is a need to engage more comprehensively with surviving Irish-language material. In fairness to the author, he describes the book as more of an essay than an exhaustive piece of research, intended to encourage further debate on the subject, and I am sure, in this regard, that his endeavours will bear fruit.

Gibney has done an admirable job in tracing the afterlife of the 1641 rebellion in scholarly circles, and his analysis goes some way towards explaining (but not justifying) why young rioters in Belfast, on a protest about restrictions on the flying of the UK flag, are easily diverted into potentially deadly attacks on their Catholic neighbours. This distressing reality needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency, to assist in moving the contested events of 1641 and other sectarian episodes from the realm of memory to history. To begin that process, read this book.

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