Who fears to speak of '41?
Divisive material: Mary McAleese and Ian Paisley at the opening of Ireland in Turmoil: the 1641 Depositions at Trinity College Dublin in 2010. main photograph: aidan crawley
Images of the uprising by John Temple in 1724. main photograph: aidan crawley
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.
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.