Beyond heroes and villains

‘Stories’ is about the richness and complexity of history’s weave, and the part our relatives all played in it, for good or ill

Tue, Sep 17, 2013, 12:59

‘Stories from the Revolution ” is the third of the Irish Times “Century” supplements produced to mark/commemorate/celebrate – whatever you’re having yourself – the decade of centenaries of the period 1912-23 which forged the shape of modern Ireland.

A “revolution”? Not just the Rising itself, but the decade, a period when the engine of history accelerated, of mass mobilisations and social and political transformation – from agitation over Home Rule and the Ulster Covenant, through the Lockout of 1913, the women’s movement, the first World War, the Rising, the War of Independence, to the foundation of the new State, to Civil War . . .

Unlike the supplements on Home Rule and the Ulster resistance (April 25th, 2012) and the struggle for women’s suffrage (October 17th, 2012), “ Stories ” is a miscellany of mostly unrelated individual tales of how the courses of ordinary people’s lives were transformed by extraordinary times. It takes as its starting point the personal; these are the trees rather than the wood, history at the micro level.

The supplement is an attempt to convey the variety and complexity of the experiences of those days through a form of “citizen history”, mostly family stories, others drawn from archives like the extraordinary digitised, easily searchable witness accounts of the Bureau of Military History. It’s not comprehensive, or scientifically representative, and not objective – largely personal accounts, full, no doubt, of self-justification.These are not, for the most part, the great figures that history remembers.

These will also not necessarily be the stories of the “good guys” of our history . My own grandfather’s recently uncovered history as a commander of the Ulster Volunteers (pages 18, 19) sits uneasily with his grandson’s socialist leaning. I’d prefer to be able to boast, like, it appears, most of the population, that he’d been with the rebels in the GPO instead of fighting in France. But I can’t help being somewhat proud of his engagement. Rediscovering our family’s place in our history is not to define ourselves definitively but to better understand who we are.

The purpose of the current commemoration exercise is not merely, like the 1966 Rising commemoration was, a legitimisation of the present by reviving heroes and crafting national narratives, airbrushing the uncomfortable out of our history. It is supposedly about understanding better our different traditions so that they can be reconciled and, yes, argued about. Reconciliation between communities, nationalist and unionist, between political traditions, republican and Free Stater, constitutionalist and revolutionary, and even perhaps within families still divided by history.

Historian Roy Foster has rightly wondered nervously “whether reconciliation is the historian’s business”. There are too many uncomfortable truths that can get in the way of a political peacemaking project, and historians should not be in the business of massaging facts, of propaganda, to suit our current objectives.

The alternative to commemoration, he suggests whimsically, is total abstinence. “Should we go so far as to follow the suggestion that the next commemoration might take the form of raising a monument to Amnesia, and forgetting where we put it? Not entirely: as a historian, I have to be shocked by the idea. But as an Irishman I am rather attracted to it.”

Fellow historian Ann Dolan writes about the conflicting aspirations between those for whom history is a moral tale to justify the present and historians digging up uncomfortable truths: “The division is perhaps between those who want to arbitrate between right and wrong and those who want to find instead a multiplicity of motivations and interpretations, who see beyond heroes and villains, and look instead to people just doing what they did, as they saw it to get by.”

Michael McDowell’s story of his grandfather Eoin McNeill’s loss of his own son Brian in the Civil War (pages 6, 7), and Tim Kennedy’s nod to the execution of his cousin, RIC man Anthony Foley (page 12), vividly testify to the depth of divisions of the time even within families. Others write about untimely deaths, some poignant and courageous, others brutal, pointless, often of those only tangentially involved in conflict or drawn in against their will. Or how an alternative course, involvement in the first World War, shaped their lives .

And there are the forgotten stories of extraordinary women determined to make their mark, but all too easily written out of history (pages 5; 14-15; 20-21).

Stories ” is not about heroes and villains, celebrating derring-do or passing judgment. It’s just about the richness and complexity of history’s weave, and the part our relatives all played in it, for good or ill.

It is hoped that the supplement will be the first of several “Stories from the Revolution” over the course of the decade – readers are invited to submit their own family tales for inclusion in future editions or for the “Century” website which is under construction),