Centenary commemorations should not distort history, says President Higgins

Abbey gathering hears criticism from playwright over control of memory by ‘cultural class’

President Higgins addressing ‘The Theatre of Memory Symposium’ at the Abbey Theatre, a three day debate on the role of theatre in commemoration in this time of historical centeraries. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

President Higgins addressing ‘The Theatre of Memory Symposium’ at the Abbey Theatre, a three day debate on the role of theatre in commemoration in this time of historical centeraries. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Thu, Jan 16, 2014, 22:05


Upcoming commemorations of historical events should not “gloss over differences” in ideology, nor project “the contemporary emotions of the present on the past”, President Michael D Higgins has said.

In a keynote speech Thursday to a three-day symposium on memory and the arts at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin he said: “As we commemorate events which unfolded a hundred years ago, it is crucial that we endeavour to do justice to the complexity of the historical context as outlined in contemporary historical research, while also recognising contingency, and refraining from reading history uncritically from any contemporary ethical standpoint.”

Singling out the first World War, the centenary of which is being marked this year, Mr Higgins asked “how might we, in Ireland, remember [it] in a way that is ethical?”


‘Transnational history’
As well as critically scrutinising the tools used by historians, such as archives and testimony, “we also need to overcome the currently widespread preference for internal, psychological and national history over external, sociological and transnational history.

“In this regard, recontextualising the Irish experience of the first World War within a European framework is probably an important first step.”

Mr Higgins took issue with WB Yeats’s dismissive view of wartime literature. “These ‘minor’ stories, as Yeats would have it, of human suffering, of resilience and friendship, can, I contend, nurture ground breaking historiography as well as prompt new forms of mythmaking.”

He said it was important to remember the different motives and experiences of Irish first World War soldiers, welcoming the fact that historical studies here had largely departed from a narrow, nationalist view of the Great War.

And he stressed that remembering should be about more than honouring the past. “We need new myths that not only carry the burden of history but fly from it, make something new . . . In that task we are invited to go beyond what is calculable, what is even seemingly reasonable.”

The theme was taken up in a subsequent panel discussion on how collective memory impacts on societal change, with playwright and politician Mannix Flynn arguing that citizens had been reduced to mere “spectators” in their own history.


‘Premature closure’
Scandals such as institutional child abuse should not be “turned into drama” when outstanding issues remained, and he warned of attempts to achieve “premature closure” through theatre or memorials.

He was particularly critical of the Abbey-commissioned play No Escape, which dramatised the contents of the Ryan report, claiming it had turned real events into a “night out in the theatre for the elite, cultural class”.

Defending the play, UCD English lecturer Dr Emilie Pine said “trauma theatre” should not be aimed at traumatising audiences but rather making people think about how the trauma occurred so it would not happen again.


The three-day “Theatre of Memory” symposium
continues today. For details see http://iti.ms/1dUgCwS