Intuitive notions can be misleading. We tend to consider forgetting as a malfunction of memory. If anything, remembrance is the abnormal exception, which is only made possible thanks to the pervasiveness of forgetting. In an insightful short story (apparently inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses), Jose-Luis Borges related how a savant named Ireneo Funes, having suffered brain damage from a horse-riding accident, was left stricken with an absolute memory, so that he “not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it”. In consequence, “Funes the Memorious” was incapable of thinking properly, since “to think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions”.
Friedrich Nietzsche, in his celebrated essay On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, came to a similar conclusion: “forgetting is essential to action of any kind”. In truth, the vast majority of human experiences are irredeemably forgotten and the recovery of all but a select few of the countless lost details is neither achievable nor desirable.
Episodes in the past that have been completely erased and cannot be retrieved in any way are of limited interest to historians, who can at best note the gaps and comment on the absences. But what about attempts at wilful forgetting, when societies seem determined to disremember inconvenient memories and expunge them from the historical record? In a thought-provoking book, David Rieff denounced the excesses of today’s memory-obsessed culture and advocated the need for forgetting. Appealing as it may seem, the conviction that historical remembrance can be turned off on command (presumably at the whim of politicians, with the help of complaisant historians) derives from a simplistically conceived notion of collective memory, which too-readily assumes that, if memory is constructed and malleable, it can be easily deleted.
Umberto Eco maintained that there can be no ars oblivionalis – an Art of Forgetting that would counter the mnemonic techniques taught by the classical Art of Memory – and pointed out that by signifying a subject for erasure we are inevitably calling attention to it. Think of the proverbial courtroom scenario in which a judge determines that certain evidence is inadmissible and instructs the jurors that it should be disregarded, but by marking it for forgetting actually ensures that it will be remembered.
When it comes to major historical events, total collective amnesia has rarely been the case. Take for example a cliche of the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland: it has been repeatedly alleged, by the likes of Kevin Myers, that the participation of Irish soldiers in the first World War was, up until fairly recently, entirely forgotten. Further inspection reveals that such sweeping generalisations are incorrect. While other memories were overshadowed in independent Ireland by national memorialisation of the Easter Rising, veterans and bereaved families found numerous ways to commemorate the Great War, even without official recognition. In order to go beyond superficial misconceptions, and also take into consideration the persistence of obscured recollections, it is helpful to think in terms of “social forgetting”, as opposed to collective amnesia. A better understanding of social forgetting can offer a more complex appreciation of the subtle tensions between public forgetting and noncompliant private remembrance.
Ulster, described by Seamus Heaney – in his aptly-named poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing – as a “land of password, handgrip, wink and nod ... Where tongues lie coiled” and communications are transmitted in “whispering morse”, offers particularly fertile ground for the study of social forgetting. Its pursuit, however, requires penetrating “Northern reticence, the tight gag of place”.
Whereas memories of the tribulations and victories of Protestants in the 17th century have been incessantly commemorated, not least in the parades of Northern Ireland’s annual marching season, the mass participation of Protestants, alongside Catholics, in the rebellion of the United Irishmen was largely covered up. Following the brutal suppression of the insurrection in 1798 and the subsequent passing of the Act of Union, Presbyterian communities in counties Antrim and Down that had been heavily implicated in seditious republicanism realigned their politics towards loyalism and unionism, becoming over the 19th century bastions of the Orange Order. In light of this transformation of identity, it has often been asserted that the memory of the northern United Irishmen was expurgated from history. Such facile claims reveal the shortcomings of what passes for “history”.
There are ample sources for retracing an alternative vernacular historiography, which, by and large, has been left off the official records. A thorough examination of local traditions, documented by folklorists and antiquarians, and appearing in lesser-known publications of popular print, reveals what Ian McBride, professor of Irish history at Oxford, has described as “the survival of a ‘hidden’ history of the ’98 in the Ulster countryside” (which was hidden only to unwitting outsiders).
Upon inspection, it proves to be very different from a simplistic folk history that pits valiant rebels against bloodthirsty redcoats. Its single most defining feature is that it is riddled with ambiguities. For Ulstermen who dared to speak of Ninety-Eight, censure was often tinged with empathy, just as reverence was tainted by regret. The inherent ambivalence of these memories made sure that they would be concealed, but at the same time preserved.
A telling example (which is just one out of hundreds) can be found in the Ulster-Scots poetry of Adam Lynn of Cullybackey (near Ballymena), whose poem The Twalt O’July (written in 1903) includes the verses:
Few o’ us min’ the turn-oot fecht
That taen place here in ninety-eicht,
A wud nae like tae be ower strecht,
Bit ye al’ ken
The civil side had nae the weicht
Fur soger men.
Remarkably, a poem on Orange celebrations, which appeared in a volume published by subscription and available for purchase at the offices of the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, a provincial unionist newspaper, mentions that few people still remember [min’] the fighting [fecht] of the Turn-Out (the common name in local folklore for the rebellion) and notes that it is generally known [ken]that the rebels – who are referred to as ‘the civil side’ – did not have the means to overcome the military [soger men]. This passage deftly encapsulates the paradoxical nature of social forgetting, by which it would seem that the 1798 rebellion was supposedly unremembered, and yet is still evoked.
In 1998, during the bicentenary of the United Irish rebellion, the Northern Irish literary critic Edna Longley spoke out against "destructive, irresponsible forms of memory" and mordantly proposed that "we should build a statue to Amnesia and forget where we put it". Over two centuries, memories of the Turn-Out in Ulster were buried under a façade of oblivion. By undertaking an archaeology of social forgetting, it is possible to excavate this monument to amnesia and uncover its layers of forgetful remembrance.
Guy Beiner is Professor of Modern History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His new book Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster has just been published by Oxford University Press