Patriot graves: ‘Forgetful Remembrance’ and ‘Bodenstown Revisited’ reviews

Guy Beiner looks at social memory while CJ Woods analyses visits to Wolfe Tone’s grave

Damaged Ulster History Circle plaque at Mallusk Cemetery in memory of United Irishman James (Jemmy) Hope

Damaged Ulster History Circle plaque at Mallusk Cemetery in memory of United Irishman James (Jemmy) Hope

 

The historian ATQ Stewart ascribed the founding of the United Irish movement in Belfast in 1791 to “a Presbyterian initiative”, and one of the great questions in Irish history is why, after the 1798 rebellion, did northern dissenters abandon the republican project so swiftly and so thoroughly? In 1898, as nationalist Ireland mobilised to commemorate the centenary of the “Year of Liberty”, the Belfast News Letter editorialised “Ulster wants to forget it all, because Ulster is not proud of the rebellion, and Ulster is loyal’. To the Rev Ian Paisley, this volte face presented no puzzle at all. As far as he was concerned, Samuel Neilson, Henry Joy McCracken, and even ministers such as William Steel Dickson, were not in fact Presbyterian, but “Arians or Unitarians” – representing a brief, spasmatic, doctrinal aberration, rapidly corrected by the reassertion of orthodoxy (and “loyalty”) in Ireland under the union. Theological retrenchment and political conformity did indeed prevail in the 19th-century Presbyterian dispensation, but Paisley’s abstruse explanation for “Ulster’s” abrupt transition, from cradle of republicanism to unionist redoubt, will not stand.

The most compelling reason for Presbyterian repudiation of a rebellion in which so many of their number had “turned out” is obvious enough: fear. The horrific catalogue of post-rebellion reprisal, the hangings and floggings, the market squares festooned with the severed heads of executed rebels, the smouldering ruins of hamlets and farm houses torched by rampaging crown forces, spurred panicked declarations of “loyalty” by the innocent and disaffected alike. Some rebels stood their ground, but many others were driven into apostasy, exile or silence. In Forgetful Remembrance, however, Guy Beiner argues, at heroic length, and demonstrates in luxuriant detail, that, upon closer scrutiny, the political conversion of the North appears neither as swift, nor as thorough-going, as was once supposed.

Post-rebellion

In the decades following the rebellion, those who feared to speak of ‘98 in public passed on family and local lore in private. In the political sphere radical Protestant separatists transmuted into liberal, civic unionists. Respectable unionists of that stamp could not condone rebellion, but neither could they abandon entirely the memory of their rebellious ancestors. As the Presbyterian historian, WT Latimer put it in 1897: “Henry Joy McCracken exceeded almost every other leader of the United Irishmen in forgetfulness of self and attachment to his country . . . and if we as unionists condemn the fatal mistake he made, we must respect his motives, admire his courage and venerate his memory.” Latimer also proffered the standard liberal justification for unionist allegiance: “it is certain that great civil and religious oppression existed in Ireland during the last century, but we must remember that measures of reform have now been granted more radical than [the Rev James] Porter was hanged for, [and] from this fact a strong argument may be drawn for maintaining the supremacy of the imperial parliament by which these grievances have been removed”. But by this time popular loyalism had consigned the rebellion to oblivion.

In 1898 a loyalist mob destroyed the memorial near Ballynahinch, Co Down, dedicated to the United Irish heroine Betsy Gray. In Belfast the centennial parade on the Catholic Falls Road provoked days of rioting on the Protestant Shankill Road. The commemorators self-designation “nationalist” (rather than republican) flagged the sectarian polarisation which had polluted the legacies of 1798. On January 1st, 1969, three days before another loyalist mob ambushed civil rights marchers at Burntollet Bridge, a bomb exploded at the grave of another United Irish hero, Roddy McCorley. The Orange Order, it is true, did engage in some bicentennial activities; but in 2014, in true “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” style, vandals smashed a Blue Circle plaque marking the birthplace in Templepatrick, Co Antrim, of the great working class radical and staunch Presbyterian Jemmy Hope.

Oral histories

This is a book about social memory – and wilful forgetting. It shows how local tradition, folk ballads, artefacts – the proverbial “pike in the thatch” - and, above all, the oral histories, collected by the likes of Samuel McSkimin, RR Madden, Classon Porter, and Francis J Bigger, can supplement what the author calls “the reductive terms of purely factual history”. It is, however, primarily, an essay on the processes of memory production, and suppression. Again in the words of ATQ Stewart, cited here, “what people think happened in 1798 is, in one way, just as important for Irish history as what did happen”. Stewart, unlike Beiner, was no theorist, and in addition to its immense scholarship, Forgetful Remembrance is notable for its theoretical sophistication. The attendant technical language sometimes grates, as when William Orr’s eloquent speech from the gallows is described as a “significant act of pre-memory”, but there can be no doubt that this impressive landmark volume confirms the author’s status as the foremost exponent (and advocate) of memory studies in its Irish formulations.

Micheál Martin at the Annual Fianna Fáil Wolfe Tone Commemoration in October in Bodenstown, Co Kildare. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Micheál Martin at the Annual Fianna Fáil Wolfe Tone Commemoration in October in Bodenstown, Co Kildare. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The most glaring example of the expropriation of Protestant republican martyrs by Catholic nationalist commemorators is surely to found in Bodenstown churchyard, in Co Kildare – “the holiest spot in Ireland” as consecrated by Padraig Pearse in 1913. At no other site of memory between the 1870s and the early 1970s, when the practice declined, were more decades of the rosary said (in Irish) than over the grave of that cheerful sinner, the militantly secularist, anti-clerical, champion of Catholic rights, and suicide, Theobald Wolfe Tone. Pearse declared him a heretic as well as “the greatest Irishman”! In 1937, the Free State partisan and Francoist clerical student Leo McCabe published a polemic sporting the deliciously rhetorical title Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, For or Against Christ? By the 1970s, official republican orators at Bodenstown were calling for Gaeltacht Soviets and denouncing the hierarchy.

In Bodenstown Revisited, Christopher Woods advances the large claim that “the story of Bodenstown is a parallel history of Ireland since 1798”. Not quite. But this exhaustively documented survey of the political composition and fluctuating scale of the annual pilgrimages to Tone’s grave, the changing emphases of the speeches, and the physical evolution of the memorial itself, does serve as a remarkably sensitive barograph of the ebb and flow, of the intimate and internecine fortunes, of nationalist and republican movements on this island.

Jim Smyth is editor of Remembering the Troubles: Contesting the Recent Past in Northern Ireland (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017)

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