Editorial from Irish Political Review, December 2008

War And Remembrance

Nationalist Ireland has this year celebrated the 90th anniversary of its victory in the Great War. All the stops were pulled out to glorify it and make us forget what it was. A fashionable theory about nations, advocated by Professor |Comerford of Maynooth amongst many, is that they are "invented" by forgetfulness of their actual past and mythical remembrance of a past that never was. Whatever about nations, that is certainly the way that the Great War is having greatness restored to it.

At the end of the Great war the nationalist Irish responded to their experience of it by voting to have done with the Empire that launched it. In the mostly keenly contested election held in Ireland for a generation, in December 1918, the electorate brushed aside the one party system established by John Redmond's movement by Tammany Hall methods, and returned the Sinn Fein party. That was the originating act of Irish democracy.

The decision of the Imperial Parliament to carry on governing Ireland in defiance of the election result was the seminal action which rendered the Great War ideology spurious and inaugurated a generation of authoritarianism and Fascism in European and world affairs.

But the Great War is what our masters have decided that we should remember and celebrate, and that the election is what we should forget.

The election is a "detail"—a word now much used by the academic historians who are paid to alter our memories. We thought that history consisted of details, and that the kind of history that transcended details was the "historicism" attributed to Soviet ideology by two generations of Western historians and condemned. But it seems that we are mistaken. Truth lies beyond the details.

President McAleese during the month opened an Archive and Research Centre attached to Professor Comerford's Modern History Department at Maynooth. It is in a building prepared for it by the Office of Public Works (whose Minister is Martin Mansergh). This is to be a private research facility—that is to say, it will not be generally open to the public as the National Library and the National Archive Centre are, though it is said that scholarly amateurs will be admitted.

The President said that the Centre was designed to produce a "new landscape". She deplored the old days of 'them and us', "in which so much energy was wasted along those formidable demarcation lines of Catholic and Protestant, of landlord and tenant, of Irish and Anglo", but said that those wasteful divisions have begun to give way to a shared purpose to shape a shared future (IT 14.11.08).

The Centre is located in Castletown House, Col. Kildare, which—

"was once a Big House, a place of and for privileged elites, its demeanour less than welcoming to the masses. Today it belongs to the people and is at their service. It will hold protect and tell the stories of privileged and poor alike, for, without all sides to our many stories, we remain in danger of not just misrepresenting our past or having it misrepresented to us but we remain in danger of knowing our neighbours only as incomprehensible strangers?" (ibid).

In short, Irish history is to be abolished. For centuries it consisted in the conflict of "them and us", which was insisted upon by them—the conflict of Protestant against Catholic, and landlord against tenant, of British against Irish. What else is Irish history under the Cromwellian and Williamite conquests and plantations, from the 17th to the early 20th centuries?

That is how it was. That is how every representative figure of Them and Us knew it during those centuries. In the end they failed. But now we are to be subsumed into Them, retrospectively, in a project that is to be called 'history' but that is entirely policy. And the scholarly amateurs who are to be allowed to take part in it must submit to this policy directive.

It seems that the Centre will focus on the Big House, the Anglo-Irish oases that were once dotted around the country. But they are no longer to be called Anglo. And yet if they had not been Anglo they would not have been laid low by the Irish national development.

The President said that the present is full of "toxic weeds generated by oppression". Those weeds are now to be cleared away. And it seems that the method of clearing them away is to present a schematic history from which they are absent—which is the 1984 method; the method heretofore seen as authoritarian brainwashing.

"Ransacking the past for edited highlights with which to distort history has been commonplace and damaging", the President said. No doubt we are the ransackers of the past who dig up details like the 1918 Election and the Westminster response to it, and the Whitehall manipulation of the Treatyites into 'Civil War'. And the scholarly amateurs admitted to the Centre will not be encouraged to investigate the part played by the Big House in those events.

But are the descendants of those who lived a chosen life of social exclusion, or exclusiveness, in the Big Houses, still people apart, "incomprehensible strangers", who can only enter the body politic if we pretend the history of Ireland for a couple of centuries was other than it actually was?

There is only one Them and Us in Ireland today: the Protestant community in the North, which the President compared to the Nazis a few years ago, and the Catholic community which certain elements in the South have been trying to disown for a generation. What effect will falsification of national history through the medium of the Big Houses have on the Ulster Unionists? It is unlikely to have any effect. The Ulster Protestants have little affection for the Big House Ascendancy in the rest of the country, and the Big House nostalgia cultivated by the Southern revisionists does not embrace the socially connected Big Houses of the North. By far the most influential Big House in the country was Mountstewart, seat of the Stewart/Castlereagh/Londonderry dynasty. It is open to visitors, and is visited, in the way that English Big Houses are, as a place of consequence. But, while Big House nonentities are being dredged up for specious nostalgia around the Republic, the Londonderry phenomenon is abominated.

The Great War is the means by which the Republic tries to make contact with the Ulster Unionists. But when nationalist Ireland confesses that it was wrong about the Great War, and indulges in orgies of celebration, it tells the Unionists nothing they have not always known. And, since the confession is obviously made for an ulterior motive, it is actively counter-productive.

Two noteworthy statements were lost amidst the deluge of re-hashed Great War propaganda. One was by Peter Levy, a Cork-based Jew who said in an Irish Examiner supplement that he thought it would have been better for the world if Germany had won. The other was by Myles Dungan in the Daily Mail, Irish edition, who wrote:

"The Irish experience of the First World War was, emphatically, not a part of the foundation myth of the Irish state… That, however, does not mean it should be ignored and that we cannot join with other European nations in reminding ourselves of the lies that bind, especially at a time when a brutal war is still being fought in Iraq, itself based on a monumental fabrication.

"Notions of democracy and the freedom of small nations… were concepts later pitched to the wagon. They were grafted on to give genocidal bloodbaths a retrospectively idealistic gloss. The First World War was an exercise in breathtaking cynicism. It was about making the world safe for oligarchy…

"In some respects, Remembrance Day has become a mere celebration of nationalism, even triumphalism…

"Now that some memory of nationalist Ireland's involvement in the First World War has been restored, …it is time to seize Our War back from chauvinism… We must do so “lest we forget” that it is possible for the agenda-setters to frame a cynical conflict in terms of crusade and sacrifice. We need a uniquely Irish form of annual commemoration and we need a uniquely Irish symbol as a poppy substitute…

"We must commemorate. But we must know what we are remembering and why…" (11.11.08).

It is a sign of our time that it takes an English newspaper—the Daily Mail !!—to say that.


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Muriel MacSwiney's Memoir (Part Two).

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