A few things recently have prompted me to look at my “Nine Tenets”, the ways in which I stated that the topic of revolutionary remembrance should be approached, and how it might be most appropriately carried out during this “centenary decade”.
I realise now that I was missing something. Something very important, albeit very simple.
It was while perusing the latest issue of History Ireland that the idea for this post first popped into my head. Within, Michael Twomey has written a very well presented and eviscerating article on the way that the Cork town of Youghal has been trying to portray and advertise its historical connection to the Elizabethan figure Walter Raleigh, going as far as to name one of its historical areas as the “Raleigh quarter”.
As part of all this the Youghal Town Council has been keen to present the usual stories about Walter Raleigh, in relation to Ireland, that many of us will already be familiar with. Raleigh owned and oversaw vast estates in the region. Raleigh brought the first potatoes back from the New World. Raleigh wrote The Fairie Queen while in the area.
As Twomey points out, the historical record backs very little of this up, and shines a light on some of the issues that the Youghal Town Council would presumably not want any light to be shined on. Raleigh owned estates in the area but only rarely visited them, frequently found more often in the Caribbean. He was not the first man to bring potatoes to Europe (beaten by the Spanish by over five decades) and almost certainly was not the first man to bring them to Ireland. And he composed the vast majority of his famous poem elsewhere, with little hard evidence he wrote any of it in Ireland at all.
What we do know, for sure, is that Raleigh treated his Irish underlings appallingly, added nothing to Youghal’s infrastructure and had a hand in the massacre at Smerwick. He was a pirate, slaver and frequently enough, a war criminal (by today’s standards anyway).
Of course, I care little for Walter Raleigh really. He lived and died a very long time ago. But as Twomey points out, fabricating and repeating lies about his life and his effect on Ireland is a shameful practice, one that the Youghal Town Council is apparently revelling in with abandon.
Truth matters. And more importantly, complexity matters. Raleigh had many sides to him, and it does no good to the practise of history or remembrance to cut some things out and aggrandise others. Youghal is basically doing this for tourist money, but that’s no excuse.
And there is World War One. We are nearly, a hundred years on from the great “catastrophe” and so I, and many others, must brace ourselves for the condemnation, the dumbing down of history and the refusal to engage with anything that approaches “revisionism”.
No, we will have to see the quaint familiar myths and tales spun over and over. I am sure you have heard them yourselves. They speak of “sleepwalking” into war and a conflict caused by heedless alliance systems. They speak off a population that supported war wholeheartedly and without much reservation since it would be over “by Christmas”. They speak of “lions led by donkeys” and poetry and Christmas truces. They speak of “futility”, “pointlessness”, “each as bad as the other” and anything else that takes their fancy.
Myths are comforting. It is better in many people’s eyes that we do not rake over the coals too much, lest we find something we don’t like or that makes us uncomfortable. Like the decades long growing belligerence of Germany, the independence of Belgium, the well documented (by neutral sources) atrocities in the same (and in Serbia), the scores of people and groups who opposed the war in every country involved, the many who predicted a “long war” right from the start, the isolated and exaggerated truce of December, the amount of generals killed in action, the cataclysm needed to wash away four of Europe’s oldest royal families, the irreparable changes to the post-war world, all of it.
It’s too much to comprehend for many I suppose, the idea that World War One was not quite so black and white. The simple message is better. It’s a superior soundbyte for politicians and it’s easier to defend if academics or what have you muster up the enthusiasm to try and retort to it.
Challenging those myths and inaccuracies is an exhausting process, which has barely tapped into the popular remembrance of the First World War even a hundred years later. In this year, that fight will go on. A fight against easy narratives that allow for the cleanest of emotional feelings.
And that brings me neatly to Ireland. What do we have to look forward to this year? The Curragh Mutiny (March 20th). Will we hear about the larger issue of British civil-military relations on the eve of the “Great War” or will it just be pompous Protestant officers sneering at Home Rule? The foundation of Cumann na mBan (April 2nd). Will it be about the actual impact this organisation had, the divisions within it as wide as those in the Volunteers, or will it be just Markievicz and company like it always is? The Larne and Howth gun-runnings (April 25th, July 26th). Will it be a look at the awful kinds of guns they were able to procure or will it just be thrilling tales of daring smugglers? The Buckingham Palace conference (July 24th). Will it be a part of the centenary at all, or just the footnote it usually is?
All before the remembrance of the outbreak of World War One itself. Shall we look at the way it divided loyalties? How the existing Irish regiments in the British army reacted (and how they fought)? Or will it all be viewed from the eyes of the hardcore minority within the Volunteers, already planning their Easter insurrection?
Complexity exists throughout everything in history. The task of remembrance should be to embrace that complexity and try to inform people of it, not to fall back on the easy and the unchallengeable. Good and evil are things we should apply to fiction, with such polarised viewpoints having little purpose or use in the study of our past. Falling back on the simplicities is comforting and makes one feel like they know the full picture without ever really having to do anything to try and attain that knowledge. It’s also lazy. Everyone, including myself, can benefit from considering the innate complexity of the various facets of our history.
So, one more tenet.
10. Things are always more complicated than you think. Embrace this.