Irish History Matters: Politics, identities and commemoration.

By Prof Brian Walker. The History Press (2019).


This book looks at how and why history matters in Ireland, north and south. That history matters in Ireland is something we all have a sense of, whether or not we are comfortable with it.

Two quotes at the beginning of this work remind the reader of how history shapes us. Michael Cassidy, a South African church leader, remarked about Ireland: “One notices how people are gripped by the past, remembering the past, feeding on the past.” The historian ATQ Stewart is also quoted as remarking: “ … when we say that the Irish are too much influenced by the past, we really mean that they are too much influenced by Irish history, which is a different matter.”

The author’s background as a historian but also a political scientist has informed his writing. One of the first sections in the book looks at how commemorations on this island have developed and changed over the last one hundred years. This includes St Patrick’s Day, the Siege of Derry, Wolfe Tone at Bodenstown, as well as the two World Wars.

The changing manifestation of commemoration is not just fascinating to observe – it is also surprising. The author makes the important point that “ … commemoration of certain events or individuals in their history continue to provide a means to explain or justify their contemporary political or cultural concerns.” In other words, history is not just about what happened back then but also shapes politics and culture in the now.

That theme continues with a look at how the last century saw the development of two different states on this island – each shaping their own identity. The reader will get a feel of how exclusive and confrontational identities emerged in both parts of Ireland. What is illuminating is to see how both these identities shaped each other, and that one often reacted against the other. One identity seemed no less culpable than the other.

In an unexpected turn the final section of this book is given over to history as seen through the workings of diocesan and General synods during the difficult years around the 1920s. It offers a glimpse of the psyche of the Church of Ireland population of that time. The picture is of a group of people facing real challenges, which are not understated, yet finding the resilience and creativity to survive.

By the end of the book the reader is left with a renewed sense that Irish history really does matter, and how it shapes the present. The author helps the reader see the perils of “selective, incomplete and often inaccurate pictures to communities of their own history, and little or no experience of other communities.” His calm approach to examining history provides a welcome antidote to the weaponising of history. He presents us with an accessible and trustworthy work that is well worth the read.

A willingness to engage afresh with our history allows us to rise above what Arthur Aughey describes as a “historic culture of fatalism.” It is also the mark of a community and a country that has the calm confidence to look at both the past but also the future. As Margaret Ritchie is quoted as saying: “If you want to share the future then you have to be able to understand our history and our past.”

We are often weary of our history because of how it has been used and abused. This book opens the possibility that looking afresh at history can offer the hope of creating a future that is not imprisoned by it.

Review by Earl Storey

Protestantism: A Journey in Self-belief project, Maynooth university.

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