Showing posts with label history & memory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history & memory. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Museum of Free Derry Needs to Keep the Names Up

The Museum of Free Derry has recently drawn fire from all sides for an exhibit that lists the names of all those killed in the area during the early Troubles.  On one hand, relatives of RUC officers killed during the Troubles "find it disgraceful" that their loved ones are identified in a space they consider a bastion of republicanism and which supports "terrorism."  On the other hand, some relatives of Bloody Sunday victims and others object to the full display of names of those killed on the grounds that it shows "complete disrespect for those on the list that have been murdered by the establishment" by having members of "the establishment" listed alongside the Bloody Sunday dead and other victims of state violence.  While the exhibit has been up for a decade, it has received attention recently because of the reopening of the museum after renovations.

I was so glad that the Museum of Free Derry received £2.4m to fund renovations and an extension for the simple reason that it does the best job in the city, really in the North (and for that matter on the entire island of Ireland,) of presenting the history of the civil rights movement and the early Troubles.  As an historian of Derry, I've been impressed by MoFD because it has struggled and persevered under the kinds of strains and challenges that would have sunk a less sturdy instituion and would have ripped apart less stalwart organizers.  

During the Troubles, the Bloody Sunday Trust maintained a countermemory, a version of the past diamterically opposed to the official version proclaimed by the Widgery Tribunal and adopted by the Northern State and mainstream press that blamed the victims of Bloody Sunday for state violence that killed 13 unarmed civil rights protestors.  It was not until the Good Friday Agreement authorized a new inquiry that the version of events almost unanimously held by Catholic nationalists in Derry and Northern Ireland (not to mention the Republic) was considered, evidence weighed.  (Lots of evidence -- the inquiry took 12 years, considered 20 million pages of testimony and produced a 5000 page report.)

From 1972 until 2010, when the British government apologized for Bloody Sunday calling it unjustified and unjustifiable, families of the victims, civil rights activists, scholars and republicans joined together to commemorate Bloody Sunday, to remember the victims, to bring the truth to light. It was an act of defiance -- standing up for truth.

It was out of this movement that the Museum of Free Derry came into being.  It started as all good things in Derry start, a DIY affair with a lot of hard work, sweat, tears, laughter and passion.  It started also with the need to create an archive.  Derry needed a repository, a safe place to hold and keep artifacts related to the civil rights movement, Bloody Sunday and the Troubles.  Nationalist Derry also needed a space to tell its story, a story that was discredited and oversimplified for so long.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

LIve on Grundy CountyTV with my Students

This was a really fun TV appearance with three of my best and most delightful students. There is so much I could say here about our Highlander efforts and about how hard these students work, but you should just watch the segment:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Since when were the Gardaí on the other side of the Northern Ireland conflict?

Today, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience announced its grant awards for 2016.



Photo courtesy of SHOUT
One grant was awarded to an organization called  Diversity Challenges, whose mission is "to assist culturally specific groups in integrating community relations principles and considerations within all aspects of their work."

(No, I don't actually know what that means either.)

According to the Sites of Conscience the grant will fund “Voices from the Vault,” a project that collects stories from former police officers in two police forces on either side of the (Northern Ireland) conflict. The work is groundbreaking in the sense that it is uncommon for state agents in any dispute to talk about their experiences."

Ummmm, what?

As a public historian, I tend to dismiss academics who get petty about semantics.  They always seem to have an air of the kid in the front of the room just dying to get the answer right. (The kid waving their hand in the air so hard you think they might pee themselves.)


As an historian of Northern Ireland, though, this term "on both sides of the conflict" jarred.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Low Voter Turnout in Derry Dishonors the Past


According to Northern Ireland elections statistics, only 56% of registered voters in the Foyle District turned out to vote in last month's elections. As an historian of Derry, this breaks my heart a little.

Look at the photo to the left.  Those are real people.  Historical figures, some of them, like Eddie McAteer and Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. Civil rights steward Vinnie Coyle.  Others, probably, not known to me.  And then the faces of the young, the hopeful, the indignant, the worried.  The faces of the civil rights movement.  


Which -- of course -- was in large part a movement for for the right for every adult citizen to have a vote.



Friday, April 1, 2016

Tours at the Highlander Folk School Historic Site

My students and I have been busy.  


Sewanee Students Offer Historical Tours of the Highlander Folk School 

If you have ever wanted to learn more about the Highlander Folk School in the Summerfield community of Grundy County, now is your chance to learn.

University of the South students enrolled in courses offered through the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies will offer free historical tours of the Highlander Folk School site on Saturdays throughout April. Tours will be offered at 1 and 3 p.m. April 9, 16, 23, and 30, weather permitting. Tours last approximately one hour and leave from the Highlander Folk School Library on Old Highlander Lane in Monteagle, Tennessee. If you are interested in attending a tour, please plan to arrive 10 minutes before it is scheduled to begin.

Student tour guides will share the history of the site and the vision and ethos of its founders and staff. They will introduce the historic programs and work of the school and relay its contributions to U.S. labor, civil rights, and social justice movements. They will highlight key figures who participated in Highlander's programs, and will explain how and why controversies led to the forced closure of the folk school. The continued work and legacies of Highlander and efforts to preserve the site in Summerfield will be included in the tour.

Dr. Margo Shea, a visiting fellow with the Collaborative, has worked with Sewanee students in two courses, Introduction to Public History and Place-Based Research Methods, to conduct research and find creative ways to interpret the site in partnership with the Tennessee Preservation Trust. (Both courses are part of the university’s community-engaged learning program.) In 2013, the Tennessee Preservation Trust purchased the buildings and land associated with the school, which closed in 1961 and has since relocated to New Market, Tennessee.

For more information, please contact Margo Shea at 931.598.1879 or mmshea@sewanee.edu.



Monday, March 28, 2016

1916: The Centenary of the Easter Rising

It is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.  Events throughout the week, indeed throughout the year, are scheduled in Dublin.  It is an interesting moment of looking back and looking forward, as commemorations generally tend to be.  I, for one, think the Republic has only healed from its turbulent history in the wake of the Northern Ireland peace process.  Until then, there were still schisms and wounds.  What kind of nation is Ireland and what kind of nation will it be?  The centenary of the Rising is a good time to ask these questions, a good time to transcend post-colonial collective traumas and still, to carry the lessons of the past to continue to construct a democratic, progressive, welcoming nation that puts the wellbeing of its citizens before everything else.





At about 11:00 am on Easter Monday, 100 years ago today, the Irish Volunteers, along with the Irish Citizen Army, assembled at various prearranged meeting points in Dublin, and before noon ambushed and occupied seats of British and Ascendancy power in the city. These had been selected to command the main routes into the capital, and also because of their strategic position in relation to the major military barracks. They included the General Post Office, the Four Courts, Jacob’s Factory, Boland’s Bakery, the South Dublin Union, St. Stephen’s Green and later the College of Surgeons. The properties targeted were taken virtually without resistance and immediately the rebels set about making them defensible. The GPO was the nerve centre of the rebellion. It served as the rebels’ headquarters and the seat of the provisional government which they declared.”  

Here is an image of the General Post Office during the Rising: 




The rising was crushed almost immediately, its leaders executed and imprisoned.  All over Britain, and indeed in Ireland itself, the events were mocked and trivialized.  The Manchester Guardian  had this to say 100 years ago: “It is the nature of a riot rather than a rising,”  dubbing it “a show – for it cannot be regarded as more than this – of rebellion”.  Today, historians still consider the rebellion a failure, but the harsh and merciless treatment of its leaders by British forces changed public opinion and laid the foundation for a protracted war of independence --- Ireland's fight for sovereignty was the first crack in the facade of  Empire.

William Butler Yeats, was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1865, the son of a well-known Irish painter, John Butler Yeats. Born into the Anglo-Irish landowning class, Yeats became involved with the Celtic Revival, a movement against the cultural influences of English rule in Ireland during the Victorian period. Deeply involved in politics in Ireland, he wrote numerous poems like this one, giving voice to the struggles and price of Irish independence, the yearning and doubt so much a part of the movement.


I’ve only included about half this poem but you can find it in its entirety by clicking here 

Easter 1916 
W. B. Yeats


I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terribly beauty is born…

…Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be, 
Wherever green is worn, 
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.



Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Salem State University History Spotlight

Somehow, I never got the heads up that this little article got published over at Salem State.

I love that public history got recognition. I very much love that the Six Word Memoir Project got recognition. I do not love the quote, which I cannot quite believe I said and certainly don't remember saying, "History is pointless and useless if the public doesn't engage."

Really?  Do I even believe that?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Museums and Historic Sites in the 21st Century : Observations from the Field

Ever wonder what a group of talented, ambitious, passionate and creative young museum professionals would discuss if they got together on a Tuesday evening?  So did I.  

Hence, this event, which took place April 21, 2015:



We had a terrific panel discussion with practitioners working in historic museums, historic sites and other corners of the field.  I was so impressed  by the thoughtfulness and generosity of our panelists -- Bethany Groff Dorau, North Shore Regional Site Manager for Historic New England, Doneeca Thurston, Adult Programs Coordinator at the Peabody Essex Museum, Kate Preissler,  Executive Director at Wisteriahurst Museum and Jonathan Parker, Chief of Education, Interpretation and Collaborative Partnerships at National Parks Service -- Salem Maritime and Saugus Ironworks National Historic Sites.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Let Go of Your Sorrows? What To Make of Derry's Temple

How do you say the unsayable?  Translate the untranslatable?  It makes sense that David Best, a sculptor deeply embedded in the "you can't understand it until you've been to it" Burning Man festival would come to Derry, Northern Ireland with ingredients for a community project designed around reflection and release. Sponsored and organized by Artichoke Trust, which specializes in helping artists engage communities in larger-than-life installations located in unpredictable spaces, Temple was conceived as a community process.  To build it.  To inhabit it. To witness as it burned.


According to Best, the point of Temple was twofold: to create a space for catharsis and to reframe bonfires. Bonfires, of course, have a long history in Northern Ireland.   There were fires to commemorate the 12th, the Relief of Derry in August, and then tit-for-tat bonfires to observe Lady Day, or the feast of the Assumption of Mary a couple days later.  And those bonfires, it is said, are artifacts of the ancient bonfires lit to celebrate Lúnasa, the harvest "festival of light." December would see Lundy's effigy burn.  


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Teaching Serial as Public History


serial
Photo credit: Kate Preissler
I took a risk this semester and dedicated a fairly large chunk of class time to teaching Serial in Intro to Public History.  It was placed in the syllabus as a bridge between a unit on memory, identity and different publics and a unit on settings and tools for public history practice.  I was inspired to do this by my own engagement with the podcast (errrr, obsessive binge listening) and by some great email conversations with Kate Preissler, Digital Projects Manager at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA, who wrote a fabulous blog post on Serial and public history for the NCPH blog.

In case you've been under a rock, Serial was a hugely popular podcast that ran for twelve episodes last autumn.  It examined the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999 in Baltimore and pulled apart the evidence used to successfully convict Lee's ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed -- who pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence to this day, from his cell in a maximum security prison in Maryland.

I wanted to share my rudimentary class outlines and assignments for others who might be interested in exploring Serial with college students.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Greetings from the Ledge: A Pop-Up Museum

I was running an administrative errand in a building I visit only infrequently on campus when I came across a small DIY pop-up exhibit commemorating numerous victims of racist violence.  Welcome to The Ledge Gallery, folks.  

This makes me glad. 




It is simple. It is somber. It is done with a very sparse curatorial hand --- no labels, no descriptions.  The images speak for themselves.  The images speak to those who stop, who look, who listen to what the they say.

A memorial card for Malcolm X holds the center of the tableau.  It forefronts "Our Black Shining Prince," the name Ossie Davis chose for Malcolm X in the eulogy he delivered at Faith Temple Church of God in February, 1965.  Davis famously likened X to Jesus and called on supporters to continue his work when he exhorted, " what we place in the ground is no more now a man—but a seed-which, after the winter of discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was and is—a Prince—our own black shining Prince!—who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so."


Barry Blitt's "Dream of Reconciliation",  which graced the cover of the January 26, 2015 New Yorker Magazine, also made its way into the exhibit.  Dream invokes the iconic image of Martin Luther King linking arms with civil rights protestors during the march from Selma to Montgomery, but instead of King's historic contemporaries, Blitt chose to pair King with a different set of kin.  The cover depicts Dr. King marching alongside Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Wenjian Liu, the NYPD officer killed last month with Rafael Ramos.

There is also a photo of a witness call box, which were used so powerfully in this exhibition on police violence. Due to the exhibit, images of traditional police/fire call boxes have come to stand as a memorial for police violence.




Finally, the unidentifiable image.  South Africa?  The Children's March? I haven't been able to place the image of a police officer with two small boys or to track down the significance of the number, "24841."  If you know, please leave me a comment or email me.


The Ledge is simple, even subtle.  It is easy to miss, and in fact, I was dismayed by the number of people who either didn't notice it, or worse, noticed it and didn't think much of it.  Because it made me want to jump up and down.  It made me want to celebrate, despite its painful content.  It made me proud of the students who came up with the idea and implemented it, claiming space on this campus for memory.  


As U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves reminded us eloquently last week in a speech before sentencing three young white men for the death of James Craig Anderson, an African American who was beaten and then run over, racial injustice today must be understood and faced squarely within the context of over 200 years of institutional racist violence.  The inheritances of the past matter.  They cannot be unremembered and therefore they must not be forgotten.  


Thanks, Ledge guerrilla curators, for reminding us.   
And --- don't you all want to go build a pop-up museum right now? 


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What is Public History? A Slam Poem Ode by an "Intro to PH" Undergraduate

Every time I teach Intro to Public History, we begin the semester with two sets of readings.  One set examines public history as it is situated within:
  • the history of the national parks
  • the discipline of history
  • the context of efforts to amplify invisible, untended or uncomfortable histories
  • the context of ordinary people's interests and engagements with the past
These go over very well.  

The other set?  Classics like Becker's "Everyman His Own Historian," David Lowenthal's meditation on the benefits and burdens of the past, Pierre Nora's famous (and famously dense) discussion of lieux de memoire, "sites" both literal and metaphorical that serve as bridges between history and memory and as anchors of identity in a rapidly changing and homogenizing world.

These go over terribly.  And I assign them anyway.  

This semester, I made my students do a reading response to these readings.  Some of them were fabulous. Some of them, shall we say, reflected the complexity of the texts.  And there was this.  A first. A slam poem reflection on history, memory and public history from the smart and thoughtful Dan McGuire.

Here you go:

Memory moves: its commonplace fog flows from the forefront to a fastidious fin within a fortnight or few. Moments pass, but alas, so do facts.  Herein lies the cause for historical intrigue: subjectivity abounds in interpersonal circles and shifts asunder blunders of remembrance, careless and oft-falsified grandeur in lieu of pithy wonder – the truth. Yet if the personal pains the platitudes of memory, the collective projects the final blow. Intellectuals carve while communities starve, competing for the final morsels of meaty memoranda. Ivory towers block the root notes (local history and communal scholarship) from keeping the beat for the books and brains to selfishly solo on top. Intellectual rot reeks of egoists bloviating into oblivion while ‘armchair’ agitators muck the moors of modern mental matriculation. Such claims decry graduate falsehoods: advanced degrees bring advanced understanding. Nonsense. The public deserves better. They deserve academics devoid of the pomp and pressures of publishing. They deserve driven, dutiful people focused on finding out what truly happened. They deserve public historians!
Treading water gets tiring right quick. Stick a historian in water and they’ll sink or get sick. Swimmers feel the burn and simply turn. Historians have muscular eyes instead of toned triceps to dive. But they tire. Reading renders the reader a simple purveyor of anything the writer wishes. If he chooses to devote an entire chapter to existential undertones in Olympic water-polo so be it, the reader must obey. He might become annoyed and think – “how could this writer have chosen such high-minded nonsense instead of getting to the real meat of the game?” The question therein signals the most important aspect of historical study: picking what to study, why, and which sources (primary and secondary) to utilize. Professional historians more often than not pick peer’s work to prove points. They stay immersed in their archives and libraries to the point of exhaustion. When one stumbles out of their House of Letters they might find, spray painted on the wall before them, a mural. It might depict a recent riot or a once-local figure now nudged into the national: whatever the case, books and essays can only show a part of the puzzle. The people those scribbles of lexigraphy represent truly matter, not decades-removed pretense a la post-Pulitzer pleasure. People are in the game for the game and not for the people.

************
OK.  Is it just me?  Or does it seem as if he was just waiting for the vocabulary to talk about history, memory and the public? About telling stories that matter? About the problems with academic history?  

Another public historian is born! (And this was published with his permission. Albeit blushingly.) 



Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Irish Famine: LOL?

They say comedy = tragedy + time.  A proposed television series set in Ireland during the Famine (1845-1852) has raised interesting questions about how to attribute meaning and weight to each variable in this particular equation.

When screenwriter Hugh Travers, a Dublin native, mentioned in an interview that he had been given an open commission to develop a television program by Channel 4, and was working on a tragicomedy set during the Famine, he referred to it as a "kind of Shameless, set during the Famine."  Reaction was speedy, and quite what you would expect. 




Most stories ran photos of Rowan Gillespie's Dublin memorial to Famine victims.
The Daily Mail led the race for the headline with, "Is this the Most Tasteless Idea for a Sitcom Ever?" while IrishCentral.com's Irish-American pundit Niall O'Dowd forgave those who thought this was an April Fool's joke. The Irish Times interviewed writers and historians who said it was in poor taste and made inevitable comparisons to other historic atrocities. Indeed, it showed its hand by eschewing any number of historians of the Famine to interview Tim Pat Coogan on the matter.  Coogan, the most vociferous proponent of the "famine as genocide" school of thought, was quoted saying, “You really would have to be talking about making jokes about Belsen and Auschwitz and the gas chambers to make it an equivalent thing in our lifetime.” Petitions were posted for people to register a negative reaction; protests outside Channel 4 were scheduled.  

And the too-cool-for-school hipster journalists made it clear that no one cares if you are offended,  mocking those who were bothered by the idea of a Famine comedy by calling them the simpleton "outragerati" and taking particularly sharp digs at Irish Americans who, according to some, have no right to an opinion on the matter.  (I'd say that of the things Irish America legitimately gets to have an opinion about, the way the Famine is remembered ranks pretty high on the list, given that it led to one million deaths and over one million emigrants, many of whom came to North America.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Thoughts on Calvary

The new semester began a few weeks ago and I've found myself caught up in an effort to establish a new routine -- one that includes a traveling spouse and a lack of wheels three days a week. Despite the busy and the efforts not to glorify the busy, I've continued to think about the McDonagh film I saw in late August.

John Michael McDonagh's latest venture, Calvary, stars Brendan Gleeson and a whole cast of compelling actors, including Chris O'DowdKelly ReillyAidan GillenDylan Moran and Isaach de Bankolé. It is probably fair to say that the younger McDonagh stepped out definitively as something more than Martin's brother and creative collaborator with this one.  

I challenge the reviews that refer to this as a black comedy.  It's not black, but rather demonic, humor.  Until a point, after which it is not funny anymore.  "Beautifully bleak?" Indeed. "Mordantly funny?" Yes.  But the New Yorker reviewer who called it silly either didn't see the film or really doesn't get Ireland, Catholicism or, well, death.





Full disclosure: I might have had a panic attack in the movie theater.  Not at the scene, but at the bar scene, the one that suggests that the whole thing is on a rapid downhill slide.  If you saw the movie, you know what I am talking about.  If you didn't, I don't think it really matters anyway.  Just so you know that I got so shook up I couldn't breathe.  At a movie.  That consciously I understand is a fictionalized portrait, an imagined life. Designed to feel real.  



Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Constructing Usable Pasts At Home

Here is the quote of the week:

“In the end, we get older, we kill everyone who loves us through the worries we give them, through the troubled tenderness we inspire in them, and the fears we ceaselessly cause.” Walter Benjamin

"Troubled tenderness" is the most beautiful phrase I've read in a long time. It's been a tough week around here, with my mother hospitalized after a collapse that was the result of taking too much medication.

Her body didn't like that one bit, and heart, kidneys, lungs all had something to say.  The first twenty-four hours were rough. She is doing better now and with some luck and some hard work, she will be right as rain in a month or so.


We've come down to help my mom and dad when things have gone pear-shaped before.  My husband once remarked that my dad looked like Mario from the video game -- running into walls and bouncing off of things.  In the thick of the panic, he does get a little dazed. Don't we all?  (I often feel like free-fall Mario myself.) Dad is 84, can't see well, can't hear well, and until recently didn't have a fully functioning set of teeth.  He is still a formidable guy on his good days, articulate and even a bit fierce.  But on bad days, I can see the age, the wear and the tear, the worry -- and the toll it has all taken.  He looks depleted.  He shuffles and bounces off walls.






I have been teaching an online summer class on public history over the past six weeks. For some reason it is more difficult online to make the links clear between history and memory. It is also really challenging to explain without actual back and forth dialogue the way memory functions as glue, piecing together and holding steady our identities as we understand them.  Memory structures events, offers them a shape.  It also makes certain that this shape adheres to our sense of who we are.  The ways memory becomes codified into history ---  if the narrator is reliable and the same version of events is repeated often enough --- is kind of a tough thing to explain. Once you see it, you never stop seeing it.  Once the veil is lifted, the relationships between history and memory are only too clear.  But for history students, who tend to really like the "facts," this tends to be a stretch. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The City Revisited: A Re-photographic Study of Derry

A lot of really wonderful things happened in Derry, or Londonderry, (or Legenderry even,) last year when it became the first UK City of Culture.  For a small city, it's been big at attracting interesting and creative people; last year there was funding and impetus for people to continue and build on that tradition.

One of my favorite projects was created by two photographers, Andy Horsman and Paul McGuckin.  They rephotographed iconic Derry photos, many taken over 100 years ago.  Using a large format camera that would have been used to take the originals (5" x 4") they did some editing magic to knit the images together in surprising, poignant and occasionally haunting ways. You can check out their awesome blog to learn more about them, their technique and the evolution of the project. A montage of their work mashing up more contemporary cityscapes in Derry with scenes of the civil rights movement and the Troubles can be found here, at the BBC History website.

I didn't know about the pictures and so I discovered them serendipitously. Many of the images were hung, mural-like, in the space  I was exploring --- the most-dramatically changed aspect of Derry since my last visit: the site of the former Ebrington Barracks, which has been transformed into a public space that is commemorative in a deliberately pageantry-infused way. The longterm plan includes spaces for residential, commercial and cultural use.  It is connect by a pretty awe-inspiring suspension footbridge that links the city center to Ebrington.


Historians say the site at Ebrington was where King James II's troops were camped during the Siege of Derry (1688-'89.) Finding it a good site, it was used as a barracks from the mid-eighteenth century, mostly housing locally recruited regiments. It was a parade ground in the 1840s.  From 1939, it was a navy base until 1970, when British soldiers used it as their barracks during the Troubles until 2003.

As military history (like most history) is often divisive in the city, and because the River Foyle, which runs between Ebrington and the Guildhall, was long seen as a kind of dividing line between the cityside and the Waterside, Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist, this is symbolically a big step.  It's also an important public space.  Northern Ireland has historically had precious few of these.  Even before the Troubles raised fears of large gatherings, public spaces were limited in a congested city where order demanded that everything and everyone have a place.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Home Truths, Open Secrets and Women's Memories in Ireland

It is a a painful, poignant time to be in Ireland, as the #800babies scandal breaks.  People speak of little else. Everyone has a strong opinion.  Hello, Pandora's box.

In a nutshell:   Local historian Catherine Corless engaged in a long, tedious process of determining how many babies and children died in the Tuam, Galway Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and 1961.  The project began in an attempt to erect a plaque for an unmarked gravesite on the grounds of the former home run by the Bon Secours order.  Looking to name the children, Corless expected to find a few. The county registrar came back with 796 death certificates.  The historian cross-referenced the list of dead children with many area cemeteries.  None of the names appeared, raising the question of where the bodies were buried.  Further investigation revealed that the gravesite was not the only burial ground at the home; in the 1970s, bones had been discovered onsite, the story silenced.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On Trigger Warnings, Landmines and Memory

Everyone's talking about trigger warnings in college classrooms this week.  This has me thinking about how we navigate "triggers" in our daily lives. 

It also makes me reflect on the utter unpredictability of things -- stories, images, sounds, events --  that trigger painful and traumatic memories.  This week, we've had some insight into how those operate in places where people have experienced and lived through violent conflict.

The trigger warning issue occupies prime real estate in contemporary culture wars.  Of course it does. After all, it is highly emotive, intensely polarized and wide open for criticism on either side of the debate. Plus, it involves feminists, who always get mocked for taking things too seriously and who never take that bullshit quietly.

 If you haven't been following the debate, college students across the nation are saying that they want to know which class sessions and readings/assignments will contain content or address issues that potentially trigger the onset of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  The movement to make trigger warnings mandatory got underway last February at University of California Santa Barbara. Bailey Loverin, a student, raised the issue after feeling "forced" to sit through a film that described rape graphically.  She wanted to leave because the film raised her experience as a victim sexual abuse, but felt that walking out would  be extremely public. 

Since then, proposals by student senates have been presented at a wide array of colleges and universities.  The movement has its roots in feminist approaches to social media.




I sympathize with feminists who have championed trigger warnings as a means of creating and nurturing safer online spaces.  Websites and videos warn readers and viewers about disturbing content so they can either prepare for the possibility of being disturbed or avoid. I also tend to sympathize with the fuming academics who consider trigger warnings "inimical to academic freedom." Yes, I also think it is idiotic that The Great Gatsby might demand a trigger warning for suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.  And I would be really annoyed if I had to tag basically every class meeting in world history with a trigger warning --  but pretty much everything from the Haitian Revolution to the Vietnam era anti-war protests could conceivably fall under this category, right?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Return to Sender: Lessons from Boston College' s Belfast Project


On Tuesday, May 6th, Boston College’s Director of Public Affairs, Jack Dunn, announced that ‘The Belfast Project” oral history initiative would honor all requests from participants to return recordings and transcripts of interviews not currently in use as evidence in the murder investigation of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972.  The college will keep no copies. The information in the interviews will remain known only to the interviewers, a few Boston College employees and William Young, a federal district court judge who read the transcripts to determine which ones should be delivered to Northern Irish authorities under a treaty governing exchanges of information between nations for the purposes of law enforcement. 

Boston College’s decision came on the heels of events last week, when the Police Service of Northern Ireland held Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams for questioning about his involvement in the McConville murder.   Evidence came directly from the Belfast Project interviews.  The move by the PSNI invited new scrutiny on an oral history project that has already been the focus of very public controversy, as Beth McMurtrie laid out in her detailed investigative piece published last January in The Chronicle of Higher Education

News that the recordings and transcripts would be returned was surely met with relief by former republican and loyalist combatants who had agreed to share their stories from the front lines of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, a thirty-year period of political turmoil and civil violence which left 3,700 people dead and approximately 10,000 injured.  Those interviewed had been promised confidentiality in exchange for honesty.  Interviewees revealed information about activities “the dogs on the street” may have known about, but which were rarely discussed on the record.  

For Anthony McIntyre, the former republican prisoner and scholar who conducted interviews with fellow ex-combatants, the public announcement was a “symbolic washing of the hands” on the part of Boston College, a way to distance itself from criticism emerging about the project.  While not pleased at being cast adrift by college administrators, McIntyre and others closely associated with the project agree that the information on the recordings was not safeguarded well.

While the case has implications for a wide scope of scholarly research, oral historians in particular have been watching the situation closely since 2011, when information from the interviews was first subpoenaed on the basis of material that project co-director, journalist Ed Moloney, included in his book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland  Moloney’s use of interviews by former IRA Belfast Brigade commander Brendan Hughes was in accordance with contracts signed by each interviewee forbidding access to interviews until after a participant’s death.  Hughes died in 2008; however, many of the people he discussed on the record remained very much alive.

An increasingly public and vitriolic disagreement has taken place about who is to blame for the exposure of paramilitary secrets, heating up over the past week when Northern Ireland’s republican community reacted to Adams’ arrest.  They slammed the Belfast Project as a vehicle for former republicans disgruntled by the way the peace process unfolded to air dirty laundry, lionize themselves and castigate their enemies within the movement. McIntyre has long been a vocal opponent of both Gerry Adams and post-1998 republicanism, fueling these suspicions. 

The project director, Moloney, and interviewers, McIntyre and Wilson McArthur, who have no professional experience with higher education institutions, say they took Boston College at its word that the material would remain confidential.  They believed the college would be an honest broker and that BC’s Burns Library Special Collections would not only process, catalogue and preserve the collection, but would keep the information it contained confidential.  College spokespeople say that project directors knew from the start that the information would only be protected as “far as American law will allow” and that Bob O’Neill, head of the Burns Library, specifically indicated that it was not clear the commitment to protect the information could withstand a federal court subpoena. 

The question remains: What can oral and public historians engaged in collecting and interpreting histories about controversial, divisive and difficult issues and events learn from the Belfast Project and its fallout? 

First, if you are serious about collecting and archiving sensitive historical material, put your publishing ambitions aside for the time being.  Ed Moloney’s use of information
provided in Hughes’ interview and his discussion about it it with a Boston Globe reporter in 2010 (Thomas Gagen, “Adams’ Secret, Now His Shame,” The Boston Globe, January  07, 2010) opened up this can of worms. 

Next, when addressing controversial histories, it is even more important to remember that interviews are not objective, disinterested, or omniscient sources.  We all know this, but in this case, the media keeps forgetting it.  Obsession with “what is on the tapes” obscures the larger issues around collecting histories in conflict and recent post-conflict zones, let alone the interpretative challenges of working with oral testimony. 

Third, in cases like this one, the institutional review board (IRB) is your friend.  Establishing protocols and taking the necessary precautions to locate control of materials with the interviewees, instead of with the institutions, probably would have made a difference in this case, where interviewees didn’t have final say on edits, redactions, deletions, pseudonyms or anonymity, etc.  They talked, and that was that.  Getting involved with high-stakes history means taking seriously that, well, the stakes are high.

Finally, the critical lesson I take away from this is an affirmation of our priorities as public and oral historians: Trust matters.  So does process.  All the players in the Boston College case got involved for different reasons and wanted different things from the project.  Understanding and identifying partners’ motivations is a necessary prerequisite for endeavors like this.  It is only through this process that those involved can gain a clear understanding of the stakes involved and the breaking point at which commitment to the project and to the relationships that sustain it might falter.  As this case proves, sharing authority is no simple proposition and the tools required to do with integrity are not reflexive or intuitive.  The fragile and failed relationships between project administrators, researchers and interviewees in this case should be a cautionary tale for us all.