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

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Politics of Remembrance in Northern Ireland

I have been thinking about the Troubles for fifteen years,  researching and trying to tell  histories of nationalists in Derry, Northern Ireland for ten.   As a result, many people have asked me what I think of the the recent news cycle, featuring Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams, murdered Belfast widow Jean McConville and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.   

My response has been a vague, "I think it's complicated."  There has been a rash of whataboutery out there, to which I am loathe to add even a syllable ( -- from Martin McGuinness's comment about the "dark forces" in the PSNI,  Northern Ireland's police force to the lachrymose recapitulations of the abduction and murder of McConville, a widowed mother of 10 accused of passing information to the British army whose body was missing until 2003 -- that sounds like "republicans are all evil" masquerading as sympathy for McConville's children.)


  There has also been intelligent and thoughtful discussion -- if you are interested in learning more or trying to understand issues of memory, victimhood and the Troubles, I recommend  Susan McKay's piece in The Guardian and Brian Walker's short op-ed on the Slugger O'Toole online journal.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Art of Memory: On May Day


On May Day, I always take a moment to read the piece below, written by Eduardo Galeano, whose writing intertwines in so many ways with memory, as I've discussed here.  
Long before I sat in a public history class, it was this piece that brought home to me how power constructs memorial narratives and made me wonder if reshaping memorial narratives might alter the architecture of power.  I've become more cynical about that over time, but I still love this prose poem. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Naming the Butterflies: On Discomfort Zones

I am generally blithely unaware of how much time I spend smack dab in the middle of my comfort zone.  People I know.  Places I know.  Experiences I know.

I tiptoe to the edges of it from time to time.  Get lost on purpose.  Walk into a room filled with strangers.  Teach unfamiliar material.  Add a new tool to my digital toolkit.  Ask a new question.  Sit with a new answer. Stretch. I even occasionally wear yellow.

Most of the time, I am comfortable. Even, dare I say it, staid.

But I study and write about Derry, Northern Ireland, a place far from home.  Its culture has been shaped by a history I have come to understand something of -- it often feels just enough to illuminate all that I do not and cannot claim to know.  Derry is simultaneously deeply familiar and quite literally foreign.

Photo by Marty McColgan
People say, "But, you're an historian of Derry.  You've spent years there. You love it. Plus, you are Irish-American and Ireland is really just the 51st state, perched off the Maine coast. You have a Ph.D. based on Derry's history. Surely you are comfortable there."

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Performing Memory

My mom has a habit that has become more pronounced over time.  If she doesn't want to do something, she makes herself late.  A strange, passive aggressive stalling tactic. You might think about it casually and consider her disorganized, or worse -- approaching senility.  The dillying.  The dallying.  A whole ritual involving socks.  But I don't think so - because I can see the intention behind it.  A quiet protest.  An insistence on her right to choose.




As I was sitting on the couch yesterday morning, in pjs, drinking tea -- a half an hour before I needed to be somewhere it takes me twenty minutes to drive to -- it occurred to me that I have inherited this particular habit.

When I first picked up Diana Taylor's wonderful book The Archive and the Repertoire, the idea that we perform acts of memory everyday in our speech, our silences, our habits and ways of being in the world  was new to me.  It kind of blew me away.  I think she actually talks about looking in the mirror and seeing her mom looking in the mirror in the introduction.

When I ask, "How's by you?"  I am performing memory.  I never ask anyone who is not in my immediate family this, but my association of the phrase with my mother and her mother and aunties -- five first generation Polish-American women -- comforts me somehow.  I usually ask the cat, though a. he cannot answer and b. how's by him is pretty much the same as it is for me, since we live in the same place. Never you mind that the etymology of the phrase is Yiddish and I have no idea why my mom's family adopted it. Maybe it was my German/Irish grandfather's.  I've adopted it to signify what I want it to -- probably changing the meaning and original purpose of the utterance.  Oh well --- memory is fluid, flexible and open to adjustments.

We all think about food as memory and traditions of other kinds as well.  But isn't it fascinating, and maybe just a little freeing, to consider your nervous ticks, procrastination and avoidance tactics, the armor you grab for whenever you get in an argument, etc.  performances of memory as well?  Doesn't it make you want to understand what attitudes and behaviors are yours and yours alone, and which ones are inheritances?


I've become more inclined to make hospital corners the way my mom taught me, to follow a particular choreography in the kitchen, to find it funny and oddly lovely that I hoard cans of tomato sauce and stockpile condiments just like my dad does.  It is still neurotic, but as a performance of neurotic memory, it makes it a little more OK.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

On Memory and Methodology


 Academic historians tend to have a favorite question for me.  I was recently asked it and I didn't know how to respond. I wish I could say that it is irrelevant to my interests and concerns. However, it actually does matter quite a bit, though it matters differently for me, I think, than it does in the way the askers intend.

 The question is always a very polite and well-intentioned attempt to ask me if I missed the memo that tells historians that memories are untrustworthy as sources of historical information.  "You do know that you aren't supposed to trust memories to be descriptive of actual events, right? Right? OK.  As long as you know."  




"Memory is a poet, not an historian."


Historians tend to criticize the use of remembrance as a source for interpreting the past.  It is OK to discuss people's remembrances and recollections of the past only as long as one does not suggest that those recollections relate in any meaningful way to what actually happened.  Memories are partial, subjective, always in flux, in motion.  People misremember.  They embellish.  They reorder events and their significance, sometimes to align with others' memories, often to make the present make more sense.