‘Laden with emotion’: remembering divided histories

The International Wall. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

‘Laden with emotion’: remembering divided histories
by Claire DICKSON
27 June 2023

As part of its good relations programme at Ards and North Down Borough Council, historian Deirdre MacBride gave a talk, “Remembering Divided Histories: the Somme and the Rising”, at the Arts Centre, Newtownards, where she presented her research on popular memories of these events.

MacBride said that these two events are still “laden with emotion”, despite having taken place 100 years ago. She gave examples, such as the Woodvale commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, featuring a re-enactment with a full-sized tank. Also, at the “international wall” in west Belfast, the Easter Rising is set in the context of the modern day — images of volunteers and hunger strikers linked to the rising of the Troubles. MacBride said: “Appropriation of the past happens across both communities.”

MacBride referenced community initiatives that took place to mark events, such as the Easter Rising commemoration in Belfast, which was organised by committees and community groups rather than by the government.

Cross-community commemorative events, such as marking the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme, and Northern Ireland’s centenary, took place at the Irish Linen Centre Museum in Lisburn. In MacBride’s words, it was “trying to give a broader story of our histories”. Elsewhere, in community centres in Belfast, activist and heritage champion Joe Austin and historian and dramatist Philip Orr gave cross-community presentations about the symbolisms and meanings underlying the use of poppies and lilies in commemoration.

However, from conducting research into the 2016 commemoration events, MacBride noted that there was very little reference made to class or women, and that without a socio-economic transformation of Northern Ireland, certain sectors of the population are being left out.

MacBride also argued that drama, music, poetry, and the arts can be used as valuable tools in humanising events and increasing empathy, therefore enhancing cross-community work in addressing difficult histories.

To conclude, MacBride gave the audience space to attempt to answer several questions. First, “How inclusive were the commemorations surrounding the two events in 2016?” and second, “Can commemoration contribute towards reconciliation?”

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