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Memory Too Has a History

Guy Beiner

Memory Ireland, vol. 3: The Famine and the Troubles, ed Oona Frawley, Syracuse University Press, 375 pp, $44.95, ISBN: 978-0815633518

TW Moody ‑ who was devoted to setting Irish historical scholarship on a firm scientific footing ‑ opened his presidential address to the Dublin University History Society, delivered on May 10th, 1977, with the statement: “The past is dead. Nothing, for good or ill, can change it; nothing can revive it. Yet there is a sense in which the past lives on: in works of human hands and minds, in beliefs, institutions, and values, and in us all, who are its living extension.” In this celebrated lecture, which drew a rigid distinction between Irish history and “Irish mythology”, Moody considered “myths” ‑ referring to what we would now call memory ‑ as “part of the dead past that historians study, as well as being part of the living present in which we all, historians included, are involved”. Historians were directed to turn away from the “living present” and to train a cold eye on the “dead past”.

Nowadays, the “living present” can no longer be ignored. The plethora of events marking the ongoing “Decade of Commemorations” and the ever-growing list of related publications show a compulsive obsession with Irish memory. Newfound academic interest has accordingly staked out a prominent place for memory studies. Over the past two years, a dynamic Irish Memory Studies Network, hosted by the UCD Humanities Institute, has been running lecture series that explore the cutting edge of scholarship in the field. Catering to the growing demand, the publication of the four volumes of Memory Ireland (Syracuse University Press, 2010-2014) is likely to become a canonical anthology. Its showcasing of sparkling essays allows for a critical assessment of the state of the arts.

In the opening chapter of the third volume of Memory Ireland, Oona Frawley ‑ the astute editor of this impressive tetralogy ‑ introduces the concept of “cruxes in Irish cultural memory”. She explains that these are “analogous to ‘reminiscence bumps’ found in individuals, but occur on a cultural level”. A footnote explains that the term “reminiscence bumps”, which is taken from studies of autobiographical memory, refers to “periods of time during the lifespan for which an individual has a disproportionate amount of memories”. It follows that these cruxes designate particularly memorable moments in a community’s past. Yet Frawley sharpens the definition beyond what may seem to be just another name for key dates in Irish history. She adds that memory cruxes “center around perceived traumatic historical spaces that pose questions and offer conflicting, oppositional and sometimes intensely problematic answers about the way that a culture considers its past, and that are crucial in the shaping of social identities”. Note the personification of “culture”. It would seem that repeated evocations of “cultural memory” have conjured up a golem: it is “culture” which “considers its past”. The cultural turn has been ratcheted to its extreme. In this cyclical formulation, culture remembers cultural memory.

Irish culture is apparently transfixed by “traumatic historical spaces”, some of which are more resonant than others. The essays in this volume focus exclusively on the Famine and the Troubles because of the “impact of these two periods on the study of Irish cultural memory”. These memory cruxes are differentiated from other memorable historical events ‑ such as the 1798 Rebellion or the Easter Rising ‑ because of “their claim on what had been perceived in much scholarship to be trauma”. It follows that Irish memory in its quintessential form is allegedly traumatic. Trauma in this sense signifies a psychological condition, not a bodily injury, and its use has been extended, like memory itself, to cover a collective: “Rather than speaking of trauma of the individual, we now speak, and write, of the trauma of a culture.”. In Memory Ireland, cultural trauma begets cultural memory, which in turn remembers cultural trauma, forming a loop that resembles an Escher drawing.

The juxtaposition of memories of the Famine with the memory of the Troubles entails a hidden promise. Whereas the Troubles occurred in the late twentieth century, in what Frawley aptly labels a “trauma-ready culture”, consideration of the mid-nineteenth century Famine might uncover a conceptualisation of trauma avant la lettre, before the term was conceived in the seminal writings of Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud. Such an exploration, if thoroughly followed through, would have indeed made “a significant intervention that demands that we reconsider the very notion of cultural trauma”. Regrettably, this ambitious claim is not delivered on in full.

In a worthy essay on “Ethnonostalgia”, Joseph Valente critically deconstructs some of the crude references to trauma theory that surfaced during the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Famine and unmasks the rhetoric of recovery of a repressed collective unconscious as constituting “a fantasy space in which a virtual, symbolic substitute for organic community ‑ a particularly fraught form of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ ‑ might be articulated”. In place of this fanciful, and heavily politicised, concept of cultural trauma, Valente refers to the work of Kai T Erikson on the long-term social consequences of catastrophic events. Following Erikson’s sophisticated “spiderweb model”, he cautions “that owing to the Irish diaspora and the ethnic interchange, intermarriage and intermixture that it entailed, the transgenerational impact of Famine trauma has radiated far beyond the Irish nation or any conventional defined Irish community”. Adapting a sociological approach evidently undermines essentialist conceptualisations of a uniquely Irish memory of trauma. It also raises the methodological challenge of tracing the transmissions of communal trauma over space, as well as back in time.

From the outset, the Memory Ireland project was heavily invested in binding memory to modernity (which was the theme of the first volume in the series). In consequence of the heightened interest in late-modern memorialisation, insufficient attention has been paid to Ireland’s long history of mnemonic traditions, which are rooted in folk culture. An insightful essay by Emily Mark-Fitzgerald on photography acknowledges that early visual depictions of the Famine have been rarely interrogated in terms of their creation, transmission and reception (an omission she set out to redress in her recently published book Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument [2013]). Joseph Lennon’s essay on “Terence McSwiney and Famine Memory” claims that the republican hunger strike of 1920 was “more pressing for the descendants of Famine survivors”. Yet we seem to know very little about the vernacular ways in which the Famine was remembered in early twentieth century everyday life, beyond the general observation that “one lifetime after the Famine, few individuals had firsthand memories, but millions of second- and third-generation Irish, particularly in the North American diaspora, had grown up in households and communities suffused with references to that foundational catastrophe”.

Margaret Kelleher’s candid admission that “few detailed studies exist of the acts of transfer, historical and continuing, that have contributed to a social memory of the Famine” inadvertently reveals a glaring lacuna in this volume. Her own contribution is misleadingly titled “Commemorating the Great Irish Famine 1840s-1990s”, even though it is concerned solely with commemoration in the late twentieth century. Similarly, other chapters, such as Niamh Ann Kelly’s essay on “Workhouses and Famine Memory”, jump straight from the event to its memorialisation in our time. The implicit conception of cultural trauma behind this presentist approach is one of recovery: memories of suffering in the distant past are retrieved and re-interpreted in the present. The disregard of an “in between” period leaves the long interval between the historical events and the present time unaccounted for, so that memory appears to have no history.

In previous work, Kelleher was one of a number of innovative scholars whose research invalidated the claim that the Famine had not been discussed for a long time after the event. The persistence of the common belief in a prolonged silence about the Famine, even though it has been authoritatively disproved, is indicative of the popular appeal of quasi-psychoanalytical models in which a traumatic event is considered, by definition, to be unspeakable until it resurfaces at a much later date. Our understanding of the memory of the Famine could benefit from a more rigorous historical approach, one that would examine the earliest recollections the event and then follow how it was subsequently remembered. An analogous example of how this can be done can be found in Ron Eyerman’s Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity (2001). In this study, which covers more or less the same historical time frame, Eyerman examined the evolution of cultural trauma in contemporary African-American identity by tracing moments of “re-membering” slavery from the time of abolition in 1865 to the Civil Rights movement. The absence of a similar investigation of social remembrance of the Famine does not derive from a lack of sources.

Early remembrance of the Famine deserves scrutiny in its own right. There is no a priori certainty that calamity was perceived in the past in the same ways we would expect it to be understood today. Yuval Noah Harari’s unconventional studies of warfare are illuminating in this regard. His book on Renaissance Military Memoirs (2004) examined medieval and early-modern autobiographical accounts of soldiers who lived through horrific combat experiences and found that their narratives are devoid of any sense of trauma. In Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000 (2008), Harari slotted this observation into a wider historical survey and discovered that the signs of what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) only appear explicitly in the twentieth century. This insight raises questions as to whether we are reading our own expectations of trauma into historical events. Frawley was clearly aware of this issue and perceptively noted in her introduction: “It is curious to consider when it is that the Famine became traumatic. Was the Famine immediately traumatic ‑ that is, is the language of trauma, even if in other words, present in the culture in the immediate aftermath of the events?” (emphases in the original). None the less, this cardinal question remains unanswered in the Memory Ireland volume.

In light of the overwhelming concern with the present, to the neglect of a previous history of remembrance, one is left wondering to what extent the historical reference actually matters. On the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf, we might as well be speaking about the lingering trauma of Viking raids. At this point, examination of the Troubles is helpful for figuring out how cultural trauma initially develops. An abundance of accessible sources make it possible to closely follow the formation and transformations of memory of the Northern Irish conflict. The allusion to “post-conflict” memory in essays by Fionna Barber (on art practice) and Kris Brown (on noncombatants and memorialisation) obscures the basic fact that there wasn’t an initial delay between the historical event and its remembrance. Early memories were formed as the events of the Troubles were unfolding. The popularisation of psychoanalytical discourse ensured that these impressions were instantly recognised as traumatic. Over time, recollections were reshaped, retold and performed in new contexts. These reformulations of memory were influenced by the rise to dominance of a global culture of commemoration of victims, epitomised by the special status awarded to the memory of the Holocaust, which has accorded political recognition to cultural trauma.

It should be recognised more openly that trauma has been used as a form of cultural capital, which is susceptible to political manipulations. Admission of the utilisation of cultural trauma does not invalidate the memory of suffering. Looking at the case of Bloody Sunday, Graham Dawson shows that personal testimonies ‑ which express a range of powerful emotions along a spectrum that spans shock, grief, fear, and rage ‑ became formative texts for “traumatised communities”. He demonstrates how life stories are “attuned to the negotiations of shared and common memory within families and local communities”. Through such stories we can follow transitions from individual trauma to cultural trauma. The reflexive role of remembrance, in not only reflecting trauma but in also constituting it, requires further consideration.

The preference of Memory Ireland for the term cultural memory, as opposed to social memory or other available terms, such as popular memory (which has been developed to great effect by a number of scholars, including Dawson) has proved enabling, but it also came at a price. Studies of cultural memory tend to privilege literary and artistic representations of the past. As such, they often fail to engage with the social dynamics of memory. Monuments, artworks, novels, poems, plays and countless other productions of cultural memory do not in themselves remember. Their function as aides-mémoire is subject to popular reception. We need to be reminded that remembrance, like trauma, is formulated in human consciousness and that this is shared through social interaction, in what Maurice Halbwachs famously referred to as “the social frameworks of memory” (les cadres sociaux de la mémoire).

As should be expected, the contributors to the Memory Ireland volume are well read. Between them, they have referenced many of the key theoretical works on the memory of traumatic events. Somewhat disappointingly, however, a substantial body of social theory on cultural trauma has not been consulted. Discussion on cultural trauma could have benefited from engagement with the works of such scholars as Bernhard Giesen, Neil J Smelser, and in particular Jeffrey C Alexander. In a rejection of organicist models, Alexander has systematically argued ‑ most recently in Trauma: A Social Theory (2012) ‑ that cultural trauma is a social and cultural construct. The constructivist approach calls attention to the key role of local agents in mediating trauma. These mediators have been labelled “memory choreographers” by Brian Conway in a sociological study of Commemoration and Bloody Sunday: Pathways of Memory (2010), which is yet another work that has surprisingly slipped under the radar of Memory Ireland.

Towards the end of the Memory Ireland volume, Dominic Bryan maps a recent change in loyalist street commemoration, which in some unionist areas of Belfast has moved from celebrating the iconic memory of King William III’s victory at the Boyne to marking the memory of the decimation of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme. This shift is attributed to the political activities of the UVF. Here we can clearly notice the “memory choreographers” at work. An historical perspective could have evaluated the move from celebration of triumph to commemoration of trauma in relation to wider developments in traditions of Irish memory. Once again, we need to be reminded that there is a history of previous memory mediations and “remediations” (to use a term developed in media studies by Richard Grusin). Cultural trauma was not only constructed but also repeatedly reconstructed. Further probing can also reveal “premediations” (another concept borrowed from media studies and adapted for memory studies by Astrid Erll), through which memories were formed with reference to earlier events and fitted into long-standing historical traditions. The study of memory in Ireland requires the undertaking of archaeologies of social memory that would systematically chart in detail the multiple reconstructions of historical memories over extended periods of time.

The current flourish of a “memory industry” (to use the characterisation of an early critique by Kerwin Lee Klein) has been proclaimed a “memory boom” by some of its foremost scholars, including Jay Winter and David W Blight. The first to make a reference to a boom was Andreas Huyssen, who identified in Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (1995) the excessive preoccupation with memory as a symptom of cultural crisis. Pierre Nora, the editor of the multi-volume Les Lieux de Mémoire (1984-1992), remarked in his seminal introductory essay that that “we speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left”. Paul Connerton, who authored How Societies Remember (1989) has since written How Modernity Forgets (2009). It would seem that Irish Studies caught up with this development somewhat belatedly. In post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, of all places, there surely must be a keen awareness of the possibility that a boom can quickly deteriorate into a bust. The future of cultural memory is uncertain.

The self-indulgent infatuation with memory has been primarily driven by concerns with the present and, for all the talk of remembering the past, history has been relegated to the shadows. David Lloyd, in his contribution to the Memory Ireland volume, maintains that we are haunted by two types of spectres: “the more familiar ghost that rises from destruction” and also “the phantom of ‘future possibility’. We are therefore obliged to recall the lives of those who died and to also recover their expectations for a different future. To this I would add the merit of summoning the shades of the many forgotten people who repeatedly recalled the past, transmitting and regenerating memory, often in oral forms, over several generations into our times. This is fertile ground for new scholarship. The future of Irish memory studies is to be found in the past.


Guy Beiner is the author of Remembering the Year of the French: Folk History and Irish Social Memory (University of Wisconsin Press). His forthcoming book, on “Rites of Oblivion” in Ulster, will be published by Oxford University Press.