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The Real McCorley

Ian McBride

Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster, by Guy Beiner, Oxford University Press, 736 pp, £35, ISBN: 978-0198749356

I can’t remember what age I was when the Rev Lindsay of Second Keady – the Presbyterian congregation to which my family belonged – remarked that the very first minister of our church had been a rebel. This was the Rev William Steel Dickson, whose portrait still hung in the session room. But I am certain that “rebel” was the word used. In retrospect it strikes me as a revealing choice because, in the highly sectarianised environment of that time and place, it was both a synonym for “republican” and a common term of abuse for Catholics. The assumption was that political and religious allegiances coincided neatly, and always had done.

In fact, more than sixty Presbyterian clergymen and clerical trainees were “republican activists” during the years of radical mobilisation and reaction and terror that led to the fragmented risings of 1798. Many were imprisoned, half a dozen were exiled to the United States and three were hanged. The execution of the popular minister and radical writer James Porter, outside his own meeting house in Greyabbey, was particularly resented. But this information seemed impossibly remote to me. It had no practical application to the casual adolescent violence of a town in Co Armagh, nor to the half-submerged infrastructure of insurgency and counter-insurgency that conducted the specialised violence of the grown-ups. What really mattered was communal solidarity. Hence the rigid system of mental policing so brilliantly satirised in Anna Burns’s Milkman, designed by both sides to prevent any deviation from their fundamental allegiances.

Steel Dickson was consequently filed away in the same category as other quirks and ironies of Irish history – the favourite being the Te Deum ordered by Pope Innocent XI on hearing that William of Orange had triumphed at the Boyne. None of my friends knew what a Te Deum was, but the story about King Billy and the pope was widely celebrated. In 1933, just one year after the new Northern Ireland parliament moved into Stormont Buildings, the unionist prime minister James Craig had purchased an allegorical painting by Pieter van der Muelen of William III landing at Carrickfergus, surrounded by his generals. There was much prime-ministerial embarrassment when the painting was unveiled, and the eyes of the unionist establishment settled on a majestic Innocent XI, floating on a cloud and illuminated by a rapturous burst of golden light, bestowing his papal benediction on the prince of Orange below. Two months later a Glaswegian couple armed with a pot of red paint and a knife disfigured the painting, incited by the police inspector, independent MP and suspected murderer John Nixon. The restored painting was quietly retired to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Many acts of violent decommemoration are charted in Guy Beiner’s remarkable book Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster. Like the painting of Innocent XI and King William, they testify to the complexities and circularities of Irish commemoration, as well as the depressing persistence of Orange vandalism. On January 1st, 1969, for example, just as the People’s Democracy march was making its way from Belfast to Derry, the Roddy McCorley monument at Toome was blown up by Paisleyites. A Celtic cross had been erected there fifteen years earlier to commemorate the hanging of McCorley in 1800. An earlier generation of loyal desecrators had smashed the gravestone placed in the McCorley family plot in 1909. In April 1971 an explosion in Mallusk cemetery damaged the grave of the antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger, the assiduous identifier and restorer of rebel graves, including that of McCorley at Toome. The real McCorley belonged to a band of outlaws led by Thomas Archer, a Ballymena Presbyterian, apprentice shoemaker and deserter from the Antrim militia. Archer’s gang was responsible for robberies, murders, floggings, and multiple cases of rape. Commemorators naturally prefer the romantised pikeman of Ethna Carbery’s well-known ballad “Roddy McCorley”, written for the ’98 centenary and later recorded by the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners and Shane MacGowan. Meanwhile the melody was recycled for “Sean South of Garryowen’ in 1957 and the character updated as a gaelicised socialist republican in one of Bobby Sands’s prison poems.

The earliest example of loyalist counter-commemoration was the destruction of the Betsy Gray monument during a riot in 1898, the centenary of her death. Its history is revealing. Local tradition, poems and ballads preserved the story of Betsy Gray, killed alongside her brother and her lover as they fled the Battle of Ballynahinch. Popular recollection of this incident was framed by a vague sense of Irish patriotism. Betsy was portrayed as a victim of callous state repression, however, rather than a republican martyr. In WG Lyttle’s enormously popular Betsy Gray, or Hearts of Down, published in 1886, the connections between the rising in Co Down and the wider United Irish movement were tenuous and direct criticism of the Orange Order was carefully avoided. But the success of Lyttle’s novel generated widespread interest. Even Gladstone read it. Soon an enterprising hotel proprietor in Ballynahinch was collecting subscriptions for a memorial to the local heroine. The exact spot of Betsy Gray’s unmarked grave in the townland of Ballycreen was confirmed by a Presbyterian farmer named Samuel Armstrong. In London, a wealthy benefactor offered to finance the construction of the monument, even though his claims to be a descendant of the martyr’s family were at odds with local tradition. In Belfast, meanwhile, an article entitled “The Story of Betsy Gray” appeared in the Shan Van Vocht, probably written by Alice Milligan. The apotheosis of “Ulster’s Joan of Arc” had begun.

By the spring of 1898 the overwhelmingly Protestant and unionist inhabitants of Ballynahinch were becoming agitated about the parties of “extreme nationalists” from West Belfast who now made pilgrimages to the grave and decorated it with “seditious emblems and mottos”. The railways made this new cult possible, just as they had for the first time integrated Northern Catholics into an all-island movement for national self-government. That these excursions were organised on the Sabbath day exacerbated the offence. The destruction of the Betsy Gray memorial encapsulated the general impact of the ’98 centenary. Local memories of the rising, quietly preserved over several generations within Presbyterian communities, were rediscovered by antiquarians and revivalists like Milligan and Bigger, and then enthusiastically taken up by Catholic nationalists. Most Protestants accordingly disowned them.

The portrait of William Steel Dickson in the session room of Second Keady was, in contrast, the subject of benign neglect. No one ever mentioned it – not because it was unmentionable but because it simply went unnoticed. Years later I asked the Rev Lindsay if I could take a look at it. I explained that I was writing a PhD thesis on the Presbyterian radicals who had formed the backbone of the United Irish movement. Did he know that Steel Dickson had been commander of the United Irish army of Co Down? That he had been imprisoned without trial for four years at Fort George – the formidable star-shaped garrison constructed on the Ardesier promontory in the Moray Firth. Or that, following his release, loyalists fiercely opposed his readmission to the Synod of Ulster and acquiesced only “on the ground of avoiding painful discussions”? Or that when Dickson was “called” (that is, elected) by Second Keady the new congregation was controversially excluded from its portion of the state subsidy shared by ministers. Lindsay became animated only when I mentioned that I had visited John Barkley, a retired professor of church history at the Presbyterian seminary in Belfast. Barkley’s memoir Blackmouth and Dissenter (1991) was the latest attempt to rekindle something of the radical spirit. It is a significant fact about Ulster Presbyterianism that the staff of the Union Theological College had always been markedly to the left of the church as a whole, and an equally vital fact about its present discontents that for the first time ever this situation has been reversed. When I brought up Barkley’s name, Lindsay snorted, “And does he still smoke a pipe?” (In fact, he did.) Among “good-living” Protestants, it was understood that pipe-smoking was at the soft end of a domino theory of deviance that terminated in some unspecified form of religio-political damnation.

While researching my PhD thesis I found references in the minutes of the Synod of Ulster to “Disorders & Confusions” within First Keady – known simply as “the Temple”. This was the parent congregation from which my own had seceded in the aftermath of the rebellion. Tensions first surfaced in 1797 when Henry McIlree was installed as the new minster. McIlree was clearly a divisive candidate. There was disagreement too about whether the congregation should be affiliated to the Presbytery of Tyrone or the Presbytery of Monaghan (the presbytery being the basic administrative subdivision within the General Synod). When a fresh poll of the stipend contributors was ordered the next year, McIlree’s supporters were declared in the majority. They requested a transfer to the Monaghan presbytery, leaving the dissentients without a minister or a meeting house. Since radical clergymen existed within both bodies, the political context is obscure. But the fact that the minority subsequently issued a call to a notorious United Irishman strongly suggests that their sympathies were with the defeated rebels. Their leader, Samuel Cuming, was a volunteer, freemason, and subscriber to Odes and Elegies (1797) by the United Irish poet John Corry. Once I asked at the Temple if anyone knew the cause of the split. An elder gave me the fabulously anachronistic explanation his mother had given him: the incumbent clergyman of that period had alienated part of his flock by riding a motorbike. Such flamboyance, presumably, was even more offensive than smoking a pipe.

One reason for bringing up William Steel Dickson is that haunting portraits are a recurrent theme in Guy Beiner’s magnum opus. Indeed, this rich compendium begins with an anecdote related by the Rev Robert Marshall (1887-1971), professor of history at Magee College Derry and author of a forgotten collection of poems, Rhymes of Tyrone (1945). Marshall had once visited a house “where Toryism is a religion”, but on remarking that one of his maternal ancestors had “turned out” in 1798 he was solemnly ushered to an upstairs room, and there, he continued:

… from its covering of many wrappers I was shown a small worn oil painting of the direct progenitor of the family who was hanged as a rebel in ’98. But the portrait is never shown to any except those whose forbears also carry the taint.

This incident is an example of what Guy Beiner means by “social forgetting”, a process which is paradoxically a kind of vernacular historiography. The subject of the book is how a community learns to forget a disastrous defeat, and relearns the same strategies of evasion, mitigation and covert fidelity over successive generations. What appears to outsiders as a case of collective amnesia is only ever a public and partial attitude: within families and congregations, stories of the rebellion continue to be told and rituals of commemoration survive. Beiner’s aim is to tease out and elucidate the “tensions between displays of public oblivion and practices of private remembrance”.

Why is Forgetful Remembrance so important? The book combines a major topic of Irish cultural history with a meditation on the paradoxes of forgetfulness. 1798 saw the bloody repression of an Irish national movement led by the descendants of Ulster settlers. To trace the echoes of the turn-out is to write a cultural history of Ulster Protestantism, since almost all oppositional or dissenting strands in Protestant culture have disclosed themselves by imaginative attempts to revivify Presbyterian radicalism. So, for the twentieth century, Beiner writes convincingly about the left-leaning poet and regionalist John Hewitt, the novelist Sam Hanna Bell, author of A Man Flourishing (1973) the neglected Troubles playwright Stewart Parker, the poet Tom Paulin, the historian ATQ Stewart and the anthropologist Estyn Evans. In each instance he makes fresh arguments and observations. On Evans, for example, Beiner reveals how the philosophy of the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra was partly a response to the Northern incursions of the Irish Folklore Commission. An impressive number of women writers are also recovered. Some scholars will be familiar with Florence Mary Wilson’s lament for Thomas Russell, “The Man from God Knows Where”, but few, if any, have traced down her papers to the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum. And who has read Mrs Ward’s Waves on the Ocean of Life (1869), Rosa Mulholland’s Hester’s History (1869), Marion Clarke’s Strong as Death (1875), or Mary Damant’s Peggy: A Tale of the Irish Rebellion (1887)? Beiner’s sympathies are above all concentrated on the local historians and antiquarians who have been overlooked in the academic literature – the librarians, museum curators, schoolteachers, newspaper columnists – and, of course, clergymen – so often the carriers of memory, or at least the mediators between local tradition and the outside world. On these minor figures, and on the images, and tales and relics of 1798 they helped to record, Beiner is simply encyclopaedic. He seems to have read everything.

His technique could be described as infectious ramification. He picks up an idea and runs with it exuberantly. The topic might be the contradictory relationship between memory and forgetting, or it might be one of his own playful neologisms, such as concept of pre-forgetting (which, roughly, signifies the anxious anticipation of vanishing from the historical record that afflict the martyr and his associates before he has actually gone to the scaffold. Often the chapters open with an illuminating discursive riff, on the Irish genealogy of the term “Troubles”; on partitions and borderlands; on the different ways of writing “history from below” or on ‘dealing with the past’ in post-conflict societies. He is drawn to ephemeral forms of commemoration at the most local level, expatiating on “Uninscribed Epitaphs”, on the recovery of human remains, and the cherishing of souvenir locks of hair, handkerchiefs, pikes, swords and muskets. We learn how the proprietor of the Londonderry Arms hotel, in the Antrim coastal village of Carnlough, continued to display the table on which – allegedly – the friends of Henry Joy McCracken attempted to resuscitate his corpse. In Ballycastle, meanwhile, it was believed that the broken clock in the town’s main square had frozen at the moment when an innocent man was taken to the gallows in the bloody aftermath of the ’98. On the outskirts of Warrenpoint in Co Down there lived several families named Ryan, and in each one, through successive generations, one of their boys was named “Willie” in memory of a young man killed randomly by the Ancient Britons, the vicious Welsh cavalry regiment sent to pacify Ulster in 1797. These are all twentieth-century traditions.

Beiner is certainly justified in suggesting that Forgetful Remembrance is the first study to “[chart] the vicissitudes of memory over more than two hundred years in such high resolution”. His intellectual ambition puts him in a different league from most Irish historians of his generation. There are other studies of Irish memory concentrated on particular upheavals – the 1641 rebellion, the Famine, the 1916 Rising – but this is the only one that is likely to be read internationally by scholars and students of “memory”, in the way that the classic studies of memory focused on France or Germany or Israel have become fundamental points of reference for us all. Inevitably, of course, the book prompts more questions that it can answer, and it will not detract from his achievement if I mention two of them – one methodological, and the other concerning “Ulster”.

Memory studies has been a lively and productive field for thirty years now, in which cultural historians not only engage with their colleagues in the social sciences and anthropology, but encounter literary critics, psychologists and neuroscientists. Writings on memory illuminate many of our contemporary preoccupations – violence, trauma, victimhood, reconciliation, colonialism and subalternity, identity politics, changing perceptions of time, globalisation and the apparent erasure of the past associated with postmodernity. “Memory” appeals to historians no longer engaged in Ranke’s pursuit of “what actually happened” but intrigued by the more millennial question “how did it really feel?” Memory also arrived just as the boundaries that separated professional historiography from myth, amateurism and fiction were being challenged, as it was discovered that historians too were prisoners of language, cultural frameworks and narrative devices.

For historians, at least, the principal theoretical insights in this new field were achieved quite early on. We now take it for granted that a memory is not a mental reproduction of a past event. Nor is it like one of those ancient computer files stored on your laptop that could be re-opened someday if only you could find the right settings. The mental recomposition of past experience is reliant on the social and cultural frameworks that operate at the moment of narration. That is the basic fact that makes histories of memory possible. Beiner is one of the most theoretically articulate and adventurous scholars working on Irish topics. And yet the swirling concepts of “pre-forgetting” and “post-forgetting” are employed as literary devices for describing the trajectory of 1798 commemoration rather than explaining it. How should we account for the remarkable vitality of rebellious remembrance in a population that was increasingly defined by its loyalty?

To begin to answer that question means returning to Maurice Halbwachs, the Durkheimian sociologist who first taught us that individual memories are structured and organised by social interaction. The demographic, social and political peculiarities of the Dissenter heartlands of Antrim, Down and Londonderry are crucial. These were distinct zones where Presbyterians outnumbered the Anglican and Catholic populations put together and where hostility to landlordism and the established church sustained an oppositional political culture. In this environment tenant-righters, Gladstonian Liberals, Russellites and even Protestant Home Rulers all thrived disproportionately. From the 1880s, as we have seen, these pockets of liberal unionism were pressurised by the perceived threat of Catholic nationalism. During the same years the social and political frameworks of rebel remembrance dissipated with the dismantling of landlordism and Anglican privilege. In Armagh and other parts of outer Ulster whatever oppositional spaces that had once existed within Protestant populations had long since vanished, and their histories are probably irretrievable.

If demographic and social patterns assisted the survival of grassroots nostalgia for the turn-out, we need other factors to explain the cult of ’98 among the educated elite – the clergy, historians, poets and playwrights. Among these groups the supposedly anathematised 1798 has always outperformed the “official” cult of the Ulster Covenant of 1912. Here the comparisons surveyed in Beiner’s final chapter are potentially misleading, for the classic studies of collective repression – Henri Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (1991), Peter Novick’s The Holocaust and American Life (2000) WG Sebald’s analysis of the saturation bombing of Hamburg and other German cities in The Natural History of Destruction (2003), like William Cohen on the Algerian war, Nancy Wood on the Papon trial, Takashi Yoshida on the Rape of Nanking – are all based on twentieth century examples. Rousso’s book on the traumatic legacy of Nazi occupation features a striking graph entitled “Temperature curve of the syndrome” delineating distinct phases of “incomplete mourning” (1945-55), repression (1955-70) and obsession (the late twentieth century). Beiner opts for the “sine graph”, in which popular remembrance repeatedly bursts into the open, is attacked, and is driven underground once more. But these cases involve different technologies and media, different regimes of temporality as well as vastly different orders of “trauma”. When Rousso’s book appeared the connection between the French elite and Vichy was still direct, most notably in the person of President François Mitterrand. He was as close to his subject as we are to Bloody Sunday.

One of the reasons why there have been admirers of ’98 in every generation is that the end of the eighteenth century saw the birth of modern democratic politics, and the United Irishmen are inseparably connected to the American and French revolutions. Even the Stormont regime, in its manifesto Why the Border Must Be (1956), could make positive references to 1798 in the context of Ulster’s shared commitment with the United States to democratic values. The radical weaver James Hope (another victim of graveside vandalism) is a foundational figure for Irish socialists, just as histories of Irish feminism begin with Mary Ann McCracken. There is simply too much cultural capital tied up in these emblematic figures to abandon them, and the same goes for Dr William Drennan, Samuel Neilson and Henry Joy McCracken. Protestant writers alienated from establishment unionism have consequently asserted an affinity with the ideals of the United Irishmen while carefully distinguishing their politics from that of latter-day republicans.

The second question is whether the rebellion is now over – at least for the vast majority of Northern Protestants. In 1998 the conjunction of the bicentenary of the rebellion with the optimism generated by the Good Friday Agreement produced a flurry of lectures, museum displays, and heritage trails in Antrim and Down. But I suspect that this commemorative enthusiasm has left surprisingly little imprint on the vernacular cultures that most interest Guy Beiner. The Ulster Presbyterians have a good claim to be the inventors of Irish republicanism, but the subaltern memory of resistance to military repression is now effectively monopolised by Sinn Féin. During the Troubles, unionist politicians demanded more military repression. They refrained from condemning the most flagrant excesses of the RUC or the British army. Arguments over decommissioning, Bloody Sunday and other inquiries into state killings, and competing definitions of victimhood have soured Northern Ireland’s politics in the age of power-sharing. Over the last twenty years one of the principal unifying objectives of the unionist bloc has been to maintain a clear moral distinction between the sacrifices made by members of the security forces and the illegal campaigns fought by terrorist organisations.

The mood within the Presbyterian clergy has also turned against the men and women of ’98, although for more complicated reasons. For the first time in its four-hundred-year history, Ulster Presbyterians are no longer afraid of papal domination. Instead they are exercised by the problem of same-sex couples, who were excluded from full church membership last year. The adoption of this new defining issue has entailed a breach with the Church of Scotland and a plunge into the American culture wars. (Ulster Presbyterians are always more international and simultaneously more parochial than historians make them out to be.) Earlier this year I gave a public lecture hosted by the Union Theological College and took the opportunity to carry out a short survey of attitudes among the students. Thirteen returned survey forms. (About half were Presbyterians, the rest a mix of Catholics and other Protestant denominations.) Only two of my respondents felt that Presbyterians should look back on the turn-out “with pride”. More surprisingly, none was able to name any of the Presbyterian ministers involved in the rebellion, although one student hazarded “Henry Joy McCracken”. Perhaps it is the secularised Protestants of south Belfast, contemplating their new Irish passports, discovering the Ulster-Scots verse of the rebel weaver James Orr, along with lines from Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and WB Yeats, and realising that Dublin understands the nuances of the North better than London, who will find new inspiration in the stories of ’98.

Ten years ago members of all parties in the Northern Ireland assembly backed a proposal to put van der Muelen’s painting of William III back on public display at Stormont. It was an indication of the more relaxed attitudes to the past that intermittently seem possible in peacetime. Perhaps the decision is also a fitting symbol of the new Northern Ireland, because there is no evidence that the painting is actually by van der Muelen, and it is now almost certain that the mounted figure it depicts is not William of Orange after all. By that time, I had discovered that the portrait of William Steel Dickson in Second Keady was actually a copy. In 2003 the Canadian writer Derek Lundy, a descendant of Dickson, visited the town one Sunday morning and asked for directions to the Presbyterian church. In his book The Men that God Made Mad, he describes how he found the whitewashed rectangular building “as plain and severe as I had expected” and he notes the planter names in the neat graveyard: Robinson, Coulter, Rule. Lundy was taken upstairs to see a small display arranged to mark the bicentenary of the congregation’s foundation. The minister chatted for a while with the visitor, then took down the portrait and carelessly told him to keep it.

1/10/2019

Ian McBride is Foster Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford. He is currently writing a book about Irish Catholics under the penal laws.

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