Thinking about commemoration

Commemorating the past is occupying a large part of our minds at the moment. Which is not unexpected as we approach the mid-way point in what has been dubbed the ‘Decade of Centenaries’, the one hundredth anniversaries of a series of pivotal events between 1912 and 1922.

These stories of war and revolution, from the Home Rule Crisis through to the Partition of Ireland, have an enduring legacy in modern Irish politics, both north and south of the border. How they are commemorated still has the power to cause division and conflict in our communities. But a centenary offers the opportunity to re-examine and reinterpret our past, and perhaps reclaim parts of the story that have been omitted or forgotten in order to preserve the dual narratives of orange and green.

A wide variety of cultural organisations are now involved in commemorative projects that aim to complicate our ideas about the past, offering the possibility of re-imagining our history in a way that may disrupt the cycles of violence and retribution. Over the last months and years we have been privileged to come into contact with a wide variety of these organisations and to work with a few of them.

In 2011 I was part of a working group brought together by the Community Relations Council (CRC) and Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) that aimed to set out guiding principles for commemorating the past. These principles became the basis for a ‘Decade of Anniversaries Toolkit’ and I was delighted that some of my work with the Causeway Museum Service was one of the best practice case studies highlighted.

Since that time both CRC and HLF have endeavoured to encourage new approaches to commemoration, both through their funding programmes and through building knowledge and skills-sharing networks. Last month we attended the Creative Centenaries Resource Fair at Titanic Belfast, showcasing a wide range of learning resources and programmes delivered by local museums, historical societies, arts organisations and voluntary groups. Our friends from the Causeway Museum Service and Mid and East Antrim Museum Service were there, promoting the On the Brink: The Politics of Conflict 1914-1916 programme, for which we have developed learning resources. The Corrymeela Community were inviting people to participate in ‘Contact, Culture and Conflict around the Causeway’, which will explore the heritage and legacy of the Plantation (I am currently working with the project team to develop facilitation and learning resources for the project). The Junction delivered a thought-provoking workshop on their Ethical and Shared Remembering Programme, which we are looking forward to engaging with in more depth over the coming year. We were particularly impressed by the curriculum-mapped comic books and i-book recently produced by the Nerve Centre, which co-ordinates the Creative Centenaries programme. And we were fortunate to be introduced to a wide variety of other groups, some of whom we hope to meet again as part of the Connecting Commemorative Communities programme.

Connecting Commemorative Communities is led by the Ulster University in partnership with CRC, DCAL, the PSNI and The Junction and is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. quarto are supporting the delivery of a series of residentials and workshops and will be curating an exhibition for the project later this year.

Though the Decade of Centenaries perhaps influences the timing of the project, it takes a much broader approach to commemoration. Exploring the legacy of events of one hundred years ago may be comparatively easier than addressing that of the recent past. But we should also be aware that we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the start of ‘The Troubles’, which will present some very difficult challenges our political environment is perhaps not yet ready for. And the commemoration of events in the more distant past still deserves the same thoughtful attention, as Corrymeela’s current project attests.

We hope that Connecting Commemorative Communities will highlight some of the ground breaking work being achieved by grassroots organisations in this sphere and attract wider support for those who are often taking significant risks to build a more nuanced understanding of our past, and a more inclusive approach to the present, than the idea of ‘dual narratives’ allows.