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Making sense of our contested past

We are mid-way through the Decade of Centenaries, with some of the most contested anniversaries - such as the creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State - still to come. The positives and pitfalls of commemorating the events of 1917-23 were the subject of a public meeting in Lurgan this week. Fionola Meredith went along

We are now halfway through the Decade of Centenaries. The Home Rule crisis, the Ulster Covenant, the Battle of Jutland, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme: all these historical events have been marked, acknowledged and commemorated, some with more dissent and debate than others. But there's still another five years of the Decade of Centenaries to go.

A public discussion, organised by the Community Relations Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, was held in the Jethro Centre in Lurgan this week. One of three planned meetings across Northern Ireland, the workshop was an opportunity for museums, libraries, councils, community groups, funding bodies and other individuals and organisations to reflect on progress made over the first five years and to anticipate the commemorations still to come.

There are many important centenaries to mark in the years up to 2023, both on the island of Ireland and beyond: the end of the First World War, the War of Independence, the foundation of the Irish Free State and, of course, the establishment of Northern Ireland itself.

It's going to be complicated and challenging and it will inevitably involve many difficult conversations. The idea of the three public meetings - in Lurgan, Belfast and Londonderry - is to allow both the public and practitioners to think ahead and get ready.

In Lurgan on Thursday morning, the event opened with two dramatic extracts from Kabosh Theatre Company. "Elizabeth Corr", by Maria McManus, was part of the Short Strand community project to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

As an old woman, Corr talks about the events of that extraordinary weekend, her experiences on returning home and her hopes for the future of Belfast.

"July 1st 1916", by Seth Linder, was originally commissioned to be staged in Shankill Library for the Shankill Stories community project. It recounts the story of Mrs Dowell, a local woman, who lost seven sons at the Battle of the Somme. The play consists of two reflections by this stoical mother and her eldest son as they reflect on the horrors of war.

It was interesting that the event began in an engaging, theatrical manner, because it's all too easy to approach the Decade of Centenaries with great trepidation, as a source of potential controversy and, consequently, something to dread.

Jacqueline Irwin, of the Community Relations Council, said that people were sometimes concerned about engaging with these fractured parts of history, fearing that to explore them too deeply could impact on the ability to maintain a shared future.

So, the function of discussion events like the one held in Lurgan was to provide reassurance, she said, as well as to build confidence and capacity.

As Paul Mullan, of the Heritage Lottery Fund, pointed out: "There are not two histories, but a multi-layered, complex and ultimately enjoyable history for people to discover."

This should be promoted, said Mullan, and people should be asked, "to open themselves up to history and see what they find".

"We are halfway through the decade and now we are really beginning to hear each other," said Deirdre MacBride, of the Community Relations Council. "It's about listening in a respectful way and taking stock of what we're learning.

"We have the anniversaries of some very challenging times ahead, which led to the formation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Today is also an opportunity to acknowledge the work done by museum services, local councils and grassroots groups."

At the centre of the Decade of Centenaries is a set of four key principles: start from the historical facts; recognise the implications and consequences of what happened; understand that different perceptions and interpretations exist; and show how events and activities can deepen understanding of this period.

"We think it's important that the principles are tested in the context of our experience," said Mullan, "and in anticipation of the next period in which we may have a multiplicity of anniversaries that are within living memory." He pointed out that in assisting people with dealing with the recent past, it was important to take account of hurt, trauma, loss and the challenge of political change.

"As we have seen here with Kabosh, the arts are a perfect vehicle for capturing both the immediacy of traumatic past events and the simple power of the human experiences behind them. That tends to make people a little less disposed to hasty judgments," said Damian Smyth from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, another agency also engaged in the Decade.”

The historian Eamon Phoenix gave a short, but compelling talk about Ireland in the period from 1917 to 1923, providing a historical context for the discussion. He described the "afterglow of 1916", the rise of Sinn Fein and the way that "republicanism swept the land like a prairie fire" in 1917.

He reflected on the need to look beyond our own shorelines to see the bigger picture in Europe at that time. It was to become a post-war world, with new borders being drawn, great changes ahead and "the Irish question" still to be solved. Lloyd George spoke of "struggling with a series of Ulsters all over Europe". Phoenix also discussed the War of Independence, partition, and the shocking sectarian violence which erupted in Belfast in 1922.

"People have long memories," he said, "and the wounds are raw. Compared to the first half-decade we have looked at, this one will be more challenging."

Phoenix sits on the Taoiseach's expert advisory group on centenary commemorations in Dublin and he said that there was "a sense of 'put it all out there' and let the people and the general public mull over it".

It was, he said, all about "seeking the many-sided nature of the truth".

Following the speakers, participants were given the opportunity to divide into small groups to discuss what they had heard, to share experiences and to plan for the future. Afterwards, spokespeople for each group fed back the responses.

Emer Lyttle, of Co-operation Ireland, talked of the need for shared history education and the importance of reaching out to the most marginalised. "You can't force education and you can't force progress," she said.

"The more voices of people's experience, the better," said Fiona Byrne, of National Museums Northern Ireland, adding that "we need to get more people involved".

Mary McAnulty, of Metis Initiatives CIC, said that people were aware of the "murkiness" and violence of some of the imminent anniversaries in the Decade of Centenaries and she spoke of the need to address the idea of shame, as well as the benefits of linking our own stories to wider, international stories, in order to make sense of them.

"Heritage can be very dangerous," admitted Paul Mullan, after the event was over. "The past can throw up so many pitfalls. But that's why it's really good to bring out resources that people at community level can use. The past doesn't need to be a fearful thing. It can get people talking."

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