Whatever you say, say nothing
An unwillingness to publicly commemorate certain episodes in our history, such as the 1798 rebellion, can be mistaken for collective amnesia, but there is more to forgetting than meets the eye, argues Guy Beiner.
In his poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, published in the 1975 collection North, Seamus Heaney bemoaned “the famous northern reticence, the tight gag of place”. Heaney described Northern Ireland as a “land of password, handgrip, wink and nod”; a place “where tongues lie coiled” and the inhabitants, who are “cabin’d and confined”, communicate through “whispering Morse”.
A ballad of the same title, first recorded on Colum Sands’ 1981 album Unapproved Road and popularised in performances by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, repeats the refrain “whatever you say, say nothing when you talk about you know what”. Its dark humour mocks the paranoia instilled through a lethal combination of military and paramilitary intimidation evident, for example, in IRA posters ominously illustrated with a gunman in balaclava, cautioning that “loose talk costs lives” and instructing, in a mimicry of wartime secrecy regulations: “In taxis, on the phone, in clubs and bars, at football matches, at home with friends, anywhere! Whatever you say — say nothing.”
Reluctance to speak out was not just symptomatic of the dark years of the Troubles, but is reflective of deeper socio-cultural patterns engrained in Ulster’s collective psyche (or, as French historians would put it, mentalite).
Ulstermen, portrayed by the poet WR (‘Bertie’) Rodgers as those “who bristle into reticence at the sound of the round gift of the gab in southern mouths”, gained a reputation for their taciturnity.
Oral historians seeking lesser-known tales have had to contend with a “culture of avoidance”, whereby controversial topics are rarely discussed in the presence of outsiders. This secretiveness has consequences for historical memories.
Too often unwillingness to commemorate certain episodes in public is mistaken for collective amnesia, as if unspoken subjects have been irredeemably condemned to oblivion. Tuning into “the sounds of silence” (to borrow from Simon and Garfunkel) reveals that there is more to forgetting than meets the eye.
The contested legacy of the United Irishmen is illuminating in this regard. Following the suppression of the 1798 rebellion and the passing of the Act of Union in 1800, Presbyterian communities throughout Antrim and Down that had been implicated in seditious republicanism realigned their politics towards unionism and loyalism and, in time, became strongholds of the Orange Order.
The Victorian historian WEH Lecky maintained that “the defection of the Presbyterians from the movement of which they were the main originators, and the great and enduring change which took place in their sentiments in the last years of the 18th century, are facts of the deepest importance in Irish history, and deserve very careful and detailed examination”.
Indeed, the apparent conversion from radicalism to conservatism has since been the subject of several studies, most notably by the late Tony Stewart (who wrote his MA thesis on the subject in 1956), which have shown that it was a gradual process.
But what happened to local memories of the rebellion after their evocation was no longer expedient? If remembering is supposedly more about the concerns of present identity than about fidelity to the past, it would seem that the sweeping transformation in Presbyterian political affiliations encouraged the effacement of recollections of mass participation in an insurrection against the Crown.
The incentive of Protestant unionists to suppress memories of their rebel ancestors surged in face of the co-option of the heritage of the United Irishmen by increasingly-assertive Catholic nationalists. Ian McBride, currently the Foster Professor of Irish History at Oxford, has argued that “Ulster Protestants have sometimes engaged in a process of remembering to forget” and suggested that it may be possible to unearth “the survival of a ‘hidden’ history of the ’98 in the Ulster countryside”.
As it happens, such a history was hidden only to unwitting outsiders. A thorough examination of local historical traditions of 1798, documented in such obscure repositories as antiquarian writings and folklore collections, and appearing occasionally in the publications of provincial popular print, yields thousands of sources that offer access to voices that were muffled and cloaked behind a perceived veil of silence.
These vernacular histories have rarely been acknowledged, let alone studied, in the purportedly authoritative histories of Ulster.
In vernacular history, the events of the rebellion in Ulster were often known by other names, such as “the Hurries” (referring to the brevity of the uprising), “the Ruction” (a colloquialism for insurrection) and “the Battles” (evoking the military engagements).
The year 1798 was referred to as “pike time” (recalling the standard weapon of the insurgents), or the “Time of the Burning” (bringing to mind the destruction) and it was even labelled in popular parlance the “Year of the Troubles” (or simply “the Troubles”). Such euphemistic references were comprehensible to locals, but were less familiar to those who were not in the know.
The most common name for 1798 in Ulster was the “Turn-Out”. According to the antiquarian Samuel McSkimin of Carrickfergus, a former yeoman and staunch loyalist who became so obsessed with the memory of the rebellion that he would ply veteran rebels with drink in order to loosen their tongues and take down their recollections, the term derived from “the call used at the time, to those who appeared tardy to come forth to the ranks”.
The subtle allusion to reluctant rebels touches on the characteristic ambivalence of these local traditions. This was not a simplistic folk history of righteous rebels resisting tyrannical soldiers.
The remembered narratives present a complex way of dealing with a conflicted past: stories of forced recruitment by rebels are juxtaposed with tales of involuntary conscription by yeomen; accounts of United Irishmen who forsook the rebel army and even turned into loyalists are found alongside cases of loyalists who furtively assisted rebels; gruesome descriptions of excesses committed by the Crown forces are counterbalanced by atrocities perpetrated by rebels. The inherent ambivalence of these disturbing, yet fascinating, memories made sure that they would be concealed, but at the same time preserved and passed on over generations.
These local traditions could not be openly celebrated without causing hostile reactions that often resulted in the violent defacement of memorials. Commemoration was frequently countermanded by grassroots de-commemorating, intended to drive remembrance out of the public eye.
This is apparent in such incidents as the destruction of the grave of Henry Joy McCracken in Belfast’s St George Parish Church graveyard just a few years after the rebellion; the smashing to pieces in May 1898 of the monument to Betsy Gray at Ballycreen (nearby Ballynahinch) in Co Down, and the demolition by explosives in January 1969 of the Roddy McCorley monument at Toomebridge, Co Antrim.
The Turn-Out was recalled through a dynamic which can be labelled “social forgetting”, which is a form of forgetful remembrance sustained by tensions between perceived public oblivion and muted remembrance in more private spheres.
After partition, traditions of the United Irishmen did not suit the official unionist ethos of Northern Ireland and for most of the 20th century, traditions of ’98 were subject to silencing. The bicentenary of the rebellion, which coincided with the signing in 1998 of the Good Friday Agreement and its promise of “parity of esteem”, seemed to remove all prohibitions on public remembrance and to usher in a flourish of commemorative initiatives.
The smashing of the blue plaque for James (Jemmy) Hope in Mallusk cemetery in April 2014, less than a month after it was unveiled, alongside various other recent incidents of confrontations that reflect opposition to open commemoration of the United Irishmen, suggests that deep-rooted practices of social forgetting may have not been entirely dispelled.
After all, 220 years after the execution of the leaders of the rebellion, there is still no major statue to Henry Joy McCracken or Henry Munro, and the grave of the United Irish protomartyr William Orr (whose execution inspired the rebel battle cry “Remember Orr!”) was neglected for some two centuries, only to be very modestly marked by a small bicentennial plaque.
Guy Beiner is Professor of Modern History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His new book, Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting And Vernacular Historiography Of A Rebellion in Ulster, has just been published by Oxford University Press