Writing ‘the Troubles’

The Centre recently sponsored an excellent PhD and early-career workshop on the place of ‘The Troubles’ in Irish history (8-9 September 2017). This guest post from Thomas Dolan summarises some of the discussions that animated the event.

Republican mural of the Battle of the Bogside, Derry

The incursion of Arlene Foster, the DUP and, by extension Sinn Féin, back onto the centre-stage of British politics has produced an upsurge of interest in the political situation in Northern Ireland reminiscent of the darker days of its long-running conflict. A fake news article circulating on social media during the fallout of the general election satirised the situation wonderfully: a London ‘hipster’, it was reported, had proudly proclaimed that he had been reading-up on the religious and conservative ethos of the DUP long before it had become fashionable to do so. The sold-out (a happy first for HCA’s Irish History Group) public lecture ‘Scribes, Sectarianism and the History of the Northern Ireland Troubles’ delivered recently at the University of Edinburgh by Professor Richard English (Queen’s University, Belfast) evidences how such events nourish a need for contemporary Irish and Northern Irish history in Britain.

The lecture was associated with the Writing the Troubles Workshop organised by members of the Irish History Group (Tommy Dolan, Roseanna Doughty, and Rachael Thomas), with the support of the Irish Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History. It brought together doctoral and early-career researchers scattered throughout these islands to reflect upon the challenging methodological and conceptual issues thrown-up when writing about the recent history of Northern Ireland. A key aim was to foster a relaxed, informal atmosphere conducive to discussion. Consequently, we opted for pre-circulated papers, with attendees delivering short ten-minute presentations on their work, followed by debate. The workshop then concluded with a reflective round-table discussion chaired by Professor Enda Delaney,

The format proved inspirational, the first panel setting the tone in terms of quality and feel. Martin’s McCleery’s vision of an ‘intimate history’ of political killings provoked much debate. His focus on the micro-dynamics of killings as a means of understanding the various ‘pathways’ many paramilitaries must adopt to overcome their instinctual aversion to murder complimented Rachael Kowlaski’s call for micro-studies of ‘nodal’ violent events during the conflict so as to better understand the intentions of the paramilitary organisations involved. In contrast, I suggested that historians try and generate conceptually-driven understandings of the evolution of a now relatively peaceful and political stable Northern Ireland, but that doing so could prove problematic for a historical community who, unlike, say, their British counterparts, have long been predisposed to the study of violent conflict and political impasse.

The second session reflected upon groups hitherto marginalised within the historiography of ‘the Troubles’. All found Adrian Grant’s vision of a ‘meso-history’ of  Belfast’s working-class communities intriguing; an approach melding ‘micro-studies with the grand narrative approach’. For example, Adrian demonstrated how focusing on the effects of deindustrialisation on these communities can generate better understandings of the origins of ‘the Troubles’, while allowing for reflections on ‘wider, global economic trends’. Aimee Walsh and Eli Davies supplied much-needed insights into the experiences of women. Considering female republican prisoners in Armagh Gaol during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Aimee forcefully demonstrated how the ‘female body has not been thoroughly considered in relation to the conflict’. Eli on the other hand, considered neglected literature produced by female authors during ‘the Troubles’, observing how the ‘daily, lived experiences of women’ have been silenced largely because they do not fit in with the ‘bigger male cultural narratives’. Discussion was further facilitated by Jan Freytag’s call for more nuanced understandings of the differing social and political roles played by individual Catholic clergymen during the conflict, as opposed to thinking of the Catholic Church as simply a monolithic institution.

The final session saw Roseanna Doughty and Rachel Thomas consider media representations of the conflict. Roseanna assessed British responses to the Peace Process, ably challenging a view widely held, especially amongst republicans, that the press merely parroted their government’s line. Rachael focused on the reaction of the American press to the 1981 republican Hunger Strikes. She argued that although these generated much Irish-American support for the republican movement, there were limiting factors, such as (interestingly) memories of the British-American alliance during the Second World War, and Reagan’s decision not involve his administration in efforts to resolve the protests. Lastly, Sarah Feinstein reflected upon contemporary representations of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison and the difficult task of dealing with the traumatic legacy of the Hunger Strikes. She focused on story-telling initiatives such as the construction of the Prison Memory Archive. As she observed, ‘what is unique among the footage is the many stories of the mundane…the everyday aspects of life where small moments of resistance, solidarity and compassion stand out…This brings a texture to both the site and the individuals who populated it’.

Professor English’s lecture

During the round-table Professor Delaney highlighted key issues generated by both the workshop and Professor English’s lecture. Above all, he noted a tension between the need to produce micro, local histories of ‘the Troubles’ and broader, conceptual studies. As Richard highlighted, ‘the Troubles’ were ‘intensely local’ and it is probably more accurate to think of ‘seventeen different conflicts’ as opposed to one. Yet he also urged us to be alert to the way in which much wider themes consistently intersected with, and impacted upon, the situation. The need for greater sensitivity to the role of religious belief in the recent history of Northern Ireland was also flagged, so too the need for more biographical literature. For example, we still lack good, scholarly biographies of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness!

Perhaps most importantly, Professor Delaney observed how although the idea of interdisciplinary scholarship is typically lauded in academia, historians rarely ever talk to each other formally, let alone with scholars working in other disciplines – and this is certainly true with respect to those focusing on Northern Ireland. In fact, the workshop evidenced how all our scholarship was heavily influenced by location; scholars based in Northern Ireland tending (on the whole) towards micro-histories: those working in Britain veering towards conceptual studies. Apparent to all, however, was the need for regular, reflexive dialogue between scholars dealing with the violent history of Northern Ireland in the post-Good Friday Agreement era. Consequently, we hope to build upon this highly successful and, indeed, very enjoyable workshop by maintaining dialogue between participants and staging further discussions in settings throughout these islands. Watch this space…

Thomas Dolan recently completed his PhD in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology under the supervision of Alvin Jackson and Owen Dudley Edwards. His thesis was entitled ‘Visions of History in the Thought of the Architects of Peace in Northern Ireland: Gerry Adams, John Hume and David Trimble’.