Irish Historical Society meeting, 2011
|Irish Historical Society meeting, 2011|
|Sources and Perspectives|
With the history events year starting again, it's an extra-long blog. Hope you like it, I certainly found the meeting entertaining.
In Boston College on Stephen’s Green, in a constantly-filling room, Diarmaid Ferriter chaired the first meeting of the Irish Historical Society of 2011. The main topic of the meeting was the concept of contemporary history – what is it, firstly? What makes it different? Once that is defined, what are the pitfalls of research and the multiplicity of sources, how do we treat internet sources, oral history, the integration of social sciences? Ferriter referred to an article written by F.S.L. Lyons back in 1973 that still bears relevance; “The Dilemma of the Irish Contemporary Historian.” There are certain fundamental problems with the concept, firstly that can it be history in the pure sense?
Dr. Brian Hanley, the first speaker, deals with the North of Ireland and the Troubles. Dr. Mary Muldowney, the second speaker, deals extensively with oral history in her work, and has to deal with the various problems concerning it, including real and constructed memory. Dr. Kevin O’Sullivan’s work focuses on the history of foreign aid in an Irish context. As talks go, this was relatively informal, with a predicted ten minutes of addressing these issues in the context of their own research projects.
Dr. Brian Hanley’s first piece of advice when researching, writing or publishing contemporary history was to avoid being sued. Funny, but a truism. His PhD focused on the Republican movement in the 1920s and 30s, for which a wealth of information had recently been released at the time. Because of the distance and generation gap, the records were unlikely to be contradicted, and unlikely to cause a libel case for the first party. However, in the troubles of the late 60s, Scott Miller’s work had an immediate response where he bewailed the lack of IRA presence, citing in 1969 that an infamous piece of graffiti was coined – “IRA - I RAN AWAY.” According to contemporary accounts and newspapers, this lack was not even mentioned until 1970. Tim Pat Coogan, editor of the Irish Times at that time, concurs with Miller, an example of memory replacement.
Often, too, memories of events change in accounts when the politics of a person may demand it. One politician, who had later moved from his Republican activist tendencies, gives an account of a riot where he states he was helping a woman on that day, yet the reports name him as one of the first to be arrested. Memories change, consciously or unconsciously, as do politics. This calls for a careful examination of both accounts of the subject and the contemporary reports, and comparing the two. Another danger is to assume the documents surrounding the event will eventually be released, or will have been made accurately and not tampered with, a statement that bears heavily on historians examining our particular period in Irish history; what are they going to find concerning the dealings prior to the financial crisis?
Some records are easier to locate due to the political feeling around the time of the request. For example, during the mid-noughties, the Republican movement had faded, descending into mutual caricaturing, and there was much greater access to oral and primary source material. The information on racketeering by the IRA will be held by the Public Records Office until 2080, in comparison. Dr. Hanley began his research in 2004, and was fortuitous in his timing in terms of requesting information. Boston College had archived interviews with the IRA, and yet the records are incomplete in that they include no interviews with contemporary officials, and there are less than imagined.
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