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One hundred years on

This year, 2021, Northern Ireland marks the centenary of its coming into existence, something that, unsurprisingly, divides opinion: while some have been keen to celebrate the anniversary, others see in it little to celebrate.
17 September, 2021

This is just one of a long series of ‘difficult’ centenaries as, over the past decade, Ireland has commemorated a succession of traumatic, indeed seismic, events of a hundred years ago, events that have shaped the political life of this island in profound ways. These events, from the First World War, through 1916 to partition and the Irish Civil War, demand to be commemorated and yet present enormous challenges for those who seek to engage in that process in any meaningful way. This has become particularly challenging in the fraught political context of the present time with the deep uncertainties caused by Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

This year also sees another centenary as the Institute of Historical Research marks the centenary of its foundation in 1921. As the UK’s national centre for History, the institute sees its role as

"Helping to foster public understanding of history and its social, cultural, and economic importance, advocating for the long-term future of the discipline and supporting its growth and development … [to] foster excellence in historical research, teaching and scholarship in the UK".

Starting in July 2021, the Institute plans to mark its centenary year by holding a series of events that celebrate the discipline of history in all its diversity. In order to be true to the discipline it represents, however, the IHR does not want simply to celebrate its past but rather to reflect critically on the discipline and practice of history - where it has come from and where it needs to go in the future. It seeks to use the year ahead to think critically about what histories have not been told, or have been marginalised, and to promote a more inclusive and diverse approach to history in the future. And, importantly, to reflect on the deeply problematic issue of remembering and engaging with difficult or traumatic pasts.

Challenging commemoration

Given the confluence of these two important centenaries, it seems fitting for the Centre for Public History at Queen’s University Belfast and the Institute for Historical Research to collaborate in co-hosting a major conference later this year that will explore the theme of ‘Troubling Anniversaries’. Speakers from around the world will discuss the challenges and opportunities represented by commemorating a range of historic events in ways that do justice to their complexities and are sensitive to the multiplicity of experiences they represent. From the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta and the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower, through to the First World War and the partitions of the twentieth century, and with a special session on ‘Nuclear Memory’ (from Hiroshima to Fukushima), this online conference will shine a spotlight on the uses of anniversaries in historical research and public interpretation, encouraging us think critically about the politics of commemoration, the wide variety of tools and approaches for public engagement, and the challenges of dealing with contested pasts. 

Safety cones and a gate

Title: Fukushima Exclusion Zone  Credit: Ryuta / PIXTA

Dealing with difficult pasts

One of the main aims of the conference is to explore how we as historians and public history practitioners effectively deal with researching difficult or traumatic pasts. To that end, the conference will include a workshop delivered by Queen’s University’s Professor Sean O’Connell and Dr Livi Dee (Newcastle University) which focuses on ‘Remembering Trauma’.

In March 2017, Sean (with Leanne McCormick, Ulster University) was commissioned to carry out an archival and oral history of Magdalene laundries and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland. The challenge was an unusual one for historians, not so much in terms of the subject matter although this was controversial and difficult ground; the challenge came in terms of a range of other issues. The first of these was being asked to carry out research on a series of predetermined research questions and to a timetable set by the state. A second complicating factor was the fact that the research was carried out under the close scrutiny of a large range of groups: civil servants, victims and survivors’ groups, Church organisations, and the media.

This workshop will reflect on how the research team negotiated this process; a process in which Livi Dee was appointed as the oral history researcher. It provides the opportunity to reflect on issues such as: academic freedom when writing a commissioned history; ethical responsibilities in an age of impact; minimising risks of the re-traumatisation of victims and survivors; dealing with differing demands and expectations of what the research will produce.

Register here.

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Photo: Professor Sean O'Connell Professor Sean O'Connell
Professor O’Connell works on the social history of modern Britain and Ireland (particularly Belfast). He has been active in developing oral history at Queen’s and is an editor of Oral History. Research interests include working-class communities, gender, and consumption.
Photo: Professor Olwen Purdue Professor Olwen Purdue
Professor Purdue is a historian of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, focusing on the British and Irish industrial city and on issues of social inequalities, welfare, and public health.