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“Of Myth-Making and Ethical Remembering” Keynote Address by President Michael D. Higgins at the Theatre of Memory Symposium,

Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 16th January 2014

It is a great honour to have been asked to open this symposium, which calls upon all participants to critically reflect on how we, in Ireland, might engage with memory and commemoration, including that of the defining historical events which stirred our country a hundred years ago. What better place than a theatre to do so – and the Abbey Theatre in particular, tied as it is with the cultural movement and the men and women who responded to Ireland’s socio-economic and political condition at the turn of the twentieth century?

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Fiach Mac Conghail as ucht a chuireadh agus a fhocail deasa, agus libh uile as ucht bhur fíorchaoin fáilte.

[May I thank Fiach Mac Conghail for his invitation and his generous words of introduction, and all of you for your warm welcome.]

As an introduction to this “Theatre of Memory,” which will run until Saturday, I would like to consider briefly the relationship between myth-making and ethical remembering. Rather than speculating in the abstract, I prefer to make a reflection on a particular, momentous event, the outbreak of which is being commemorated throughout the world this year – World War One.

The First World War is of immense significance for so many nations. One century later, no definitive source or meaning can be ascribed to this event. The causes of the so-called  “Great War” – its political, economic, social and cultural legacy – present an inextinguishable source of interrogation and investigation, not only for historians and social scientists worldwide, but also for theologians, writers, poets, and for so many individuals who are simply concerned with the history of their family.

In the Irish context, WWI as a subject for commemoration poses the difficult issue of Ireland’s divided, or even divisive, memories. It casts the Battle of the Somme, so central to Irish Unionists’ identity versus the 1916 Rising, as our Republic’s founding myth. For years the First World War has stood as a blank space in memory for many Irish people – an unspoken gap in the official narratives of this state. Thousands of Irish war dead were erased from official history, denied recognition, because they did not fit into the nationalist myth and its “canonical” lines of memory.

Of course contemporary Irish historiography has largely departed from such nationalist historical tradition. Recent years have witnessed a critical reassessment by historians of the complexity of Irish engagement with WWI.

And the powerful symbolism of particular acts of public commemoration – such as that which saw former President Mary McAleese stand alongside Queen Elizabeth at Messines in Belgium in 1998 – has allowed for more inclusive remembering at a public level.

Yet, so many questions remain, the exploration of which can feed our reflections during the decade of centenaries’ commemoration that will run until 2022. How might we, in Ireland, remember the First World War in a way that is ethical? What ought we to remember and, perhaps, to forget? What is open to revision? What method should we follow? What sources should we draw on? And what might all this mean for our shared Irishness in the present and future?

As to the act of ‘remembering,’ the use of the term itself, I would like to draw on the distinction established by the philosopher Avishai Margalit, in his recent book The Ethics of Memory, a distinction between “common memory” and “shared memory.”[1] In Margalit’s definition, “common memory” is an aggregate notion that combines the memories of all those people who remember a certain episode which each of them experienced individually.

“Shared memory”, on the other hand is not a simple aggregate of individual memories. It is an indirect memory – a memory of memory – which requires communication and seeks to integrate into one version the different perspectives of those who might have directly remembered a given episode. In other words, it is a memory that goes beyond the experience of anyone alive, and thus we might ask: is it inescapably ideological; as ideological as any enforced or induced amnesia?

According to Avishai Margalit, modern societies are characterized by a division of mnemonic labor. Shared memory in a modern society travels from person to person through institutions, such as archives, through historiographic texts, and through communal mnemonic devices, such as speeches enunciated by public representatives, monuments and the names of streets. All of these reflecting a distribution of power.

Shared memory, commemoration, the uses and absences of recollection, is what I believe we are concerned with in this symposium. The choice of what is to be remembered, and how, are unavoidable issues in the passage from the simple urge to recall to what become designated acts of commemoration. Commemoration involves a choice between events and historical actors, motivations and consequences, and its purposes may be as elusive and complex as the various original impulses to remember. In other words, only “interpretations of memory” are collectively remembered and commemorated.

Among the competing well-sources for commemoration are myths and historiographical discussion. As Avishai Margarit puts it, “modern shared memory is located between the push and pull of two poles: history and myth.”[2] This notion of shared memory as material torn between two worldviews can be likened to the contrast established by Max Weber between, on the one hand, viewing the world as an enchanted place, as the locus of myth, or, on the other hand, viewing the world as a disenchanting place, subject to the work of critical history.

To say that shared memory is torn between history and myth does not amount to stating that memory is torn between seeking truth and seeking “noble lies.” When I speak of myth I am not just speaking of false beliefs about the past which may be invested with symbolic meaning and charged with powerful emotions. I speak of myth as a founding, integrated source to interpret the past or anticipate the future.

Fiach’s kind acknowledgement that the lecture I gave to the Irish American Society, in New York in May 2012, inspired him to design today’s symposium is an invitation to take up the argument where I left it in that Thomas Flanaghan lecture.

I then argued that:

“What remembering and imagining have in common is myth-making: the one, remembering, is often initiated so as to achieve a healing; find a rationalisation; construe an event in such a way as to be both a warm cloak for the self and a dagger for the threatening other; the other imagining, needs myth to retain belief, not merely as assurance or reassurance, but as a mechanism for the retention of hope in the unrealised possibilities of being human, truly free, in emancipatory, celebratory, joyous co-existence, with and for others.”

I also said, on that occasion in New York, that I believed that it is in literature that we Irish have perhaps laid bare the full creative potential of myth-making, in both senses of memory and imagination.

Today, while it may be suggested that the spell of the enchanted world is vanishing under the combined assaults of scientific rationality and critical history, I believe that the two worldviews coexist, that they both continue to be of unrealised value in the way we remember the past, live the present and imagine the future – realise our possibilities.

The Irish culture of commemoration shares with other cultures an emphasis on “living myths” of the heroic dead.

Rev. Johnston McMaster (who coordinates a programme on ‘Education for Reconciliation’ at TCD) has, in an interesting paper, referred to the “myth of redemptive violence” which infuses Ireland’s main political traditions. Such a myth is central to the popular understanding of the Easter Rising, largely interpreted as a necessary sacrifice for Ireland’s freedom, and it is also central to the commemorative practices that invoke the blood sacrifice of the 36th Ulster Division, slaughtered at the Somme – a sacrifice which, it is argued, morally obliges Britain towards Ulster loyalism.

In nations who were party to wars, commemoration often takes the shape of rituals intended at revivifying the war’s events and heroes. Avishai Margarit names such rituals as “revivication rituals”: they are rituals surrounding mythic heroes – those in-between creatures who belong both to the world of mortals and to the world of immortals.

Revivication can even take the form of the living being called upon to assume roles of their fallen comrades, as is captured for example in the final stanza of Canadian poet John McCrae’s piece entitled “In Flanders Fields” (1915):[3]

“Take up our quarrel with the foe;

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

What sense are we supposed to make of such instances of myth-making sourced in war and the experience of it? Does Irish reconciliation with the memory of WWI involve an accommodation of such myths; and what might this mean from an ethical perspective?

The First World War also gave rise to a brand of literature and poetry which radically undermined the link between patriotic duty and heroic death. Many war poets have related in a direct, almost hyper-realist, fashion what life in the trenches was really like – the insipid food; the forced intimacy between soldiers; the noise, the screams and the dazzling light of exploding shells. The war fostered the affirmation of the singularity of the poet’s voice in the face of collective slaughter. It also engendered a new poetical diction, based on the rejection of the orderly formalism of pre-war versification.

The notion of heroic death as realised idealism was comprehensively rejected by many. Poets such as Robert Graves or Blaise Cendrars, for example, have strongly refuted idealist dualism, the supposed ability of the human spirit to overlook everyday reality and bodily suffering.

In “The White Goddess”, Robert Graves tellingly abandoned the radiant figure of Apollo for that of Dionysus, the suffering god.

As for the French novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars, who lost his writing hand in the war, he explicitly refused to be a penholder for heroic death. In an excerpt translated from his memoir entitled The Severed Hand (1946), he wrote:

“It is sweet and fitting to die for your country…” isn’t it? Do you believe yourself to be at the theatre, Sir? Have you lost any sense of reality? You are not at the Comédie-Française here. Do you know what hides beneath this alexandrine? War is an ignominy.”

The alexandrine in question – “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country” – is the translation of a line from Horace’s ode – “Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori” –, words which were widely quoted before the war.

The English poet Wilfred Owen also derided this same line in his poem “Dulce et Decorum est” (1917), in which the Horatian motto is juxtaposed to a vivid description of the horrors of a gas attack. “Dulce et Decorum est” includes these lines:


Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Such depictions of the personal experience of tremendous human suffering generated by war is not to everybody’s taste. In his 1936 Oxford anthology of Modern English Verse, Yeats famously made the controversial choice of excluding all of the WWI combatant poets, stating that “passive suffering” is not a material for good literature.  Yeats’ preface to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) he wrote:

“I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war (…) The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, I think, had the Military Cross; their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy—for all skill is joyful—but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his Empedocles on Etna from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced (…)

If the war is necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget its suffering as we do the discomfort of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our temperature fell, or as we forget the worst moments of more painful disease. Florence Farr returning third class from Ireland found herself among Connaught Rangers just returned from the Boer War who described an incident over and over, and always with loud laughter: an unpopular sergeant struck by a shell turned round and round like a dancer wound in his own entrails. That too may be a right way of seeing war, if war is necessary; the way of the Cockney slums, of Patrick Street, of the Kilmainham Minut, of Johnny I hardly knew ye, of the medieval Dance of Death.

In Yeats’ view, then, the crude reality of human suffering was not to be remembered by posterity. I suggest otherwise, that these poems, novels, and literary memoirs written during or after the war can be enabling sources for ethical remembering.

These mundane myths, these “minor” stories, as Yeats would have it, of human suffering, of resilience and friendship, can, I contend, nurture ground breaking historiography as well as prompt new forms of myth-making, forms that are not simply underpinned by glorious idealism and grand narratives, but that face into what it means to experience violence, to lose mental and bodily integrity, to have multiple loyalties but be forced to chose one side, or to have to make adjustments that bring contradictions between inherited beliefs and present or personal circumstances.

These stories can be an inspiring source for present-day myth-makers, memory tellers and contemporary historians alike. One of the fields in which new Irish historiography has recently made much progress is that of the study of violence, its sources, and of how the first decade of the twentieth century brought about a militarisation of Irish politics, a militarisation that sprung from different groups of memory, who projected divergent futures.

Even with the years of distancing, we have not fully examined the consequences of World War One in Ireland. Such difficulty as we have had in facing into our own culture of violence probably has to do with the long shadow cast by the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the reluctance to draw conclusions which might prove disturbing for contemporary actors.

A respect for such complexity as does not sink into relativism is another benefit to be gained from engaging with the writings of Irish WWI soldiers. We need to better understand these men’s multilayered senses of belonging and the complex motives and circumstances which led them to volunteer to join the British Army. It is well-known, for example, that Thomas Kettle enlisted to further the cause of Home Rule.

Another example is Francis Ledwidge, an Irish nationalist and poet who was born in Slane in 1887, the son of a poor labourer. Despite his initial reluctance to enlist, Ledwidge believed that his joining the British Army was a means to advance the cause of Irish independence from Britain.

Francis Ledwidge learned of the Easter Rising and the executions of nationalist leaders while he was recovering from his wounds in Manchester in 1916 and – testament to the complex intertwining of loyalties which characterised Irish involvement with WWI – he wrote one of his best-known poems in honour of his close friend Thomas McDonagh.

Ledwidge was killed in Flanders on 31st July 1917, as he was drinking tea in a shell hole with five comrades. He is buried in Boezinge alongside the Welsh language poet Hedd Wyn, one among the 31,000 Allied soldiers who were killed on that same day.

Contemporary work too, such as Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long, Long Way, can inspire us to respect complexity, allow for contingency, as we move to examine more closely the entanglements between the Easter Rising and the Somme and the great dilemmas of those who were involved in these respective events.

While it is essential to recognise the complexities of Irish identity at the turn of the twentieth century, indeed as today, there are also dangers in an ideology of “inclusiveness at any price”. It is indeed crucial not to gloss over differences, and to acknowledge what separated people in the various ideological groups in Irish society. A tapestry with different colours and threads that were frail as well as strong. The Citizen Army as described by P. O’Cathasaigh and its relationship to the Irish Volunteers, its differences with the National Volunteers, is an example of such complexity.

We must also be aware of the potential pitfalls contained in the injunction to accept the Somme as “the memory of the other” in the name of reconciliation. The Somme is equally the battle of those Irish nationalists who fought alongside Ulster loyalists.

It is important, too, not to deny agency to the men and women of the past. Those who voluntarily engaged in the armed conflict were not just passive victims – as a currently widespread trend in European commemorative language suggests. Finally, any critique of nationalist excesses should not be equated with a dismissal of national pride or its place.

What conclusions can we draw from all this, that might help us define a tentative basis for what I call an “ethical culture of commemoration”?

The first important point is, I think, that commemoration should never jeopardize historical accuracy. Timothy Snyder, an eminent historian of the Holocaust, has warned us against a culture of commemoration which – I quote:

“requires no adequate explanation of the catastrophe, only an aesthetically realizable image of its victims. As cultures of memory supplant concern for history” – he wrote – “the danger is that historians will find themselves drawn to explanations that are the simplest to convey.”[4]

This observation corroborates French historian François Furet’s views on the bicentennial of the French Revolution’s celebrations, in 1989, when he outlined the dangers of “commemorative history” wherein that which is most elegantly commemorated becomes that which is most felicitously narrated.

Indeed commemoration often runs the risk of projecting the contemporary emotions of the present on the past. Or, as Timothy Snyder, succinctly put it:

“With commemorative causality, the boundaries of history are set by the contingencies of empathy.[5]”

As we commemorate events which unfolded a hundred years ago, it is therefore crucial that we endeavour to do justice to the complexity of the historical context as outlined in contemporary historical research, while also recognising contingency, and refraining from reading history uncritically from any contemporary ethical standpoint. The conventional wisdom of the time of WWI – ideologies such as militarism, theories of race, the Protestant theology of empires or the Catholic mystical blood sacrifice – need to be engaged as carefully as possible, with respect but also with rigour, and utilising scholarly discipline.

Commemorative practices might gain, too, from making clear the possibilities and limits of what Paul Ricoeur calls the “historiographical operation,” including how the tools used by historians to apprehend past events – such as archives, testimony, and so forth – are actually deployed, and within what boundaries.

We also need to overcome the currently widespread preference for internal, psychological and national history over external, sociological and transnational history. In this regard, re-contextualising the Irish experience of WWI within a European framework is probably an important first step.

The unfolding decade of centenaries offers us with a wonderful occasion to re-appropriate the repressed parts of our history, to include in our narratives the forgotten voices and the lost stories of the past – those of the WWI Irish poets, but also the point of view of women, or, for example, that of the 1913 Lockout workers who decided to join the British Army because the king’s shilling was more generous than a worker’s wage in Dublin in the 1910s.

As we are in a theatre we might recall Bertold Brecht’s “Questions from a Worker who reads,” with its wonderful lines:

“The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?”

I have referred to the “dangers” inherent in commemoration, but I also want to insist on the many opportunities these centenaries offer us: opportunities to add, to restore, to revise; opportunity to recollect the excluded, such as Eva Gore Booth, to recall Sean O’Casey’s version of the history of the Citizen Army; opportunity to depart with a new set of responsibilities.

Ethical commemoration need not be extraneous either to historical understanding or to myth-making, I suggest. And I would like to reiterate the call for new myth-making that I made in New York in 2012 – a call for new myth-making that would be both contextualised historically and emancipator, respecting the right of unrealised dreams to be remembered as well as the facts of failure.

Indeed it is to be hoped that our old narratives of betrayals and failures will not determine the agenda for the future. We need new myths that not only carry the burden of history but fly from it, making something new. Old myths – reworked and reworn – can become a frame for something contemporary and mould-breaking. They can be a vehicle for what nervous silences had sought to cover, for intimacies forbidden, racisms thinly disguised and faiths no longer trusted but then not easily discarded either, and never forgotten.

This decade of centenaries is an opportunity to consider how Ireland has been – and must now again be – renewed through memory and imagination.

In that task we are invited to go beyond what is calculable, what is even seemingly reasonable. We are given the possibility of moving along the arc of a heroic encounter with the morality of forgiveness and love, as artists in different generations have moved us, such as Michael Longley did in his beautiful Homeric poem, “Ceasefire,” which addresses the difficulty of overcoming the past, of breaking the cycle of violence.


Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’”

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

[1] Margalit, A. 2002. The Ethics of Memory. Harvard University Press.

[2] Ibid., p. 63.

[3] Quoted in Margarit, A. Op.cit., p.68.

[4] Snyder, T. 2013. “Commemorative causality.” In Modernism-Modernity. Vol 20, no.1, pp. 77-93.

[5] Ibid.