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‘The Past’ & ‘Ethical Remembrance’  A Context for Historical Commemoration by Ciarán Benson

3rd December, 2020

If you don’t aspire to and, as a citizen, work to affirm, ideals of forgiveness, reconciliation, harmony, equality, justice, inclusiveness and a generalised orientation to a common good, then collective acts of remembrance of an ethical kind will not appeal to you. To understand why and how ethical memorialisation – in contemporary Ireland’s present case, acts of commemorating the War of Independence (21 Jan 1919 - 11 July 1921)  and the Irish Civil War (28 June 1922 - 24 May 1923) – we need, as the President argues, to frame our thinking about these acts within critical contexts.

My colleagues, as historians, will contextualise the details of those momentous events for this island. These last centenaries of our ‘Decade of Centenaries’ are especially difficult precisely because of the kinds of division that the events of those few years seared into the structures of Irish political and civic life for the last hundred years, cleavages within the Republic, fractures within Northern Ireland, ruptures between the Republic and Northern Ireland, and between both and Great Britain.

What I want to outline this evening, as footnotes to the President’s call, are some philosophical and psychological contexts for the ethics, and for the practice, of ‘memory’.  For brevity’s sake I rely on an argument for an ‘ethics of memory’ from the Israeli philosopher, Avishai Margalit.[1] Margalit writes against the backdrop of remembering that most extreme example of historical evil, still within living memory, the Holocaust. Tested against this extreme, his case for ethical memory, I think, fits our present purpose.

Just one caveat: In what follows the answers to the questions I pose are the conclusions of arguments reinforced by the findings of contemporary research. Their details are for another time, but these conclusions are, I believe, robustly supported.

This period of commemoration is a period of reflection on where, as a State, we have come from and indeed, had things been different, where we might have gone. Two strands fabricate ‘the past’ for us: history and memory. In critical history, colder and more detached, as Margalit sees it, “there is no backward causality. We cannot affect the past, or revivify the past. Only descriptions of the past can be altered, improved or animated.[2]

In sharp contrast, memory in the form of “stories about the past that are shared by a community are as a rule more vivid, more concrete, and better connected with live experiences than is critical history.[3]

So how should we understand ‘the past’? Let’s take a brief detour through the findings of contemporary psychology before returning to this idea of commemoration viewed through the lens of ethical memory.

‘The Past’, Its Remembrance, and its Possible Futures

Our ideas about the past, about time and memory, shape our assumptions and prime our expectations of what is possible to change in our relationship to the past. Reflections on the idea of ‘The past’ challenge our common-sense notions of time.  Here are some questions the answers to which prompt both caution and optimism.

Is  ‘the’ past  ‘in’ the past, or should we think of ‘The past’ as having a future?[4]

The eminent German historian, Reinhardt Koselleck, titled his magnum opus Futures Past.[5] Here, I would like to briefly reflect on the idea of ‘The Past’s Future’. Can we anticipate our past?

Concepts of time are central to how we order our experience, both personally and collectively. But concepts of time vary greatly from one historical period to another, from one culture to another, from one language to another, from one discipline to another.

In our everyday language we actually think of time spatially. The present is ‘here’, the past is ‘behind’ and the future is ‘in front’. In other words, we think of time using the metaphor of space.[6] This allows us to think of time as being short or long, and of events receding from us or approaching towards us.[7]

The point here is that our ideas of the past, and our metrics for temporally ordering those remembered or recalled events and experiences (eg., clock time), are constantly open to change and revision. Consequently, ‘The past’ is constantly open to change and revision, be it personally remembered or historically constructed.

The more we learn from newly discovered materials in archives or letters, the more we can anticipate changes in ‘The past’, just as the more we create new frameworks of understanding, and attend to newly noticed domains of neglect in an existing canon, the more, that is, ‘The past’ can be reinterpreted and reconfigured.

To say that ‘the past’ arises from the present is not in any way to deny cause-and-effect in the unrolling of events that have run their course.  It is to emphasise that ‘The past’ is a set of ideas whose use depends on memories and imaginings that function in the present, and that reflect the concerns of the present.  For the issue of commemorations, then, we should pay detailed attention to the demands and dynamics of our present time in order to decide upon the purposes of historical remembrance.

A key point is this, as the Northern Irish writer and poet Gerald Dawe has pointed out: in our present reflections one of the things we know is the ‘outcome’ of the past.[8] Dawe can later ask “how a common past can now be achieved or even remembered,” and he goes on to say that “The past is not an ethereal thing, but is contained ‘in’ things and actions.”[9] We have here again the idea of a commonly agreed past being formed as an ambition, as a future goal.

Seamus Heaney wrote of the past as the ghost-life that hovers over the furniture of our lives,” where, to an imaginative person, such furniture “becomes a point of entry into a common emotional ground of memory and belonging.[10]

Let me make two points here. Dawe and Heaney are not in disagreement in their respective uses of the words ‘not ethereal’ and ‘ghost-life’ in describing our senses of the past.

Modern  psychology and neuroscience confirms that when we remember, whether individually or, arguably, collectively, we do not retrieve some fixed and immutable ‘trace’: We constantly re-construct and re-imagine, subject to present demands. The past is endlessly edited and re-edited.[11] My second point is this: should our commemorative objects and events aspire to become what Heaney called ‘a point of entry into a common emotional ground of memory and belonging’?

I have long liked the American philosopher John Dewey’s preferred use of the phrase ‘warranted assertibility’ to our everyday reliance on the word ‘truth’.[12]  Should we think of the contested past less in terms of what is ‘true/false’ and more in terms of what can be asserted with a good guarantee or warranty, such as one that comes from rigorous historical methods?

From this perspective, ‘The past’ will always be an unfinished project. That is its nature. Historical truths, it seems to me, just like mnemonic ones are asymptotic, getting ever closer to the baseline of ‘what happened’ but yet never quite getting there. Much of our remembering is imagining, and as such is subject to radical uncertainty. This, like so much else in our psychology can be unsettling, but we also have our powerful rationality at our disposal to correct our potent tendencies to error and distortion.[13] A goal of history is surely to diminish conjecture.

If ‘The past’ is what is remembered, what can we say about the kinds of way there are of remembering? This is a vast and ever-expanding field of study, so let me just list a few bullet points.

There are many kinds of memory. Two of the most important are the ways in way we can each travel back to episodes in our own past (episodic memory[14]), and the ways in which we can recall what we know (semantic memory). If episodic memory is a unique capacity of humans, it also lasts only as long as that human is alive. If episodic memories are what make witnesses, they also die with those witnesses. Insofar as they are part of collective memory their lifespan is about two generations. [15] And what they then are, as historians like Jay Winter remind us, are ‘memories of memories’ or ‘post-memories’.[16] Some psychologists would prefer the use of the more precise term, ‘distributive memory’, to that of ‘collective memory’.

This is significant for commemorations, for the purposes to be achieved, and for the national and local vulnerabilities to be navigated, in acts of commemoration.  It is fascinating to compare the kinds of preoccupation in play in staging the 1966 commemoration of 1916,[17] with the issues facing commemoration of the Irish Civil War, the legacy of which darkly shadowed official thinking in 1966.[18] The episodic witnesses to the events of 1920-23 are now gone, and if their memories found a record they now become available to be remembered as knowledge (that is, as semantic memories).

But it is another kind of memory that seems particularly important at the present time and that is emotional memory, and especially negative emotional memories which we know play an outsize role compared to positive emotional memories in our lives. Whatever kinds of positive emotions, of pride and admiration, there might be in nationalistic opposition to imperialist or colonialist ideas, the kinds of negative emotion that attach to the fratricidal divisions of the civil war are of a different order (bitterness, resentment, humiliation, irreconcilability).[19]  One concept for instance, that or reprisal – a species of collective revenge – lies at the heart of some of the most egregious events of that time (for example, Bloody Sunday? The assassinations? The home burnings? The execution of the 81 Republican prisoners? Ballyseedy?).  The question ”How could they?” transmuted into a more enduring and troubling question, “How could we?”[20]

As Margalit points out, it is caring that marks out what is important to us, and caring is emotional. Emotional memories are strong determinants of adversarial allegiances and

Identities, of who we are and of who we are not, of who is with us and of who is against us, and indeed of the kind of person we must not become.[21]

So what are the purposes and uses of memory, individual or collective? [22]

Memory is fundamentally prospective.[23] It is evolutionarily oriented to the future. It supplies what we need to imagine what is to come, to imagine what ought to come, and to imagine what, if at all possible, should not come to be. A difference between history and ‘collective’ memory is the difference between arguments and chronicles.[24] Each kind feeds the construction of identities. These involve choices, and memory informs decision-making. Memory guides the construction of possible futures, and insofar as those futures concern those with whom we are most connected (our families, friends, comrades, fellow citizens, fellow members of commonly imagined communities, and so on) then we are in the realm of ethical memory as argued by Avishai Margalit and the President.

Ethically Memorialising Ireland 1920-23?

Given the malleability of ‘The past’, its openness to review and to reinterpretation, its imaginary scene setting, its changing potency over historical time-scales, its transmissibility in object and action, there is for us now a great opportunity to deliberately shape our own responses to the foundational events of Modern Ireland. Our acts of remembrance can become – without denial, distortion or suppression –  instruments for an even more ethically-oriented Ireland, one that is open to difference, and to conviviality in the best sense of that word.

Here are Avishai Margalit’s conclusions about ethical memory. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, Margalit observes that “A nation has famously been defined as a society that nourishes a common delusion about its ancestry and shares a common hatred for its neighbors. Thus the bond of caring in a nation hinges on false memory (delusion) and hatred of those who do not belong.”[25]

His concern is to diminish the extent to which wounding emotions, the scars of painful memory, can motivate political action.[26] By contrast, what binds an ethical community together are positive emotional bonds. These may be forged in the solidarity of testing times and indeed in hostility towards a common enemy. That sense of solidarity is crucial.[27]

Our knowledge of the past is rooted in credible witnessing, in a hierarchy of those we trust.[28]

He goes on to argue the case for the redemptive power of forgiveness, but of a forgiveness that is based “on disregarding the sin rather than forgetting it.”[29] Here the idea of ‘disregarding’ and  of forgiveness is of both as voluntary actions and chosen policy. He offers the idea of remorse as “a nonmagical way of undoing the past” by changing our interpretation of that past.[30]

Here I am reminded of that letter in 1970 from the commandant of Beggars Bush Barracks, Sean Irwin, which Anne Dolan uses to such powerful effect in her book Commemorating the Irish Civil War. Irwin was charged with executing his former comrades. All those years later his anguish and anger, as the mandated executioner carrying out orders of the new state, is still poignantly raw:

“It is impossible to describe the harrowing and the anguish of the soul, of having to see  one time comrades in arms brought out and shot to death by a firing squad. And to be        aware that these men did not really know what it was all about.’[31]        

And perhaps the strongest reason for forgiveness is this: that those who find themselves in the position to forgive are also the beneficiaries of the act since feelings of resentment, coupled with desires for revenge, poison those who hold them.

I finish with this thought from Gerald Dawe who, when writing in 2004 of his poem Quartz (about his great-grandmother in Belfast) says:

“Maybe from these hidden, uncanonical sources a  common culture will emerge or resurface, out of which the next generation can mind diversity of background as a bulwark against (my emphasis) deadly and deadening division, and not the other way around.”[32]

This, as I understand it, is what the President is also arguing for.                                                                                      


[1] Margalit, Avishai. The Ethics of Memory. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2002.

[2] Ibid., p. 66.

[3] Ibid., p. 67.

[4] Benson, Ciarán (2020). “Psychology and World Heritage? Reflections on Time, Memory and Imagination for a Heritage Context,” International Journal of Cultural Property, 27, 2 (Special Issue: Authenticity and Reconstruction), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, May 2020, 259-276.  

DOI: Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 October 2020.

[5] Koselleck, Reinhardt. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. New Edition, NY, Columbia University            press, 2004.

[6] Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, NY, Basic Books, 1999, Chapter 10.

[7] Cepelewicz, J. “The Brain Maps Out Ideas and Memories Like Spaces,” Quanta Magazine, January 14, 2019.

    –––––––––     “How the Brain Creates a Timeline of the Past”, Quanta Magazine, February 12, 2019.

[8] Dawe, Gerald. “A Question of Covenants: Poetry as Commemoration”, in Eberhard Bort (ed.) Commemorating Ireland: History, Politics, Culture. Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2004, p. 220.

[9] Dawe, Gerald. The Stoic Man: Poetry Memoirs, Derry, Lagan Press, 2015, p. 85.

[10] Heaney, Seamus. ‘The Sense of the Past’, History Ireland, 1, 4, (Winter 1993), p. 33.

[11] Tulving, Endel, and Martin Lepage. “Where in the Brain Is Awareness of One’s Past?” In Memory, Brain and             Belief, edited by D. L. Schacter and E. Scarry, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, 208–28.

[12] Princeton Encyclopedia of Philosophy (retrieved 13 Nov 2020)

[13] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. USA, Macmillan, 2013.

[14] Tulving, Endel. 1972. “Episodic and Semantic Memory.” In Organization of Memory, edited by D. L. Schacter and        E. Scarry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 208–28.

[15] Boyer, Pascal, and James V. Wertsch, eds. 2009. Memory in Mind and Culture. Cambridge, UK:               Cambridge           University Press, p. 11.

[16] Winter, Jay, “Historians and Sites of Memory” in Boyer and Wertsch, op. cit., Chapter 11.

[17] Daly, Mary E. and O’Callaghan, Margaret (eds). 1916 in 1966: Commemorating the Easter Rising. Dublin, Royal        Irish Academy, 2007.

[18] Dolan, Anne. Commemorating the Irish Civil War, 1923-2000. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[19] See Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother. Cork, Mercier Press, 1994, and Ó’Ruairc, Pádraig Óg. “CENTENARY:       The women who died for Ireland,” History Ireland, 26, 5, Sept-Oct 2018.

[20] For a sense of the diversity of the 2,850 deaths from 1916 to 1921 alone, see Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí     Ó’Corráin, The Dead of the Irish Revolution, New Haven CT, Yale University Press, 2020. The overall death        toll is uncertain but maybe in excess of another 2000 were killed between 1921 and 1923? See Gemma             Clark, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014. Clark writes,              'The Irish Civil War was not as bloody as was once proclaimed. Figures for combined pro and anti-Treaty              losses of 4,000 have recently been replaced with more conservative estimates'. p.3.

[21] Benson, Ciarán. (2003) “The Unthinkable Boundaries of Self: The Role of Negative Emotional Boundaries in the Formation, Maintenance and Transformation of Identities” in Rom Harré & F. M. Moghaddam (eds.) The      Self and Others: Positioning Individuals and Groups in Personal, Political and Cultural Contexts, Westport            CT, Praeger, 61-84.

[22] Boyer, Pascal “What are Memories For? Functions of Recall in Cognition and Culture” in Boyer and Wertsch, op.        cit, Chapter 1.

[23] Schacter, Daniel L., D. R. Addis, and R. L. Buckner. 2007. “Remembering the Past to Imagine the               Future: The          Prospective Brain.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 8: 657–61.

[25] Margalit, op. cit., p. 76.

[26] Ibid., p. 111.

[27] Ibid., p. 144.

[28] Ibid., p. 180.

[29] Ibid., p. 197.

[30] Ibid.  P. 199.

[31] Dolan, 2006, p. 1.

[32] Dawe, Gerald “A Question of Covenants: Poetry as Commemoration” in Eberhard Bort (ed). Commemorating Ireland: History, Politics, Culture (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004), Chapter 10, p. 222.