July in Northern Ireland: Representing Difficult Pasts in a Troubled Present by Olwen Purdue

It’s that time of year in Northern Ireland. Early July. Those weeks during which one section of society visibly and noisily gears up for the Twelfth of July celebrations, while another resigns itself to the disruption caused by local band parades or the mass parades of ‘the Twelfth’. A third group, mainly the professional middle classes, pack their cars and suitcases and quietly slip off to the continent.

It’s a time when the past seems all too raucously present, when the events of centuries ago once more occupy the streets and public places of cities, towns, and even the smallest villages across Northern Ireland as the triumph of the forces of William of Orange over those of James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 is represented on decorative arches, on the banners of Orange lodges and on Lambeg drums, matching those images more permanently displayed in the murals adorning gable walls.

William of Orange Mural - Sandy Row Belfast
Mural dedicated to William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne, Sandy Row, Belfast [©John McDonald]

In many ways the Battle of the Boyne was just one battle (albeit a significant one) in a much more complex war, a battle that just happened to have been fought on Irish soil and which galvanised the enmity between Irish Catholics, who fought with James, and Irish Protestants, who fought on William’s side. It was a war about the rule and religious status of England, Scotland and Ireland where William, a Dutch Protestant, had recently deposed the Catholic James II (his uncle) over the fear that James was trying to establish a Catholic dynasty in the three kingdoms. It was also a war on a European scale, a war about power and the rule of church and state. James was backed by the Catholic King Louis XIV of France, then one of Europe’s superpowers, while the Protestant William, somewhat ironically, had the support of Pope Alexander VIII, part of a ‘Grand Alliance’ trying to curtail Louis XIV’s expansion in Europe. Even in an Irish context it was not as simple as is generally represented; as Bill Roulston has pointed out, the establishment of Protestant supremacy in Ireland left Presbyterians as well as Catholics out in the cold. In Northern Ireland today, however, the narrative is generally kept very simple indeed.

It is, of course, in this very over-simplification of the past that its symbolic capital lies. Moments, events and characters from history are appropriated and depicted in monochromatic tones in order to reinforce identity, to denote community and belonging for those on the inside, or the ‘otherness’ of those on the outside, to legitimise a particular present view of society, culture, and politics. William was the defender of Irish Protestantism against the machinations of Catholic King James, and his victory at the Boyne the decisive moment in establishing the Protestant faith in Ireland. It is no surprise, then, that the memory of King Billy and the strength of the Orange Order today are greatest in areas in which Protestants feel at their most vulnerable, among marginalised urban working-class males and remote rural areas close to the border with the Irish Republic.

Of course the Battle of the Boyne is not the only historical moment to be simplified and appropriated for present purposes or political ends. Other key episodes frequently portrayed in loyalist areas of Belfast include the First World War, and the Battle of the Somme in particular, the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, along with scenes from era when Belfast was an industrial powerhouse and a city at the heart of the Empire, all of which reinforce a sense of Northern Ireland’s British identity.  In nationalist parts of Belfast, by contrast, the Great Famine of 1845-49 features on several gable walls. Sidestepping the tortuous historiographic debates over causation, impact, and the role of ideology, they simply present the Famine, as An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, ‘Ireland’s genocide by the English’.  Presented thus, the Famine speaks of the oppression under which the Irish have suffered at the hands of the English, a theme that continues to resonate strongly. Another event that is frequently depicted in nationalist murals is the Easter Rising of 1916, an event that is significant not only in marking the birth of independent Ireland, but in representing a tradition of militant republicanism. As with the Twelfth, Easter 1916 is celebrated by annual marches and parades. So these representations of history are by no means unique to one community or the other. Rather they represent common ways of using representations of the past in public spaces, even if the narratives of that past are in some cases mutually exclusive.

Famine mural - Whiterock Rd. Belfast (1)
Memorial to An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger), Whiterock Road, Belfast

Neither are they static. It would be inaccurate to see these representations of key historic moments and personalities as remaining constant in terms of their significance or meaning to the communities or identities they represent. As new, more emotive or less remote, historical moments begin to resonate with the people of the city, they can supplant traditional images. Among loyalist communities, for example, representations of King Billy have largely given way to representations of the Somme, or the First World War more generally. Despite the fact that Irishmen and women of all persuasions fought and died, the war long been associated with the unionist and loyalist community. While murals of King Billy have often been allowed to fade or have been painted over, new and often quite sophisticated representations of key moments in the Great War are being created, or old ones refreshed. Images associated with the ‘war to end all wars’ are even beginning to replace those of William III on Orange banners. Likewise in republican parts of Belfast, murals representing the Republican Hunger Strikers of the 1980s are now more common than images of the Famine. They tend to be very complex, in some cases accompanied with religious imagery or placed in a shrine-like setting. In Derry, murals depicting the events of Bloody Sunday provide a powerful statement of identity and outlook, a message about the ways in which the Troubles are remembered and how this impacts on attitudes to developments in Northern Ireland in the present.

Memorial mural dedicated to Bloody Sunday victims, Bogside, Derry [Keith Ruffles]
These images of historical events are, therefore, a constant and visible reminder of contested senses of the past, ones that represent and reinforce a very divided present. This contested view of the past poses a major challenge for public historians. How do academics and professionals whose job it is to represent such contested historical narratives to public audiences, whether in museums, at heritage sites, or through various forms of media, negotiate the deeply divisive nature of Ireland’s history, and, in particular, of Northern Ireland’s recent past? It certainly presents some interesting case studies for the budding public historian, something we’re encouraging our Public History students at Queen’s University Belfast to explore. How do you represent the past to the general public when the prevailing historical narratives of that public are deeply contested.  Students are encouraged to think about how as public historians we can negotiate these divisions over interpretation. It has been interesting, for example, to hear their responses to the way in which the Northern Ireland conflict has been ‘officially’ represented through the Troubles exhibition at the Ulster Museum. As part of National Museums of Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum has a mission to represent the entire community in an inclusive and balanced manner, something that has had a significant impact on the institution’s depiction of something that is both deeply divisive and at the same has touched so many people’s lives in painful ways. The general conclusion is that, by trying to avoid alienating one side or the other, the museum has ended up with a very sterile form of history, one from which the emotions have been carefully extracted. This is something the the museum is now trying to address, working with communities to develop a new, more reflective and meaningful representation of the thirty years of conflict. One way to address the history of the ‘Troubles’ without dwelling on the violence is to explore the social and cultural context within which the conflict occurred. To this end, some of our students have recently worked with the museum on a major photographic exhibition ‘Conflicting Images: Photography during the Northern Irish Troubles’. Featuring over 140 images by international and local photographers, it examines the role photography played during ‘The Troubles’. The photographs that have been selected present a shared vision of the past, serving as a means to explore the experiences of ordinary people, of whatever background, during this time.

Our students also visit Derry/Londonderry (the divided past evident even in the disputed name of the city) in order to explore a very different way in which the past is interpreted and represented, this time by and for a particular community. The Museum of Free Derry is a particularly interesting example of a museum which is free from the constraints of official status. Situated in the Bogside, on the exact spot on which British troops opened fire and shot 28 unarmed civilians of Bloody Sunday, this community-run museum represents the events of that day in a raw and unfiltered way. The museum effectively uses video footage, audio recordings, images and artefacts in a dark, claustrophobic room, creating for the visitor an almost immersive experience of the chaos and violence of the day.

This is followed by a visit to the museum of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, where a very different narrative of the city’s story is told. Using artefacts, banners, images, and a narrated video the museum tells the story of how, during the siege of Derry which preceded William’s victory over James, a band of loyal apprentice boys closed the city’s gates on King James. It tells the story of the city holding out against James’ army, but also examines the role the Apprentice Boys, a Protestant fraternal society, have played in the city up to the present day. Both the Museum of Free Derry and the Apprentice Boys’ Museum have recently renovated or rebuilt their premises with the aid of equitable government funding for both organisations.

Effigy of Governor Lundy (‘the traitor’), traditionally burnt on 12 July, and other artefacts at the Museum of the Apprentice Boys of Derry [Olwen Purdue]
From the highly regulated, controlled, and balanced context of the Ulster Museum, through community-run institutions where the historical narrative is controlled and presented by one particular group or the other, students are then encouraged to consider the totally unregulated form of public history represented in the murals of Derry and Belfast. All of this gives plenty of food for thought about issues of ownership and interpretation of public memory and history, and the challenges of representing troubled pasts to public audiences. In an environment in which contested interpretations of the past feeds the divisions of the present that is a challenge indeed.

As we go through the week of the Twelfth, Northern Ireland’s devolved government once more finds itself in a state of crisis. With the Executive suspended due to the political fall-out over the flawed and exploited Renewable Heating Scheme and the main parties failing to reach agreement that will restore powers, the threat of Direct Rule is very real. Funding to essential services is being held up and, ironically, an important proposal for a consultation process over how to deal with legacy issues is left to languish in the political vacuum. The ostensible sticking point in negotiations between the two main parties appears to be legislation around the Irish language, while legacy issues also play a big part. Both parties, each of which represents the more extreme ends of the political spectrum, continue to draw on representations of the past to legitimise their stance. In Northern Ireland there is no doubt that representation of the past in public, by the public, or for the public, remains deeply problematic.


Olwen Purdue is an urban historian and lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast where she will be directing the university’s new Centre for Public History, which will be launched this autumn. QUB will also be launching an MA in Public History in September 2018.


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