- Remembering and Forgetting:Memory and Legacy in Irish Theatre and Film
In the spring of 1996 the president of Ireland Mary Robinson attended the Gate Theatre to see the Out of Joint production of Sebastian Barry's play The Steward of Christendom. After the show, Robinson met the company backstage and "talked of the play's achievement in restoring a piece of Irish history."1 Robinson was not the only one who recognized the profundity of the play's achievement. Following another night's show, the director Max Stafford-Clark received a phone call from an audience member who "wanted to tell someone what the play had meant to him. His mother and his aunts had always listened to the Queen's speech on Christmas Day, but he had had to keep this a secret from his friends and indeed the rest of his family."2 Both of these reactions to Barry's play speak of a tradition of silencing and repressing stories and feelings that were somehow deemed shameful and kept hidden in the shadows. This play seemed to catch a zeitgeist, a felt need for narratives of Irish history and identity to be reexamined, to have pieces added and put together differently to form a new patchwork. Though Barry's play joins his other family history plays and adds to an already large canon of Irish history plays, it is also evidence of a [End Page 222] recent and more general concern with the past in Irish culture; indeed, to paraphrase Terence Brown, over the past two decades we have been curiously obsessed with the past; our past and, thus, also ourselves. Of course there is another version of the presidential story—that Robinson did indeed come backstage, but said instead, "It's not really the sort of play you can talk about . . . you don't mind if I just go home?"3 There are many degrees and types of silence, many versions of the past, some of them, perhaps, true.
Every country—especially one such as Ireland, which is relatively new to independent statehood—will have divisive moments in its past, events that are so fraught with tension, both political and personal, that they seem to resist representation. Such resistance can lead to a sanitized rendering of the event or, in the case of events that are still problematic to recall, a silencing. This discomfort has led to what R.F. Foster has called the "intentional amnesia" of Irish history, where traumatic events that do not fit a straightforward or nationalist version of the Irish past are excluded from the historical narrative. 4 Yet it is crucial that both history and culture reflect the diversity of experience, for, as Juanjo Igartua and Dario Paez write in relation to the Spanish Civil War, popular narrative forms in particular are "symbolic rituals of commemoration that allow social memory to have an external cognitive and affective frame."5 When a country has been through a traumatic and violent history, especially in the context of civil war, culture has a crucial role in bringing an audience to terms with its own past and thus helping it to adjust to the future. While the debate surrounding Irish historical revisionism is outside the remit of this article, what I do want to draw attention to is the way in which recent Irish cultural practice has reflected a sense of the widening of what Irish history means—raising, in turn, a fundamental question: what are our histories? [End Page 223]
One recent event around which debate coalesced was the 2006 commemoration of the ninetieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, marked for the first time in thirty years by a military parade. Though the parade itself proved controversial, it was also the framing of the commemoration in political terms that provoked debate. To launch the commemorative season, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern gave a speech at the opening of an exhibition on 1916 at the National Museum, extolling the high points of the Irish past that should be remembered proudly.6 Ahern's speech, however, only mentioned those events that his own party, Fianna Fáil, had presided over. The omission of crucial...