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  • The “Troubles” and Modern Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in Glenn Patterson’s That Which Was
  • Matthew McGuire

Set in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Glenn Patterson’s sixth novel That Which Was (2005) departs from a remarkable and highly original premise. The book centers on a young Presbyterian minister named Ken Avery. One day, after Sunday service, Avery is approached by a stranger who tells him he needs to talk. The readers are introduced to Larry, a man who looks “crushed, from the inside out.”1 In the privacy of the minister’s office, Larry makes a startling confession: he has blood on his hands. He killed people during the “Troubles” and is now tortured by the flashbacks. The revelation is made all the more startling when Larry admits that he cannot recall who the victims were, where he killed them, or when these terrible events took place. Thus, at the heart of That Which Was lies a paradox: an act of remembering that is, at the same time, also an act of forgetting. The remainder of the novel sees Avery turn amateur detective in order to discover the truth about Larry’s past, in the hope it will afford some form of relief from his traumatic memory.

This episode of post-traumatic memory evokes one of the defining issues of the social and political landscape of the post-Agreement era: the problem of the past—or, to put it other words, the question of how a society like Northern Ireland ought to come to terms with the legacy of its violent and traumatic history. In recent years, a critical consensus has emerged about the need for such societies to confront what the human rights scholar Louis Bickford has called “the demons of the past.”2 It was in addressing this context that Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, wrote that “national healing can be a halting and painful process. But ultimately, it seems our natural instincts are confirmed: while the truth is painful, burying the past is much less likely to lead [End Page 60] a country to a healthy future.”3 The past, it would seem, cannot be forgotten or ignored. It is something that must be remembered and confronted.4

Unfortunately, coming to terms with the past remains one of the most challenging aspects within civil society in the post-Agreement Northern Ireland.5 The Hass/O’Sullivan talks in 2013 ended with no clear agreement on how this might be achieved. Similarly, a range of civil society initiatives such as the “Healing Through Remembering Project,” which runs community-based storytelling workshops, continue to look to memory work as a way of confronting and overcoming the legacy of the Northern Irish conflict at a grassroots level.6 The sociologists Patricia Lundy and Mark McGovern have remarked that “what is perhaps most distinctive about Northern Ireland’s approach to dealing with thirty years of violent conflict is that, as often as not, it has raised another a priori question: should we remember the past at all?”7 The history of the “Troubles” has yet to be confronted; rather, the post-Agreement era has seen longstanding, sectarian rivalries reconstituted as a war over cultural memory. Many in the republican community have called for various forms of remembering, at the same that that many in the loyalist community maintain that what the country needs most is a process of willful amnesia.8

Patterson’s novel, then, can be seen to diagnose a specific moment in Northern Irish history. Larry’s dysfunctional memory provides a metaphor for a society that can neither forget the past, nor, it seems, remember it properly. Moreover, the repetitive and traumatic aspects of Larry’s flashbacks resonate with the unpredictable and uncontrollable ways in which the ghosts of the Northern Irish [End Page 61] past continue to haunt the Northern Irish present.9 In an article in the Guardian, Patterson highlights his interest in ideas of historical and temporal disturbance, declaring that in Northern Ireland, “That which was still had questions to ask of that which is to be.”10 Such tripartite models of memory—whereby memory is simultaneously bound...