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THE DECLINE AND REBIRTH OF “FOLK MEMORY”: REMEMBERING “THE YEAR OF THE FRENCH” IN THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY* GUY BEINER the study of folklore has been construed as the documentation of a vanishing subject. This “poetics of disappearance,”1 which echoes the classic studies in social anthropology, perpetuates a nebulous concept of the final hour of “authentic” oral tradition before “folk memory” is irretrievably swept away by modernization. There is a long legacy of bemoaning the end of tradition, and this trope resonates through the writings of Irish folklorists , from the pioneers of the late eighteenth century into the twentieth century,2 and it is still apparent in the writings of contemporary ethnographers .3 In a comparative context there is an influential body of historical literature which maintains that throughout Europe a once vibrant “living” peasant tradition passed away at the turn of the nineteenth century (often dated between 1870 and 1914). To use the terms of Pierre Nora, the milieux de mémoire, or “settings in which memory is a real part of everyday experience,” were supposedly replaced with artificially constructed lieux de mémoire (translated into English as “realms of memory”), which are repositories of “dead” memory that are founded on “invented traditions”—to use a term popularized by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence THE DECLINE AND REBIRTH OF “FOLK MEMORY” 7 * The research for this study was sponsored by the Irish Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. 1 See Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Folklore’s Crisis,” Journal of American Folklore 3 (1998), 281–327 (esp. 289–300). 2 Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, Locating Irish Folklore: Tradition, Modernity, Identity (Cork, 2000), esp. 8–31. See also Georges-Denis Zimmermann, The Irish Storyteller (Dublin, 2001), 167–427. 3 See, for example, Lawrence Millman, Our Like Will Not Be There Again: Notes from the West of Ireland (Boston and Toronto, 1977). Ranger.4 Since the collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission (1935–70) were still documenting “living” oral traditions into the mid-twentieth century , it may appear that Ireland suffered from retarded sociocultural development , and that modernity was slow in replacing the last vestiges of tradition there. Yet studies of Irish popular culture reveal that, rather than constituting an irreconcilable dichotomy, features of “traditional” and “modern” societies have regularly coexisted.5 This realization ultimately undermines the validity of linear developmental models. “Folk memory,” or to use a more suitable term developed in interdisciplinary studies—“social memory”6—also has a history, which invariably shows that traditions were continually reinvented and regenerated through interactions with various cultural agents. Nonetheless, there is a general understanding that “television killed conversation,” or to be more precise, that rapid economic development, the growing influences of globalization, and the introduction of high-technology communications and mass media have instigated the demise of the collective historical memory cultivated by traditional oral culture. According to this line of argument, the boom of heritage centers and summer schools throughout the island is more about the peddling of “kitsch” than about facilitating a meaningful sense of continuity with the past. Has “folk memory” finally been laid to rest, or is it once again being recycled into new forms of representation? With this question in mind, this article presents a case study of provincial social remembrance in order to follow its mutations in the late twentieth century. The French invasion of Connacht and the north midlands in the late summer of 1798 and the local rebellion that it sparked were vividly recalled in folk history. It lasted only a month, starting with the landing of a small French expeditionary force at the village of Kilcummin by Killala Bay in County Mayo (22 August), reaching its apex with the rebel victory at THE DECLINE AND REBIRTH OF “FOLK MEMORY” 8 4 Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History,” in Pierre Nora, ed., Realms of Memory (New York, 1996), Vol. I, 1–20; Eric Hobsbawm, “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870–1914,” in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge , 1983), 263–307. 5 See, for example, Niall Ó Ciosáin, Print and Popular Culture in Ireland, 1750–1850 (London and New York, 1997). 6 See James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Social Memory (Oxford...


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