THE POWER OF REMEMBERING

9 September 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The need to remember, to commemorate, is integral to the human condition.
We do it solemnly, on occasions such as the Blessings of the Graves ceremonies that have been taking place in recent weeks in the communities of our towns and villages in reverential recall of those dear to us who have passed away.
And frequently we refer in celebration to the past, stirring our emotions with joyful recollections of happy events and remarkable achievements of personal, local or national significance.
Why we choose to remember traumatic bygone happenings and pause in our lives to mark anniversaries of tragedy or disaster is perhaps less clearly explained than those recollections inspired by love and nostalgia.
But the instinct seems equally as essential to how we shape ourselves as a society.
We are now in the midst of a depth of poignant recall of the events of September 11 2001, when terrorist bombings in the United States of America wreaked a terrible toll of lives and effected profound change in world sensibilities and in our shared sense of personal and national security.
Discernible through the thickets of documentary footage and media analysis devoted to September 11 is an attempt to understand better the causes and context of those events.
There is perhaps also at work a more fundamental desire, rooted in the rational part of our minds, to encompass destructive acts of such shocking scale within parameters of reasoned meaning, and thereby mitigate the nihilistic impact that still resonates from them in our minds and hearts.
The thousands of people expected to gather in Clones this Saturday to participate in the National Famine Commemoration will engage in a perhaps not dissimilar exercise.
This is undoubtedly a very important occasion, one of the most significant to take place in our county in recent times.
For the people of Clones, the hosting of this event represents a signal honour, and the depth of civic-spirited endeavour evident in the preparations that have been in train over recent weeks is eloquent not just of a desire to do full justice to it, and thereby reflect well on the local community.
There is discernable in the preparations for the big day itself, and the events that have been taking place in the build-up to it, a considered appreciation of the complex and painful meanings woven into the whole process of coming to terms with this particular dimension of the Irish past.
For a country with a turbulent and troubled history, there is arguably no more profoundly painful and traumatic legacy for modern Ireland to deal with than that bequeathed by what has come to be remembered as the Famine.
The very appellation itself, as Sinn Féin councillor Brian McKenna forcefully pointed out at Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council, is far from an uncontested one.
‘Famine’ denotes a profound shortage of food, and there are many people who quite reasonably object to this particular descriptive being applied to circumstances where decisions made about the distribution of abundant alternative foodstuffs by those in control of them exacerbated severely the suffering of the Irish poor who were most dependent on the potato crops that were ravaged by blight.
But, whether we choose to remember it as the Famine or the Great Hunger, it is the manner in which we have come to remember, or perhaps attempt to forget, the events of the mid-nineteenth century that seem most urgently in need of address.
Although we live next door to the period in historical terms, and it is one that has finally received its due degree of academic attention, as a nation we have perhaps been guilty of a collective repression of an Ghorta Mhóir and its horrific realities.
Some of the events that have already taken place in the Clones and Fermanagh areas as part of the national commemoration have brought home the extent of suffering caused in the South Ulster area during the period, and the profound and long-lasting consequences for the affected localities.
There has undoubtedly been little widespread appreciation of this impact, and often a neglect of important historical sites and artefacts associated with the time.
A sense of trauma, a sense of shame, seems to have drawn a veil over much of this area’s Famine history, and indeed that of the country as a whole.
But if we have buried the memory of this dark part of our past, its legacy is tangible in our lives.
The sensitivity of Irish people to the suffering of famine-stricken areas in other parts of the world, manifest in a record of charitable giving remarkable in proportionate terms, seems intimately linked with our own experiences of want.
And it was perhaps a race memory of the spectre of hunger that moulded the values of the generation of our immediate forebears and inculcated in them a value system that privileged sensible financial husbandry and cultivated an anathema to debt – values cast off to ultimately disastrous national effect in recent decades.
Whether we are still entirely comfortable with it or not, the years of the Great Hunger are an important part of our local and national history, requiring just as much understanding in our minds and reconciliation in our hearts as the 9/11 events which we are currently being encouraged to bring to the forefront of our memories.
Hopefully Saturday’s very significant commemoration in Clones, in the presence of President Mary McAleese, will facilitate the process of coming to terms with this portion of our past, and underscore the need to mark the importance of the sites and memorabilia associated with it.
We would commend to all our readers the call made by Co Mayor Seamus Coyle at Monday’s Co Council meeting for the observation across the county of a minute’s remembrance at 3 pm on Saturday of those in our community who lost their lives in the years of deprivation being commemorated in the Clones ceremony.
“They buried us without shroud or coffin” Seamus Heaney writes in his poem Requiem for the Croppies, and although applicable to a different historical period the line is eloquent of the fate that befell many Co Monaghan people during this terrible time.
To hold them in our minds and prayers for a brief minute on Saturday would be a fitting contribution to the events that the town of Clones is playing host to.
It might also assist us in beginning to make meaningful reconciliation with this part of our past, which may ultimately be the true value, and the true power, of remembering such painful events.

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