Remembering Not to Forget
by Shane Murphy

When searching for a way to impose a meaningful order upon
reality, we rely on memory for ‘the provision of symbolic
representations and frames which can influence and organize both
our actions and our conceptions of ourselves’ (Misztal, 13).
However, in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement and the
creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly historical accounts
produced by the media and governmental institutions have been
underscored by a pronounced and predominant process of selective
forgetting whereby the awkward sectarian complexities of the
Troubles have been erased or archived. Hence, as Colin Graham’s
recent research has documented, a recurrent trope has emerged in
Northern Irish culture of ‘an ache which notices, knows, but can
barely comment on the cauterisation of the dark complexity of the
past”; hence, “the difficult and the embarrassingly recent past, or
the irritatingly non-conforming present, is archived’ (568).
Excessive remembrance may lead to madness, but forgetfulness
carries its own inherent dangers, and Northern Irish writers and
visual artists have consistently guarded against any politically
expedient embrace of amnesia...

The Orange Order’s use of the past has recently come under close
scrutiny from Northern Irish writers and visual artists. No longer
uncritically lauding acts of remembrance, they question what they
perceive to be its inward-looking, self-defeating nature. Victor
Sloan's photographs (see, for example, Walls (1989)), for instance,
explore various aspects of the Protestant marching season. Brian
McAvera, describing Sloan's The Walk, The Platform and The Field
series at the Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart (1986) states that
‘[t]he predominant tone is sepia, suggesting records of a bygone
age. In almost every instance the central image struggles to
emerge from a miasma of marks which compress both background
and middle ground into foreground. It’s as if the images were
caught between ineluctable forces’ (100). Left alone, the
photographs would be realistic depictions of the Orange marches.
Yet the artist's scraping, marking and over-painting of his
photographs establishes an almost sinister aspect, blocking out the
individual personality. One could well argue that the violence done
to the images ‘pinpoints exactly that sense of costiveness that is the
Unionist political mandate’ (John Roberts in Kelly 53). In No
Surrender (McAvera 75), for example, the ‘X’ slashed across the
banner of a feminised William of Orange indicates Sloan's
disapproval. A more oblique, though none the less scathing critique
of the Orange Order is to be seen in Rita Duffy's surrealistic Legacy
on the Boyne (1989). That the 12th of July marches have a religious
aspect is indicated not only by the Moses child hidden among the
reeds (Kelly 84), but also by the main figure’s facial expression:
wide-eyed devotion. That this may also convey fanaticism is hinted
by the more sinister aspects of the painting. In the centre stands a
huge Orangeman holding a ceremonial sword, his sash flowing like
the Boyne, carrying off spectral bodies with Munch-like screaming
skulls. The man carries the past with him, namely remembrances of
the Boyne. Yet the present conflict is viewed as a continuation of
the 1690 battle since, on the left of the canvas, flowing into the
sash/river, there is a graveyard with open tombs and to the right, a
man screams as the tip of the Orangeman's sword hovers perilously
above his head.

Graham, Colin. ‘“Every Passer-by a Culprit”: Archive Fever, Photography and the Peace in Belfast’. Third Text 19.5 (September, 2005): 567-80.

Kelly, Liam. Thinking Long: Contemporary Art in the North of Ireland. Kinsale: Gandon, 1996.

McAvera, Brian. Art, Politics and Ireland. Dublin: Open Air, 1990.

Misztal, Barbara. Theories of Social Remembering. (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2003).

Sloan, Victor. Walls. Derry: Orchard Gallery, 1989

Extract from Remembering Not to Forget by Shane Murphy. A Review of Michael Parker, Northern Irish Literature 1956-1975 and Northern Irish Literature 1975-2006 (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2007), ISBN: 9780333604151, 386pp, 9780230553057, pp368.