Of Interest: President Michael D Higgins and Professor John A Murphy on History

These quotes from President Higgins and Professor Murphy are of interest to those following the Boston College subpoena case, in the context of the historical value of the Belfast Project.

The first quote comes from Professor Murphy, as described in the Irish Times:

“Prof Murphy was speaking at a conference on the Irish Home Rule Crisis 1912-14, hosted by the School of History at UCC, and he took issue with comments made earlier by the British ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, when he officially opened the conference.

Mr Chilcott called for the commemoration of the past in as inclusive a way as possible, as the best means of hindering those seeking to damage relations between Britian and Ireland, and he warned against allowing them to “wind back the clock”.

Mr Chilcott argued that one of the best ways of preventing this was for governments and historians to come together “in a spirit of transparency and truth seeking to commemorate the past. We should make this as inclusive an endeavour as we can.”

However, Prof Murphy sounded a note of caution about such an approach, saying Mr Chilcott had made it clear when using words such as “inclusiveness” and “reconciliation” that he was referring not just to governmental co-operation over the next decade but also to historians.

“I want to make it clear that the business of historians is history – it is research and teaching – it is not reconciliation and he [Mr Chilcott] seemed to think that the processes attached to historical research could themselves lead to happy conclusions in terms of reconciliation,” said Prof Murphy.

“In fact, it is quite possible that the more we know about the past, the less helpful it could be to the present – there’s no a priori evidence that the study of history is necessarily a good thing in terms of reconciling past differences between Irishmen.

“There’s a flawed logic there and I hope that, as historians, we all recognise that distinction – to understand all is not necessarily to forgive all in a historical context,” said Prof Murphy in an address entitled “Governments, historians and commemorations”.”

- Historian warns about 1916 events, The Irish Times – Monday, October 22, 2012

In an interview with President Higgins by Patsy McGarry, also in the Irish Times, this issue is addressed:

McGarry: You may have seen recently the challenge by Prof John A Murphy to those who would use history for political ends in the context of these centenaries?

Higgins: I totally agree with John A Murphy. John A Murphy has it right. We are not there to put a gloss, what I call a false amnesia. If people contest versions of history, you offer your versions and you’re judged by your peers. And then in turn if it becomes a principle you live with, you construct at most an amnesty and you say we agree to differ and, who knows, in times our narratives revisited from one side or the other can be amended and we move on to a new position. But the one thing you don’t do, you don’t falsify. That wouldn’t work and it wouldn’t be a contribution at all.

I know a lot about this. Remember my father and my two uncles were in the War of Independence. My father was on the republican side and spent 1923 in Newbridge prison on the Curragh and my uncle on the Free State side in Renmore Barracks. They never talked about it. But I think if we are to talk things through,…we are talking about a parity of revisionism where, if you like, the revisionism is not just a case of such a self-examination by one side as will make them amenable to the other. It is about both sides facing the task of a self-interrogation of history. And that’s the way it will be.

- Edited transcript of interview with President Michael D Higgins, The Irish Times – Saturday, November 3, 2012