“Borders of Memory: Remembrance, Resilience, and Reconciliation in Ireland and Canada”
James M Flaherty Research Scholarship 2019/2020 Visit Report
Name: Dr Rebecca Graff-McRae
Home Institution: University of Alberta
Visited Institution: University College Cork & Queen’s University Belfast
Date of Visit: 31 January – 27 February 2020
Title of Research:
“Borders of Memory: Remembrance, Resilience, and Reconciliation in Ireland and Canada”
Field of Research: Politics, History, Irish Studies, Memory Studies
This project explores the politics at stake in the Decade of Centenaries on either side of the Irish border, with particular focus on the upcoming centenaries of partition and the establishment of the two states within a fluid and shifting dynamic: the stalled political process in Northern Ireland, the uneven landscape of reconciliation, and the implications of Brexit for Ireland North and South.
With a view to drawing lessons for and from Canada’s reconciliation agenda, this research proposes to develop a critical, post-structuralist theory of post-colonial memory as both a site of contestation and a theatre of resilience.
Research and development conducted:
I arrived in Cork, appropriately enough, on the very eve of Brexit. After settling in for a day, my research collaborator, Dr. Jonathan Evershed and his partner, hosted a welcome brunch and a mini car tour of Cork city centre. The following day I made my way to the UCC campus, where Professor Theresa Reidy welcomed me to the School of Government & Politics, entrusted me with office keys, and introduced me to members of the department, including EU specialist Dr Mary Murphy, over lunch.
Over the next few days, I worked with Jonathan to prepare interview questions, draft speaking notes for our events, and to arrange meetings. We met with Dr. Heather Laird to discuss her work on commemorations. She suggested names of several key figures we might want to interview or talk to informally, as well as people in the field who would be interested in attending our symposium at Queen’s. I travelled to Dublin to meet with Mary Daly, a member of the Expert Advisory Group on the centenary commemorations, and professor emerita at UCD. Professor Daly was also the principal investigator on the 1916 in 1966 project which oversaw my doctoral research. She was able to provide me with an insider’s view of the EAG, her predictions for potential commemorations of partition, and an assessment of the government’s recent gaffe regarding the proposed commemoration of the DMP and RIC. We also discussed how the general election on February 8th would impact the agenda for commemoration in Ireland and Northern Ireland. During my time in Dublin I visited Leinster House and viewed an exhibit commemorating the centenary of the First Dáil, and also explored exhibits at the NLI and the NMI on Ireland’s experience of the First World War and the War of Independence (part of the Decade of Centenaries programme).
The next few days were spent in the office, finalizing the schedule for the week ahead in Belfast. We travelled from Cork to Belfast with Atlantic Storm Ciara close on our backs. The inclement weather precluded any sightseeing along the way; however we did take a quick, windy selfie at the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary.
On arrival in Belfast, the nostalgia of being back in this city, back on the campus that shaped so much of my life, was intense. I visited the Titanic Belfast centre, which didn’t yet exist when I lived here. Exploring the “new” McClay Library at Queen’s and the reconfigured chapel which now houses the Graduate Student Centre, I reminisced about my student days and reflected on the changing map of this city I’d once memorized.
For two days, Jonathan and I crisscrossed the city to conduct interviews with community commemorative organizers. We met a senior Sinn Féin advisor at An Culturlánn in the Falls, then a quick cup of tea at the Linenhall Library before our second interview – a former DUP Minister – at Belfast City Hall.
Reconvening at City Hall the next morning, we met with a senior republican strategist; then a key figure in the loyalist community and Progressive Unionist Party in East Belfast. Each of our interviewees offered us generous, thoughtful perspectives on the anniversary of partition and its significance for their community. In between, we had lunch with a PhD student, Patrick Hughes, whose research on rewriting the border aligns with our project. We discussed the potential intersections in our work and invited him to attend our event the following day.
The first day of our Borders of Memory event – a symposium at the Institute of Irish Studies – saw over 40 attendees, which put our room at capacity. I spoke on the role commemoration has played in Canada’s reconciliation journey, and what potential lessons there might be for Northern Ireland.
On day 2 we co-chaired a workshop for graduate students and early career researchers, looking at the opportunities and challenges of deploying hauntology as methodology in memory studies. Two panels of 5 students presented a brief overview of their work and how it engages with questions of memory, reconciliation, and haunting. The floor then opened to other participants, and Jonathan and myself, to offer possible methodological opportunities and challenges, and to seek out points of convergence between our work. At the end of the session, Siobhán Doyle acted as discussant to summarize the themes of the day and draw out connections and further questions. We all relocated to the pub to keep the conversation flowing!
After returning to UCC, Jonathan and I wrote up our initial responses to the interviews, and the beginnings of an analysis emerged. There are many, many unanswered questions, and we realised that is the essence of this anniversary: founded on questions that are unanswerable or cannot be asked. We presented this nascent analysis to UCC colleagues as part of the departmental seminar series – which generated more insightful questions from lecturer in public policy Will Roche and Anthony Costello (lecturer in EU integration).
I spent the remainder of the week going through my notes and the interview recordings, and preparing questions for our final interviews in Dublin: Professor Diarmaid Ferriter at UCD and @BorderIrish, at an undisclosed location in the heart of Dublin. As a member of the EAG, Professor Ferriter offered us an insight into the political dynamics of the advisory group itself, and its relationship to the government, which was strained by the proposed RIC/DMP commemorations.
The Border – who generously agreed to meet with us under condition of anonymity – answered our many questions off the record. Reflecting on the deconstructive potential of commemoration, the undecidability of Brexit, and the power of political satire, the Border reaffirmed our approach to the centenary of partition as an episode of spectropolitics – a process of endlessly calling up ghosts that can neither be exorcised nor entombed.
The following day we met with another member of the EAG, Gabriel Doherty, who fills us in on the extensive plans for commemorative events to be held in Cork this year. Many key moments in the War of Independence occurred in the county, and – in contrast to the anniversaries surrounding partition, various talks and exhibits had already been organized.
During my last two days in Cork, Jonathan and I prepared a pitch to Jim Carroll at RTÉ Brainstorm, to produce a short blog piece on the political complexities of the upcoming centenary, and the role of our work in mapping them. On Shrove Tuesday, I attended a storytelling and poetry event in Cobh, and indulged in one last view of the Atlantic from its harbor.
In Cork, Dublin, and Belfast I was fortunate to meet many scholars who are among the most influential in the field – including all those mentioned above, along with the director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s, Peter Gray and historian Fearghal McGarry, as well as members of the Expert Advisory Group on Commemoration (Diarmaid Ferriter, Mary Daly, and Gabriel Doherty).
My trip to Belfast also provided an opportunity to reconnect with former professors of mine who are working in and around issues of memory: Dominic Bryan, Margaret O’Callaghan, Brian Walker, and John Barry, who all participated in our symposium and offered helpful feedback on our emerging research.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of these events was connection between advanced scholars, community organisers, and students and early career researchers. The research that is being developed by these talented young scholars is innovative and exciting, and we were all inspired by the process of building academic bridges between our work.
Future/Continuing Collaboration (opportunities/plans):
After my return to Canada, Dr Evershed and I submitted our co-authored piece for RTÉ Brainstorm. This work will appear online in the next few weeks. We are collaborating on a journal article based on our interviews, which has been accepted for a special issue of Éire-Ireland. A draft of this work will be submitted for review in June 2021.
Jonathan and I will continue to develop this project over the coming year, with particular attention to the unveiling of commemorative events being announced in 2020 and 2021. A symposium to mark the 100th anniversary of the Government of Ireland Act will be held at Queen’s University Belfast in December 2020, and ideally, we will both plan to attend as a forum to further the conversations that were initiated during this trip.
We will continue to look for opportunities to present our emerging analysis at conferences (possibly difficult amid the current pandemic). We will be participating in the “Conversations on Europe: Borders & Contested Memory in Ireland” online seminar hosted by the University of Pittsburgh on March 24th.
We will also be preparing applications for further funding, to follow the story of the Irish border through its hundredth birthday.
My time in Ireland was absolutely foundational for this project – every day of my trip was spent laying the foundation stones for future work. This project began as a casual idea, tossed back and forth via transatlantic emails, Twitter messages, and video calls. Its gestation has been a year-long bridge-building between Edmonton, Cork, and Belfast. To be able to return to Ireland and see this work to fruition has been the most wonderful opportunity, and reaffirmed to me how important these geographical, scholarly, and personal connections are to producing meaningful, impactful research.
Now that I have returned home, in turbulent circumstances mirrored in many places around the world, I feel especially fortunate to have made this trip in the calm before the storm. The connections I made in Cork, Dublin, and Belfast are already so vital to providing a sense of community and solidarity in these uncertain times.
Dr Rebecca Graff-McRae
University of Alberta