“Lest We Forget”

The phrase reputedly originated with Rudyard Kipling. It appears on many British war monuments. But I associate it more generally with historical studies. I remember an Israeli historian who specialises in the “history of memory & forgetting” suggesting, only partly in jest, that there is an inherent insanity to the occupation of being a historian because of its obsession with detail. If one’s mind is prone to obsessing with detail, studying history can seem appropriate. So might finding some decompression chamber to inhabit. The same mindset that obsessively seeks detail and so dismisses blogging as unconducive to scholarly vigilance can also fear that details end up being forgotten. I had an experience of this recently. I decided to “bite the bullet” and do something that I had long intended to do: make a definite start in readdressing the history of IRB in a new book. As a preliminary, I was reflecting on the infamous funeral of T.B. McManus in November 1861 and, in doing so, I discovered, to my disappointment, that I could not recollect all details. Even though it was 2003 when I last gave a lecture on McManus, I expected that it would all still be fresh in my mind. But it was not. So, I have some serious “refreshing” to do, to get my mind back in gear and take on the subject once more. But, middle-age allowing, “when there is a will there is a way.”

Shortly afterwards, I saw an article on the RTE website about a public funeral, from 1903, that struck me as very similar to the McManus one 42 years previously, except this time it was for a priest rather than a ‘fenian’. I think I was only vaguely aware, at best, of this event previously, but reading about it now triggered the memory of a narrative structure I fell upon when interpreting and writing about the IRB “the first time around”: how the tenor of Irish nationalism changed so greatly in or about 1903. Can any event of the time symbolise that? Should the Fr. O’Growney funeral be as famous as the McManus one? Perhaps. In which case, where is the history of the Gaelic League to show it? Nowhere. It won’t come from my pen, to be sure, as I’m practically illiterate in matters “Gaelic” (the folly of teenage indifference at school), yet perhaps, in time, I can address the idea, even if it may not be as central to the subsequent history of the IRB as notorious individuals like “Mick” claimed. The initial impulse in writing about “anything” can be a mental picture of many different events that have yet to be fitted into a jigsaw of a convincing, or meaningful, greater picture or narrative. And narrate we will. Or must. It is a compulsion, you know, lest you forget. And if one forgets, perhaps the best way to remember if you’re a historian is to always put it in print. If one has ten thousand museum-grade, picture postcard, images in one’s mind, what else can one do? Health and time allowing, I will stick them in my pipe and smoke them until the new book is done.