Announcing the Publication of Transitional Justice and the Politics of Inscription: Memory, Space & Narrative in Northern Ireland by Joe Robinson

“The reality that I had known no longer existed. The places that we have known now belong only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was every more than a thin slice, held between the contigious impressions that composed our life at that time; and remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
– Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time


My first book, Transitional Justice and the Politics of Inscription: Memory, Space and Narrative in Northern Ireland (2018), is currently available in hardcover for way too much money from Routledge Press (the e-book is more affordable). With this blog post, I’d like to talk a little about the origins of my interest in social memory in public space, especially with reference to the memories of past violence, authoritarianism, displacement, and dispossession, and move on to laying out one of the major arguments of the book. Ultimately though, this is really just a shameless plug to get you to read the book (and more importantly, tell me what you think, write a review, etc.) and make me immensely wealthy from the royalties (I was assured this is how it works).

My research interests in public memory were shaped by 9/11. I remember standing shocked in front of my friend’s television in the early morning hours on that awful day, watching live as the second plane smashed into the South Tower. The first college essay I ever wrote that I was actually proud of was entitled “Remembering the Jumpers;” in it I tried to interrogate why the estimated 200 people who jumped to their death from the towers seemed to have been written out of the acceptable public memory of 9-11 (see Junod, 2003). When the official 9-11 Museum and Memorial designed by Michael Arad was proposed, resisted, re-drawn, delayed, and ultimately unveiled in 2011, I was consistently drawn to studying how this process played out. Once unveiled, I wondered why it seemed only tourists and politicians went to the “official” place of memory, why so many New Yorkers of all stripes seemed to quietly or loudly reject it, and how so many pubs, offices, chapels, and other semi-public, localised places in Lower Manhattan seemed to function as surrogate memory-places where New Yorkers’ traumatic experiences of 9-11 could not be taken from them and suborned to a violent foreign policy, to a war without end, or to profane consumerism and banal kitsch (see Haskins & DeRose, 2003; Sturken, 2007, 2015; Doss, 2011; Bennett 2012; Potts, 2012).

My book doesn’t tell this story; but this story was how I began to write it. Unbeknownst to me, writing and reading about 9-11 memory both for class essays and my own edification, I had stumbled onto a conclusion that is at the very root of memory studies. Memories are not the stolid snapshots of the past stored away in the dusky attic of our mind, sitting silent, fading to yellow and then black with time and misuse, standing to attention when it’s time to recall them, or when we’re triggered to recall them; they are dynamic stories that we tell ourselves, and that we tell to others, to help us, together, make sense of the present, to interpolate the past into the present, to define something missing, something lost, something absent as of the past and no longer of the present, where maybe it’s absence mightn’t hurt quite so much. Where we can return to places marked by that absence and commune with the restless ghosts. Where, in Walter Benjamin’s words, we can cautiously dip a spade into that dark loam and turn over the sedimented layers of history, giving an account of (or bearing witness to!) the layers of dirt that we first had to expose (1932/2005, p. 576). Memory is the mediator between temporal realities and the artefacts, layers, ghosts, laments, ancestors, and loves that freight Proust’s “fugitive roads” with sensation and meaning (Proust 1913/1981; Thelen, 1989; Halbwachs, 1925/1992; Sturken, 1997; Misztal, 2003; Till, 2005; Radstone, 2007; Olick, 2008; Feindt et al., 2014). I strongly believe that studying public memory provides an essential tool to understanding today’s often terrifying political landscapes: the reactionary retreats into nostalgia, the progressive attempts to return faceless victims of past oppression to public space, the effects of traumatic dislocation, the resurgent nationalisms and place-attachments, and our repeated attempts to “claim some anchoring space in a world of puzzling and often threatening heterogeneity, non-synchronicity, and information overload” (Huyssen, 1994, p. 7).

Remembering The Troubles in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, there is a dominant scholarly understanding of the role and social function of Troubles memory. Brian Graham & Yvonne Whelan sum this up nicely:

The dead remain a potent and emotive means of legitimating and perpetuating the ethnonationalism and sectarianism characteristic of political debate in Northern Ireland. There is little sense of reconciliation through shared loss, but, instead the commemorative landscape seems largely to form part of the competing claims for hegemonic victimhood by trenchantly opposed identities and spatialities proclaiming their irreconcilable differences (2007, p. 480).

What this strand of scholarship suggests is that in Northern Ireland, the post-conflict consensus, and the governments (UK, Republic of Ireland) that guarantee that consensus, have simply abrogated any and all role in the contentious transitional memory politics of Northern Ireland (Catherine Switzer & Brian Graham, [2009] refer to this as memorial agnosticism). In its absence, working-class memory-space has been turned over to the oppressive aesthetics and narrative domination of former paramilitary groups. Within the spaces of the new consumerist city, like City Centre Belfast, memory-space has simply been scrubbed clean (Nagle, 2009; Switzer & McDowell, 2009) and all Troubles memory that could upset or discomfort the tourist or the businessperson or the student has simply been pushed out to the peripheralised working-class spaces that Brendan Murtagh (2017) argues are forever imagined as “deviant, untreatable, and socially regressive.” What this results in is the sort of commemorative landscape in Northern Ireland where:

Almost every one of the 1574 combatants… killed throughout the conflict are commemorated physically in some way, only 30% of the 2074 civilian deaths are marked in the public sphere (McDowell, 2008, p. 340).

While at the beginning of my research for the book I assumed that these perspectives on Troubles memory in public space were largely accurate, I grated at the pessimistic and fatalistic tone of much of it (Brian Graham especially has a cynical and acerbic pen). I wondered if it left any space for alternative memory-mobilisations or whether any and all attempts to create alternative or resistant memory-places in working-class space would simply be dwarfed (or violently excluded) by the oppressive and authoritarian performativity of paramilitarised memory. Research stemming from incredible scholars like Patricia Lundy & Mark McGovern (2006, 2008) and John Nagle (2008) suggested to me that new social movements and community-based approaches could mobilise and irrupt even spaces as viscerally segregated, politically reprehensible, and narratively dominated as Northern Ireland’s. So I made a decision then; for my research, while understanding how and why the memorial landscape described by Sara McDowell (above) exists is extremely important, it is more important to ask whether alternatives are possible, and where those alternatives might incubate.

I began, slowly, to seek out and talk to people who had “lost someone belonging to them” during the Troubles and other people who may not have but were active in curating a particular strand of social and public memory. The people that I worked with in Derry were amazing at sharing their insights and contacts with me and I began to snowball those initial contacts into other contacts and even begin to cold-call some people myself. I began to hang out a lot in places where public memory was performed, asking questions where I could. I ultimately think I discovered that the arguments of scholars like Brian Graham and those he worked with and influenced have subtly written out subaltern voices from Northern Ireland’s commemorative and memory-landscape. They have focused too prominently on the mechanisms of memory and narrative domination and not on the myriad (and often subtle and socially encoded ways) that citizens in Northern Ireland resist that domination. Ironically, in one article, Graham himself seems to recognise this:

If it is assumed that Northern Ireland is not merely the exercise in postmodern irony that mandatory coalition suggests… then one requires a much more dynamic understanding of identity… and of the potential alternatives to the legacy of sectarianism and ethnic conflict that spawned the DUP and Sinn Féin (2011, p. 88).

One of this book’s central arguments is that “those dynamic understandings” and “potential alternatives” are already present in Northern Ireland, but they are being ignored; we are, collectively, as scholars, journalists, and citizens, failing to seek them out, listen to them, and support the creative placemaking that could ultimately tell different, more dissonant, more unsettled, more humane stories of what it means to die in the brutal spasms of political violence. But until we learn how to ask different questions, learn how to write the bodies of the dead back into space in all their polyvocality, our collective social imaginations of Northern Ireland will fail to countenance the possibility of alternative political realities and alternative memory-spaces. My book, among other things, is my attempt to present a different story of the potential of public memory in Northern Ireland; one that presents it not as little more than an extension of tribal antagonisms, but rather as a radically democratic alternative searching for places to take root in.

Joe Robinson
Dept. of Geography – Maynooth University
Irish Research Council Fellow

Launch Dates:

Northern Ireland Launch:
18 October, 11 AM – 1 PM, The Junction, 12-14 Bishop St., Derry

Republic of Ireland Launch:
Date and Time TBA: Maynooth University, Dept. of Geography


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