Statements such as ‘knowing about history helps us to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past’ are commonplace. There is no doubt that this can be the case, and often has been, but a knowledge of history doesn’t stop us making new mistakes.
Arguably the greatest disaster of post-war British foreign policy was the Suez escapade in 1956. Yet it is often forgotten that a strong argument for invasion, at least in policy-makers’ minds, was not allowing Nasser to be another Hitler. Eden wanted to learn the lessons of 1938-9 so much that he did stop to think about how the world had changed in nearly two decades. So we should be careful about assuming that knowledge of the past makes us omnipotent and I am repeatedly wary of, for example, comparisons between inter-war politics and the current coalition government. For that reason, despite having published two books on the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, I’ve declined all invitations to write such a comparison.
My view is that the value of history to the present is more subtle than drawing conclusions about today’s events. Perhaps more interesting is the role it can play in community cohesion – but this is not something to which policy-makers pay much attention. Over the past five years I have been working on research which points, I think, to some of the value of ‘public history’ as a bridge-builder in a divided society.
Among the most controversial parts of Irish history (and there are many) is the First World War. I published a book on West Belfast in that period in 2009 (Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War). In recent years I have contributed to various community projects (and continue to do so). My own interest in this broad subject area was partly personal, with part of my own family roots being in County Armagh. But I was also intrigued by some crucial academic questions about the nature of recruitment into the British Army in Ireland in 1914-18. Of course, what gave the subject a sharp contemporary edge was that for many years, indeed until the mid-1990s, very few Catholics/nationalists in Belfast would have wanted to publicly commemorate or even talk about having any ancestor in the British Army. Meanwhile, memory of the First World War had been entirely associated with the Protestant/unionist community. So to some extent, I was uncovering a lost story.
One might ask, if it was lost, was it really important? And if people want to forget it, shouldn’t we let them? The answer to both questions is that by the time I began research local people from the broad Catholic/nationalist community were already showing an interest in resurrecting this lost story, and one group, the 6th Connaught Rangers Research Project, was already doing so in a very systematic way. But what local groups lacked was the kind of knowledge of sources and how to use them which really new academic research can provide. It was into this gap that my own work can be placed. Some might ask if all I have been doing is providing sophisticated help with family trees. Time permitting, I have been doing some of that. However, what has been most important is the engagement of groups and people who were once, literally, violently opposed to each other. One meeting in particular summed this up for me. In August 2010 I took part in an event on ‘Remembering/Forgetting the First World War’. The meeting was held in the Shankill Library, but it was a major cross-community event in the West Belfast Festival (Féile an Phobail) because it was the first time part of what is a Republican festival had been organised in a Loyalist area. I was invited to give a talk (with one other speaker) on WWI remembrance and run a research workshop. It was a significant piece of public engagement with around 100 people attending the talk and about 20 at the workshop. Among those attending were a small number of people who had been in paramilitary organisations on either side of the divide during the Troubles. These men had once tried to kill each other but coming together to discuss a controversial part of their country’s past, in a way that was informed by new research, was part, if only a small part of building bridges.
Those with an interest in bean-counting will ask how much this has all cost. My research only received additional support in the form of a very small British Academy grant of £3,681 mainly to support travel and accommodation costs over a period of eighteen months, although that was certainly all that was needed. Other than that, it was only my time, I suppose about one third of it over a three year period. The entire research would have cost no more than £60,000, but it has been very widely read and discussed in the Irish media (north and south of the border). The meeting as part of the Féile was only one of many community-based meetings which have been related to it. Not only have I told a new story about part of one city, but I have outlined new research methods which can be used in other areas.
If one wants to focus on the economic benefits of research then one must factor in the value to several employers of a book which has sold well, but I would advise against that. For me, this project has been an example of the value of blue-skies research in the humanities. It was unlikely to receive full-funding from a research council at the outset, and it represents the type of research that academics carry out as part of their jobs, rather than because they have a specific grant. Long may we have the time to do so.
Professor Richard S. Grayson is Professor of Twentieth Century History at Goldsmiths, University of London.