Awakening from History?

by roadsideservice

A Loyalist mural, probably not just having a laugh.

Awakening from History? is a radio doco by Colm McNaughton, who grew up in Melbourne and then, for a time, in West Belfast. His father was Catholic  from Cushendall, Co. Antrim, and his mother grew up in a Protestant family in Liverpool, England, but converted to Catholicism (her mother’s side were Gaelic speaking Protestants from Co. Wexford).

Click here to open the 50min doco in a new window or to download. And here for the website with photos and further reading.

This is a highly personalised, auto-ethnographic work. In the beginning Colm explains that, at the end of his journey, his explorations helped him understand “a conflict that has been tearing me and my family apart for generations”. This is also a story about heritage and sectarianism becoming custom – and how violence is almost ritualised.

Colm quotes William Gladstone, a late 19th century British Prime Minister who observed “The cause of the problem in Ireland is that the Irish will never forget and the British will never remember”. The doco’s challenge is to find an answer for this question: can the roots of the problems in the north be transformed? And, who is going to do it?

At one point Colm speaks to Bill Rowlston, of the University of Ulster, about the partitioning in 1920:

The huge thing that really rankelled Unionionists was that while they wanted nine Counties – the original, traditional province of Ulster – by having nine counties they would have had too close to a 50/50 Catholic/Protestant balance. They therefore quite logically, quite ruthlessly decided to abandon their Unionist colleagues in the three counties of what is now the Irish Republic so that the six counties they maintained would have a majority in perpetuity – as they said at the time – of Protestants. I don’t want to get into the whole argument about whether this was a religious thing or not – it was about power. It was about controlling the structures of the State. And that fundamental act of where the lines on your state are drawn was a sectarian act. Built on that, then, were all the other sectarian acts – once you’ve got control of the state, you can control all the ministries of the state, so they’re all run by Unionists; you control the force in the state – so, the police force, all the part time police forces there were, were overwhealmingly Unionist; you control every institution. So everything becomes explainable when you get that fundamental question of where you draw the lines. Now, the point is this: how do you undo that? How do you undo those structural inequalities that are built into the very nature of the State. No matter how many Catholics/Protestants/whatever there are  – how do you undo that huge, historical, sectarian act? And the answer is, you don’t just have a few more Catholics in Stormont. It is more fundamental than that. There are inate inequalities of sectarian division in this society that are not only still there, but as their clientele changes, they are masked more, it is felt that sectarianism has gone away – “everthing’s alright Martin McGuinness is deputy first minister, Catholics have made it, you don’t need to worry anymore”. But that’s false.

In this journey, he speaks to people from across the social spectrum. (Please excuse some spelling below, especially names. I am making rough guesses. Most readers would be unaware at how simple spelling differences can denote vast differences in social and cultural capital.)

  • Padriag McCotter, from Coiste, an ex-republican prisoners support group in West Belfast and one of the hunger strikers who stood in solidarity with Bobby Sands.
  • William Fraser, from Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (FAIR) in Portadown . One of the few Protestant organisations Colm could find that focuses on the question of remembering. They demand justice for those murdered working in the security forces.
  • Bill Rowlston, Professor of Sociology, University of Ulster, who takes Colm on a tour of one of the main “Peace Walls” in West Belfast.
  • Mark Harbinson, Unionist, Loyalist and a Master of his local Orange Lodge, Chairperson of Stoneyford Jubilee Committee (also committed various forms of violence against Colm’s family)
  • Members of the crowd of July 12 Marches
  • Clare Hacket, Healing through Remembering, working to build bridges between Catholic and Protestant communities

Colm takes the title for his doco from James Joyce’s Ullysses, where Joyce writes that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. I felt it was a kind of journey for Colm, an attempt to make sense of his and his family’s life. An attempt, as it were, to push himself out of what he feels must surely be a dream.

It explores transgenerational trauma and how living in a violent, sectrarian society can fuck up generations (and generations) of people. It also looks at how trauma manifests itself – in alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty, what might be called “anger management”, difficulties in communication, and fear. But it was also about putting all of this within a social context.

Colm has written elsewhere,

The lesson I drew from making this documentary was that to engage with difficult, though potentially transformative material, you must prepare for the inevitable contradictions and work around them.

This is difficult but possible and there are many fine people who work with these dilemmas daily.  Instead of looking to new possibilities based on forced forgetting, we should focus on the more difficult work of re-membering.  If not, sadly we may no longer exist on this big beautiful blue planet. This is a very real threat each of us must live with and respond to. If not me, who? If not now, when?


‘Awakening from History?’ received the 2008 Walkley Award for best ‘Radio Feature, Documentary or Broadcast Special’.