Photo: Caitlin Cunningham


Guy Beiner 

The new Sullivan Chair in Irish Studies on how we remember our past, and why it matters.

I first traveled to Ireland to study folklore as a historical source. I became fascinated with how people engage with the past, individually but even more so on social and cultural levels. For me, folk history became about not just what happened, but what people thought happened, what people imagined to have happened, and even what people told themselves didn’t happen, yet were invested in. That’s the kind of multilayered history that I wanted to engage with. I realized I had to understand how memory works, because that’s how oral traditions are passed down.

I specialize in the history of social remembrance, and my work in recent years has focused on questions of forgetting, which surprisingly turns out to be another form of remembering. I’ll go to archives and specialist libraries and read against the grain, looking for traces of events that were left off of the official record though they’ve been documented outside mainstream historiography. For example, the Irish Civil War of 1922–23 is one of those episodes that was rarely talked about publicly, but if you look deeper, you’ll find books, plays, and even films about it. Cultural commentators often assert that it’s been forgotten, but if that’s the case, then why do we know about it?

The more you study issues of memory, the more you realize that it’s everywhere. For years, I’ve been working with researchers around the globe to study how the 1918–19 influenza pandemic was remembered and forgotten in different societies. What I found was that quite often there was a lack of public discourse about it, but families had different ways of remembering their lost relatives in private. It’s interesting because it had been assumed by historians that that pandemic had been entirely forgotten. There was lots of cultural engagement with it, but it didn’t make the literary and artistic canon, so it was both there and not there at the same time.

I came to Boston College in 2019 as a visiting Burns Scholar, and then last year I was fortunate to become the chair of the Irish Studies department. The fact that Boston College appointed an Israeli to this distinguished role reflects a shift in the field. It’s still largely focused on history and literature, but there’s remarkable potential to reinvigorate the field by engaging with other disciplines, asking new questions, and making new connections.

I’ve never left folklore, and I’m always curious about how to redefine it because it’s constantly reinventing itself. It’s not just about familiar folk tales, it’s about cultural traditions in many forms. The Internet is full of folklore, and it’s become much more multimedia.

It’s particularly interesting for me as a historian because we’re trained to look at “facts,” not folklore, but the stories people tell about their past, no matter how fanciful, have meaning and can influence their lives. It puts me in my place because, in reality, historians are very small players in the popular construction of the past. We might think that by publishing a book we’ve determined how historical events will be remembered, but a movie that tells it differently will probably have more impact on people’s image of the past—how do we engage with that? History is riddled with subjectivity, and the more we explore the complex relationship between academic knowledge and popular traditions, the more rich and meaningful history becomes. 

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