It’s been a memorable period for Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies Guy Beiner—which seems appropriate for a specialist in the historical study of remembering and forgetting.

A professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, Beiner is the 2019-20 Burns Scholar, the latest in a long line of distinguished academics, writers, artists, journalists, librarians, and notable public figures to have held the appointment. Burns Scholars teach courses, offer public lectures, and use the University’s John J. Burns Library in their ongoing research, writing, and creative endeavors related to Irish history, art, and culture.

Since arriving at BC, Beiner has seen his 2018 book, Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster, selected for three major awards in the field of history-related research: the American Historical Association George L. Mosse Prize for “an outstanding major work of extraordinary scholarly distinction, creativity, and originality” in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe since 1500; the Katharine Briggs Award for a distinguished contribution to folklore studies; and the National University of Ireland Irish Historical Research Prize, which recognizes the best new work of Irish historical research.

Forgetful Remembrance also was previously listed as a Times Literary Supplement book of the year and received an honorable mention for the American Conference for Irish Studies Donnelly Prize for Books in History and Social Sciences.

The acclaim for Forgetful Remembrance, along with the honor of holding the Burns Chair, represents the latest milestone for Beiner, an Israeli native who earned his doctorate from the National University of Ireland-University College Dublin and was a Government of Ireland Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. His academic and research experiences in Ireland, marked by his use of folklore and other less conventional sources, shaped Beiner’s interest in how popular conceptions of national and local history are shaped not only by collective memory but also what he calls “social forgetting.” Although rooted in the Irish experience, Beiner finds his body of work is relevant in other historical and contemporary contexts, such as the controversy over Confederate monuments.

“When it comes to history, it can be argued that memory is the exception, and forgetting is the norm,” explained Beiner, who is teaching a course this fall on history and memory related to “Bloody Sunday,” the 1972 killings of protestors in Northern Ireland by the British Army. “Official history, that which is published or otherwise viewed as authoritative, is noteworthy not only for what it recalls but what it doesn’t—events and details that are considered ‘inconvenient’ are often relegated to oblivion. Other kinds of vernacular history persist, however—like oral history or folklore—in which such details can be shared and maintained informally.

“The outcome is therefore a complex form of social forgetting, consisting of public silence alongside private remembrance.”

“When it comes to history, it can be argued that memory is the exception, and forgetting is the norm. Official history, that which is published or otherwise viewed as authoritative, is noteworthy not only for what it recalls but what it doesn’t—events and details that are considered ‘inconvenient’ are often relegated to oblivion."
Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies Guy Beiner

In Forgetful Remembrance, Beiner uses the 1798 rebellion in Ireland’s Ulster province to illustrate the dynamics of social forgetting. The uprising, which sought to separate Ireland from British rule and also took place in locations that would later be part of the Irish Republic, was marked by an unusual alliance, called the Society of United Irishmen, between Catholic and Protestant rebels—notably Presbyterians who felt marginalized by the Anglican establishment; in addition, France’s revolutionary government mustered troops to send in support of the United Irishmen, although ultimately the French involvement proved to be far smaller than envisioned. The rebellion had its successes but was quashed within a short time, paving the way for the Act of Union that formally created the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland.

Over time, as political affiliations changed in Northern Ireland, Protestant communities, largely Unionist and loyalist, scrubbed away any official commemoration or record of their role in a republican rebellion—including the severe repression authorities exacted against the insurgent Presbyterians, especially in the Ulster counties of Antrim and Down, Beiner notes. Whereas the uprising was fervently and publicly recalled by nationalists in the south of Ireland, in the north the whole episode seemed to be “forgotten.”

Yet the memory of “Ninety-Eight” persisted in Northern Irish oral history, personal memoirs, historical fiction, and folklore, according to Beiner. Less conventional sources for such a “vernacular historiography” included a 19th-century local best-selling novel, Betsy Gray, that was set during the rebellion and drew in part on family stories and reminiscences the author had gathered from residents of County Down. Antiquarians documented oral traditions about the United Irishmen and recollections of the rebellion also appeared in folk songs and ballads such as “Henry Joy” and “General Munro.”

“Social forgetting, as I define it, is not total amnesia: It’s more akin to when a judge instructs a jury to disregard certain inadmissible testimony,” said Beiner. “Officially, the jurors are expected to discount that information, but since it’s been brought to their attention, in all likelihood they will still keep it in their minds. The memory is essentially retained under a façade of forgetting.”

Depending on specific circumstances and contexts, social remembering can be employed for political purposes, he said. The recent removal of Confederate and Francoist imagery from public spaces in, respectively, the U.S. and Spain are touted as a means to address injustices or heal longstanding divisions. Yet these acts of “de-commemorating” do not entirely efface such controversial memories, according to Beiner; paradoxically, the resulting attention keeps them alive.

Ireland serves as an excellent case study for social memory, Beiner said, partly because of its well-documented, rich collections of folklore, as he discovered early on in his academic career while doing research on the 1798 rebellion in the west of Ireland—which he subsequently published in an earlier prize-winning book, Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory.

During the course of his field interviews in the Castlebar area of County Mayo, Beiner incidentally stumbled on a more recent example of public forgetting/private remembrance, as residents told of Central European Jews seeking refuge from Nazism who had immigrated to the west of Ireland before the outbreak of World War II and set up successful businesses. The refugees did not remain in Ireland for very long after the war, yet lingering memories of this remarkable episode—barely mentioned in the histories of Ireland—live on in communities that hosted them.    

“What made this even more interesting was when the debate about immigration and refugees in Europe boiled over a few years ago, and one argument you heard was, ‘Ireland hasn’t had any prior experience with refugees,’” said Beiner. “But there are places in western Ireland that know this is not quite true, and insist on recalling positive experiences in which immigrants contributed significantly to the local economy and cultural life.”

This semester, Beiner is teaching a seminar, Commemoration Fever: Heritage, Remembrance, and Forgetting in Contemporary Ireland, and will present the annual Burns Visiting Scholar Lecture on February 18. 

Sean Smith | University Communications | February 2020