OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARemembering our hidden and shared history
by Sophie AUMAILLEY for Northern Ireland Foundation
10 September 2016

Brian Donovan, a genealogical expert working for Eneclann and Findmypast, on a Saturday afternoon presented a family history workshop at the Ulster Museum.

His lesson displayed records about soldiers and rebels of Ireland during the First World War and the 1920s. His approach was genealogical, focusing on what historical records can tell us about our past.

What was most striking was to feel how contentious historical records can be in a divided society.

The presentation completed an exhibition at the Ulster Museum about the remembrance of the First World War and Easter Rising events.

The uniqueness of the exhibition is the interwoven stories of men and women from both sides.

For example, one of the presented videos noted that many men from opposing sides in the Irish civil war were in fact fighting in the same battalion or for the same army during the First World War.

While men from the Shankill were significantly represented and killed in France (over 3,000), we can observe than 600 men from the Falls also died during the war.

As Brian explained, the impact of the First World War on the island has been extraordinary, with over 50,000 men killed, most from Northern Ireland.

Brian warned about the tendency to ignore genealogical studies in contentious times, even though they give an insight of history and can help to develop historical explanations.

For example, he described how police records of victims’ statements of an immediate complaint will include a narrative of preceding grievances of a hundred years.

Records of that time also show the complexity of reality. Brian told an anecdote where an Irish rebel was condemned for trying to buy a gun from a British soldier, a common practice at that time.

The workshop underlined the intricate and interwoven history of the Irish island.

In his conclusion, Brian highlighted the importance of “finding out about the past, about our ancestors, regardless what they did or did not do”.

During the Questions and Answer session, participants raised the difficulty for families to accept that part of their family’s history can be linked with the British Army.

Families are not always willing or prepared to accept that historical records prove that they have relatives, who fought on both sides.

Yet South Belfast MLA Claire Hanna recently visited the grave of a relative in France, and emphasised that forgetfulness should now be replaced by remembrance of all soldiers’ sacrifices.

What the family history workshop finally showed was the unexpected scope for shared history and the importance of remembering it.

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