Conflicting Histories

25 Feb

The taxi pulled to a stop on the side of the road, just across the street from what we’d come to see. Without looking toward where he was pointing, the driver gestured disdainfully to the left with his thumb.

“There it is,” he said with resignation. “That’s the site of the slaughter.”

Site of a slaughter? Didn’t much look like one. When we glanced through the window to our left, we saw lush, green, pleasant-looking parklands stretching off into the distance.

The driver’s resigned tone? Well, there was little chance we were the first tourists to hop in his taxi and ask to be taken to this place. Given his job, it was somewhere he likely visited several times a week.

His disdain? Simple. We had indeed stopped right across the street from the site of a slaughter.

The slaughter, though, had taken place more than three centuries before a couple of Canadian tourists pulled up for a look.

We were just outside Drogheda, on the east coast of the Republic of Ireland, about 50 kilometres north of Dublin. And we were looking out at the place where William of Orange defeated James II – the last Catholic king to reign over England, Scotland and Ireland – in the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690.

More than three hundred years later, of course, the reverberations of that one-day battle are still felt throughout the Emerald Isle.

For many Irish Catholics such as our taxi driver, the Boyne battlefield is a place of tragic defeat representing the conquest of a culture.

Of course, one man’s slaughter is another man’s glorious victory. For many Irish Protestants, especially those in Northern Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne is the definitive triumphal moment in their cultural history, It is commemorated every July during the so-called “marching season”, when for many years celebratory Orangemen parades often led to sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants.

In fact, our visit to the Battle of the Boyne site happened to take place during one such July back in the early 1990s, before a measure of peace came to Northern Ireland.

Everywhere we went in the Republic of Ireland, we’d run into Catholic visitors from the North, who’d timed summer trips south to avoid being unsafe at home during the marching season.

They say military history is written by the victors, but the truth is more complicated than that. What usually happens is that both the victors and the vanquished write conflicting histories, with neither side countenancing the other’s version of the historical truth.

So in Ireland, you have the centuries-old competing views of the Battle of the Boyne. In the Middle East, Israelis call the celebration of their country’s formative military triumph “Yom Haatzmaut” – Independence Day – while Palestinians call the exact same event “El-Nakba”: the Catastrophe.

Closer to home, historical narratives continue to collide over one of our own country’s formative battles – the one that took place on the Plains of Abraham in September, 1759, when the British conquered Quebec City on their way to defeating the French in North America.

Many of the cultural and linguistic divisions that define Canada to this day lie in the outcome and effects of that short battle.

It’s big-time important history.

But plans to re-enact the Plains of Abraham battle – in commemoration of its 250th anniversary this year – were cancelled after some marginal Quebec secessionist groups threatened violent disruptions.

Many English Canadians could not understand the fuss. One editorialist in the Montreal Gazette wrote that in canceling the re-enactment, the National Battlefields Commission had “cravenly surrendered the field”.

But the re-enactment plans were widely reviled among francophone Quebeckers of all political stripes.

As columnist Lysiane Gagnon wrote in the Globe and Mail:

“ … there is absolutely no reason why the inhabitants of the only predominantly French-speaking society left in North America should celebrate the battle that their ancestors lost and that marked the end of French expansion on the continent… The Battle of the Plains of Abraham still has a strong emotional echo in Quebec. It is the day of la Conquête (the Conquest), which resonates through many interpretations of history and is at the root of Quebec nationalism.”

A famous saying: Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

True enough. But if you want to learn from the past, and use that knowledge to best progress into the future, it’s also important to recognize there are two – or more – sides to every history.


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