By Katerina Karakatsanis
Why does Harakas, a Greek theologian, describe the Ottoman invasion as “etched in my psyche” when he was born hundreds of years after this event? Why does James McClean, a Derry footballer for West Brom, refuse to wear the poppy even though the Northern Ireland he knows has been largely peaceful and relatively non-violent?
What is Postmemory?
One theory is that of postmemory. Marianne Hirsch has developed this concept, largely by looking at the impact of photographs and writings after the Holocaust, as a way to understand the lasting effects after the violence ends. She compares the idea of postmemory to other long-lasting concepts such as “postcolonialism”(Hirsch 2012:5).This means that although generations are born after violent or traumatic events, they are still born into societies that may actively remember and be deeply impacted by the past. The environment in which children learn are thus shaped in a particular way which means that the traumatic events that impacted the older generation directly also impact them in a new way. Hirsch believes that because there are reminders of the past, in the form of narratives and images, the process of inter-generation memory passes amongst generations. Further, postmemory is not the direct transfer of memories but rather a “contradiction” (Hirsch 2008: 106) where memory is passed down, but in a distinct and unique way.
The Postmemory Generation?
This theory helps us understand the ‘peace generation’ that amongst the scars of the past, tries to overcome the divisions in society. Dr. Craig Larkin, in his application of postmemory in the context of Beirut, argues that history is re-written in communities that “tend to valorise heroic acts, erase family involvement and infuse past injustices into present contexts of divisions and mistrust.” ( Larkin 2012: 183) In Derry~Londonderry many students will tell you that the past is over and their concerns are largely the same as any other teenager. And, to an extent, this is true. The new generation in Northern Ireland co-exists, breaks down divisions and questions the past on a daily basis. But they are not the same as every other child growing up in Manchester or Amsterdam. Their society, with remaining paramilitary organisations, divided school systems, and distinct, separate cultures are unique. That is not to say that other non-conflict societies are perfect. Class systems, racial divisions and other lasting issues still exist elsewhere- as the USA clearly exemplifies. But to disregard the past in Northern Ireland is also problematic.
Some children are born into families that lost family members and find it impossible to substitute hatred for forgiveness. Others are from families that were not impacted to a large extent by the Troubles and may find it easier to move on. The next generation is however still impacted by the narratives, images and consequences of the past and with this information they form their own opinions. This is why James McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy cannot merely be seen in the context of a binary respect or disrespect for British soldiers, especially as Irish Nationalists have died for the crown as well. Further, the debate of McClean’s poppy-less football jerseys cannot continue be a source of news year after year in an English context. It is not an issue born in an English context but of the effects of postmemory in a community in the Creggan. Some may say that McClean’s emphasis on Bloody Sunday is an over-used and over-emphasised example. And yet, for many the narratives and physical reminders of this event “cannot be easily buried, erased, or forgotten but instead are reworked and renegotiated” (Larkin 2010: 618). In this context, McClean demonstrates that he is living in a “post” conflict environment where a symbol such as the poppy cannot be understood merely as a proud remembrance of the sacrifice of soldiers, or even as an empty badge worn on a jersey because it is the done thing. The past continues to impact the thoughts and memories of the new generation in unique ways.
And this means…?
With this example in mind, Hirsch’s concept provides insight into understanding the post-conflict generation. We actively remember the past in many different ways – stories, museums, art and so on. It is thus crucial that we remember that the past is more complex than the end date of a period or event in a history book. There are lasting effects that are complex and diverse that will continue to impact the present as well as the future.
Northern Ireland is usually regarded as a model for moving on after a conflict. Practitioners who worked in Northern Ireland often move on to solving the current conflicts of the day, such as Israel/Palestine, with these credentials. Even governments dealing with conflict send delegations to Northern Ireland to meet with consociational ministries who they can exchange peacebuilding resources with. Unfortunately, however, Northern Ireland is not perfect. The older generation is still fighting over the same old issues, but what is more worrying is that some youth carry similar prejudices and continue to re-create divisions in society. It is unclear how Northern Ireland will address its elephants in the room. The burden to uncover the difficult past may be an obstacle the new generation must face, or continuing to mention these events may risk setting the Peace Process back. As a result, it is vital for more research to investigate how to deal with the different speeds society, and as a result youth, are able to overcome the past conflict. Regardless, Northern Irish youth, like many others born into a world where conflict precedes them, are born into a postmemory environment, in which the past affects them, but ultimately they will need to decide the future. For the new generation, like James McClean, resolving issues like Bloody Sunday may help identify particular people at fault, so that Northern Irish youth in the future blame specific individuals for this event, and not an entire nation.
Harakas, Stanley S. Orthodox Christian Beliefs: Real Answers to Real Questions from Real People. Minneapolis, Minn.: Light & Life Pub., 2002.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory. Poetics Today, 29:1. 2008.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Larkin, Craig. Beyond the War? The Lebanese Postmemory Experience. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42:4. 2010. 615- 638.
Larkin, Craig. Memory and Conflict in Lebanon: Remembering and Forgetting the past. London: Routledge, 2012.
“Latest News.” Israel and Northern Ireland: Sharing Peacebuilding Experiences : Interpeace. June 11, 2013. Accessed November 10, 2015. http://www.interpeace.org/2013/06/israel-and-northern-ireland-sharing-peacebuilding-experiences/
“Stormont Crisis: How the Story Unfolded.” BBC News. October 19, 2015. Accessed November 10, 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-34176740
“James McClean Explains Why He Chooses Not to Wear Remembrance Day Poppy on West Brom Shirt.” The Independent. October 31, 2015. Accessed November 10, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/james-mcclean-explains-why-he-refuses-to-wear-remembrance-day-poppy-on-west-brom-shirt-a6716081.html
  Harakas, Stanley S. Orthodox Christian Beliefs: Real Answers to Real Questions from Real People. Minneapolis, Minn.: Light & Life Pub., 2002. 71.
 Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. 5.
 Larkin, Craig. Memory and Conflict in Lebanon: Remembering and Forgetting the past. London: Routledge, 2012.183.
(Photos are author’s own)