MONUMENTS and memorials form an important part of the fabric of any society, and have an important part to play in telling the story of the nations or the communities concerned.
The current debate about some memorials has brought strong emotions to the fore.
History is never simple, and to treat it as such is to promote a naïve and immature view which often speaks more about those demanding removal of monuments than it does anything else.
Deciding to assemble a mob and bring down a statue (while the forces of law and order watch on, which is another matter), is not about democratic debate. It is about determining that no other opinions count. This is a fascist approach to history and if it is allowed, then no doubt the list of offending monuments will extend much beyond any connections to the slave trade.
Slavery was – of course – wrong. It was of its time and its time has thankfully passed in the western world.
Dismantling the history of the nation and seeking to demonize is, one suspects, part of a much bigger picture fed by shadowy groups which could never achieve their aims democratically and now seek other means. Slavery is just one convenient peg to try and hang their activities on.
But even if it were not so, the logic of the situation is beyond belief. The logical extension of criticism of empire is to ask Italy to remove the colosseum in Rome because of its connections to slavery and indeed the killing of Christians and slaves there.
We might as well demand the demolition of the pyramids in Egypt in order to expunge the reminders of slave labour there. And our present focus on slavery in Europe and America neglects the historical plight of slaves in the middle east.
The monuments which we see in our everyday lives or holiday visits are something we view subjectively. We may not like all of them or what they represent in our view, but clearly others do like them and what they represent.
The threat to the statue of Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement, on the spurious basis that he was a Nazi sympathiser, resulted in an uproar in Poole, where thousands of people signed a petition to retain the statue.
The local council, however, said that it would be removed “so that we can properly involve all relevant communities and groups in discussions about its future, including whether a more educational presentation of his life in a different setting might be more appropriate”.
The question as to how relevant some groups might be in the context of a local statue does arise, since as we know in Northern Ireland, some people can travel considerable distances to be offended.
Despite the claim by some Labour activists that the Scout founder was a Nazi sympathiser, historian Dr. Andrew Norman told the BBC that he had wanted to introduce the Scout movement to Germany but ended up being put on a Nazi death list pending the invasion of Britain because “the Germans suspected he was using scouts as spies.”
MP Tobias Ellwood, hit the nail on the head when he tweeted: ““Few historical figures comply with 21st C values. Simply expunging past connections from sight won’t correct wrongs or help us better learn from our past.”
It is fair to say that without progression of history, we would not be the democratic, multi-cultural society which we are today.
The issue of contention over memorials is not new in Irish history, of course.
One of the most famous memorials to be ‘removed’ in that history was probably the Boyne Obelisk, which was erected in 1736 to commemorate the famous battle of 1690. The memorial was located close to where William III crossed the river and had four panels commemorating the victory and also the Duke of Schomberg, who had been killed on the other side of the river.
In the 1890s the memorial was in some disrepair and a fund was established by Colonel Codlington of Oldbridge and Mr. Balfour of Townley Hall, who were seeking subscriptions to raise £100 towards repairs.
However, as the Home Rule debate intensified in Ireland, the Boyne Obelisk became a subject of some debate, with some wanting it removed.
The Irish nationalist antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger, a driving force in the Gaelic League and Irish language revival in Belfast and County Antrim, responded to this debate in 1919 with a measured and well-argued article in the Irish Independent.
He accepted that there was an undesirable feature to the memorial, which was the wording on the plaque referring to James II at the head of “a popish army” – which was not the language Bigger would have preferred.
But overall, Francis Joseph Bigger believed that the monument had a place on the landscape just as the battle it commemorated had a place in Irish history.
“To take down the Boyne obelisk and remove it to a more northern county would not only be a bad policy at the present juncture of our national life, but it would denude the monument of its associations and value, varied as those qualifications are. Standing where it does it tells of a momentous battle lost and won, and, what is even more, it speaks forth in its inscription the spirit of those who raised at well-nigh fifty years after the memorable event,” Bigger said.
He made clear he believed it belonged to a bygone era when it was raised ‘in pride and arrogance’ but said “Let it remain as a monument of such an age.”
“Of course it is another question whether the obelisk could be removed or not as suggested. It was raised and paid for by public subscription in the year 1736, and is, therefore, a public monument,” he added.
This comment underlies the fact that in 1919 the obelisk was offered by the landowner for sale to the Tyrone War Memorial Committee, the suggestion being that it would be used as a County memorial to those soldiers from Tyrone lost in the First World War. This was not taken up at the time.
Within a few years the prospect of the monument being moved was taken off the agenda.
The practicalities ceased to have relevance after it was blown up in 1923 by around forty armed men. Rumours suggested the IRA were responsible, which was denied, and other suggestions remain that the Irish Army may have practised their demolition skills and resolved the ongoing debate.
It is not clear what Bigger thought of this, but he could hardly have approved.
The Larne Times in June 1923 remarked in relation to the explosion; “We can only guess at the motives which prompted the destruction of this landmark on the Boyne. It was in all probability hatred, not so much of King William—for all the “hate” the world to-day could not harm him—as it was hatred of all that he stood for and all that his memory still means to hundreds of thousands of Northern Irishmen. Some Southern people are very anxious to get the North into the Free State. Do they for a moment suppose that insult and outrage to the memory of a man who is specially venerated in Ulster will hasten that day? It is not much the destruction of the material substance that is significant in this case—it is the spirit that lay behind it,” the paper said.
The irony of trying to encourage Ulster Protestants into a state where one of their most cherished landmarks was wiped away could not have been starker.
Irony often keeps company with history, and there is a final twist in this case.
Francis Joseph Bigger, an outstanding figure in Ulster cultural life, died in 1926 and was buried at Mallusk cemetery in County Antrim, where his gravestone contained an inscription in Irish.
Ironically, in 1971 loyalist paramilitaries took exception to the use of Irish and the stone was, like the Boyne Obelisk, blown up and toppled.
It is a salutatory reminder that you cannot change history and in seeking to deny it we engage in a collective self-harming which helps impoverish society as a whole.