There is a chilling novel entitled Disgrace, written by J.M. Coetzee (Coetzee JM, Disgrace, Penguin Books, 1999), which is set in post-apartheid South Africa. The book centres on David Lurie, a white one time professor of literature whose life has, for a variety of reasons, undergone significant disruption. He has gone to live with his daughter, who was living alone while running a small-holding in the country.

In the story a group of black South Africans attacked both of them, seriously injuring him and raping her. In a subsequent conversation with her father, the daughter said the following

“It was done with such personal hatred: that’s what stunned me –  why did they hate me so? I had never set eyes on them.”

To which the father responded:  “It was history speaking through them – a history of wrong – It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t – it came down from the ancestors.” (pg 56)

Why did they hate me so? I never set eyes on them.
It was history speaking through them –  it came down from the ancestors.

A lot has come down to us from ‘the ancestors’ – some of it good and some of it toxic. We remember selected parts of it which reinforce the contested narratives within which we define ourselves.

When the centenary of the 1798 rebellion took place it is said that the remembering turned into a one sided  ‘Holy Mother Ireland’ celebration which excluded the significant part played by Presbyterians and other protestants in that rebellion. One hundred years further on, at the 200th anniversary in 1998, distinguished historians had got a hold of the material in time for it to be accurately, inclusively and properly remembered.

In 18 months from now, we will enter a ‘decade of remembering’ concerned with what happened 100 years ago, which is maybe a long enough gap in time in which to deal with the past. The ten years from 2012 on, will see the centenaries of major events in our history, which have affected us all; the Ulster Covenant, the Battle of the Somme, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the Treaty and the Civil War and the Government of Ireland Act; accounts of which have come down to us from the ancestors. Some of our grandparents were involved.
The opportunity exists for all of us to have a look at the material surrounding these events so that we might understand why people did what they did. It would be good if we could do it together. We might or might not agree with what the heroes and the villains did, but if we had some understanding of why people did what they did, it might prevent what has come down from the ancestors being toxic fuel for more impersonal violence. Let’s hope the historians are already busy so that the material doesn’t fall into the hands of people with axes to grind, pikes to sharpen, and elections to win.

John Dunlop.

Rev Dr John Dunlop is a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.