The thing about History is that it never stays still. It is always expanding and being added to. Those of us interested in 1916 saw how the history books were expanded last year with a greater emphasis on women’s experience of the Rising and the first exploration of all of the children who were killed. The history of the “Famine” is told in an entirely different way now, to even twenty years ago with a far greater understanding of the experience of tenant farmers and those who had to resort to the workhouses, even including what “the soup” consisted of.
In recent years we have witnessed how the story of colonialism has expanded way past famous “victories” or battles to now begin to make visible the experience of those enslaved, tortured and occupied.
It has not meant that the original history books were torn up, it means that they have been added to, with extra dimension and perspective. That means that there are more sources for future history scholars and citizens to begin to interrogate what actually happened in any time period and to form an analysis of that, what was good, what was bad and what lessons we in our modern era might learn.
Our community and families affected by state violations have been accused of trying to “rewrite history”, as though that were the crime, rather than the violations they request scrutiny for.
Many of us watched the “Massacre at Ballymurphy” last weekend, bringing the detail of the crimes of August 1971 into the homes of Irish and British families, most of whom had never heard what horror had unfolded as the British army deliberately targeted and shot dead civilians with impunity.
In cinemas across our islands people are flocking to see “Unquiet Graves”, the unsettling and groundbreaking film by Sean Murray on the Glennane Gang and the extent of state collusion in Mid-Ulster.
Both films give voice to the experience of families who have been denied their place in history or in the public record as lies were told when their loved ones were killed by the same forces responsible for the killings. Lies that were rubber stamped and became the official record.
Because that is how state impunity works. Kill the person. Take away their right to fair and effective investigation. Tell lies to give cover to the lack of investigation. Rubber stamp the lie in the official record.
So, the families resort to unofficial records. They tell their story, again and again, until an NGO records them, a local newspaper puts their story on their front page, some few politicians begin to ask questions, a bit more media pays attention and then the legal system becomes legally compliant, recognises systemic failings in the past and offers a pathway to re-examination. And then new findings are possible.
History is then expanded to include the actual experience of violation and culpability instead of the lie. And families have to fight tooth and nail every single step of the way for that.
And then the few are discomforted – those for whom the lie was convenient and who are satisfied that history remains singular and closed.
They have had their day. History is being expanded. Yes it is being rewritten and we owe the families who are ensuring that happens a great debt.