Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

The Decline and Rebirth of "Folk Memory": Remembering "The Year of the French" in the Late Twentieth Century *

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

The Decline and Rebirth of "Folk Memory": Remembering "The Year of the French" in the Late Twentieth Century *

Article excerpt

THE study of folklore has been construed as the documentation of a vanishing subject. This "poetics of disappearance," (1) which echoes the classic studies in social anthropology, perpetuates a nebulous concept of the final hour of "authentic" oral tradition before "folk memory" is irretrievably swept away by modernization. There is a long legacy of bemoaning the end of tradition, and this trope resonates through the writings of Irish folklorists, from the pioneers of the late eighteenth century into the twentieth century, (2) and it is still apparent in the writings of contemporary ethnographers. (3) In a comparative context there is an influential body of historical literature which maintains that throughout Europe a once vibrant "living" peasant tradition passed away at the turn of the nineteenth century (often dated between 1870 and 1914). To use the terms of Pierre Nora, the milieux de memoire, or "settings in which memory is a real part of everyday experience," were supposedly replaced with artificially constructed lieux de memoire (translated into English as "realms of memory"), which are repositories of *dead" memory that are founded on "invented traditions'--to use a term popularized by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. (4) Since the collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-70) were still documenting "living" oral traditions into the mid-twentieth century, it may appear that Ireland suffered from retarded sociocultural development, and that modernity was slow in replacing the last vestiges of tradition there. Yet studies of Irish popular culture reveal that, rather than constituting an irreconcilable dichotomy, features of "traditional" and "modern" societies have regularly coexisted. (5) This realization ultimately undermines the validity of linear developmental models.

"Folk memory," or to use a more suitable term developed in interdisciplinary studies--"social memory" (6)--also has a history, which invariably shows that traditions were continually reinvented and regenerated through interactions with various cultural agents. Nonetheless, there is a general understanding that "television killed conversation," or to be more precise, that rapid economic development, the growing influences of globalization, and the introduction of high-technology communications and mass media have instigated the demise of the collective historical memory cultivated by traditional oral culture. According to this line of argument, the boom of heritage centers and summer schools throughout the island is more about the peddling of "kitsch" than about facilitating a meaningful sense of continuity with the past. Has "folk memory" finally been laid to rest, or is it once again being recycled into new forms of representation? With this question in mind, this article presents a case study of provincial social remembrance in order to follow its mutations in the late twentieth century.

The French invasion of Connacht and the north midlands in the late summer of r798 and the local rebellion that it sparked were vividly recalled in folk history. It lasted only a month, starting with the landing of a small French expeditionary force at the village of Kilcummin by Killala Bay in County Mayo (22 August), reaching its apex with the rebel victory at "The Races of Castlebar" (27 August), and culminating with the defeat of the Franco-Irish army near the village of Ballinamuck in North Longford (8 September) and the retaking of Killala (23 September). But it was remembered popularly as Bliain na bhFrancach, or "The Year of the French." This episode stands out in the larger picture of "Ninety-Eight," the term through which Irish national historical consciousness has familiarly labeled the 1798 Rebellion. In the 1930s hundreds of oral traditions about "The Year of the French" were documented by the collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission and by pupils who participated in the 1937-38 Schools Scheme, which coordinated the collection of folklore in national schools throughout the Irish Free State. …

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