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(photo credit: Courtesy)
What is the place of social and collective memory in history books? How do oral history and oral traditions fit into the official versions of history? Israeli historian Guy Beiner addresses this question in his newly published Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory (University of Wisconsin Press), which has just won the 2007 Ratcliffe Prize for "an important contribution by an individual to the study of Folklore or Folk Life in Great Britain and Ireland."
Beiner, a lecturer in history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is the only scholar in Israel specializing in Ireland. Remembering the Year of the French, written during Beiner's years in Ireland as a research fellow at Trinity College and University College Dublin, deals with the failed French invasion of western Ireland in 1798. The book examines the complex connections between historical events and the folkloric representations of those events.
"Some people regard oral history as 'the dustbin of history', insisting that it isn't real history," states Beiner. But, he maintains, it's not only the archives that can reconstruct the past. Oral history - in other words, social memory - "expands our horizon of history: it is not only what happened, but what people thought happened, and what people remembered afterward and said happened. I believe that this is also part of history," says Beiner. The book examines how communities in a region of Ireland remembered and commemorated into the late 20th century a dramatic episode that took place in the late 18th century.
It's intriguing that an Israeli scholar would win such a prestigious prize in Irish folklore - an area so remote from his undergraduate studies at Tel Aviv University. "When I finished my history degree I was particularly interested in popular culture and oral narratives and I realized that Ireland is a reservoir of folklore.
Beiner is aware of the irony in a young Israeli historian coming over to Ireland and turning Irish history on its head, practically saying "what you're doing is interesting but let's look at your past in a completely different way." But since beginning his work in Ireland, historians in other countries have begun doing similar work. "The history of memory has begun to take hold. It will be interesting to see how this is accepted," he muses.
Beiner speaks English without a trace of an Israeli accent, but with a slight Irish brogue. "I used to be quite a chameleon in adopting different accents, like Zelig's multiple personalities in the Woody Allen movie," jokes Beiner. He explains that his accent is "fairly generic," there being many Irish accents, depending on region and class. That non-specific accent was a help, he says, in conducting his oral history interviews "The people I was interviewing could relate to me, but I wasn't completely foreign, they couldn't pin me down as being local."
This is a distinct advantage, he says, in the current field work he's doing for a book on memory and forgetting in Northern Ireland, where he doesn't want to be identified as belonging to one side or the other.
Throughout his research and field work, Beiner made it clear that he is Israeli. At one point, this fact elicited what he found a surprising response. In some communities in western Ireland where he was conducting interviews, people would make enigmatic comments like "Guy, we'll never forget what your people did for us here," or "your people put bread on people's tables here when they were starving."
He was mystified by the reference, until he uncovered by chance the strange story - missing from the historical accounts - of Jewish refugees who arrived in western Ireland from central Europe on the eve of the Holocaust.
Although Ireland had a vigorous policy not to let Jewish refugees into the country (the Irish ambassador in Berlin was pro-Nazi), somehow a group of Jewish entrepreneurs managed to escape and get special visas to set up industries in the west of Ireland. "Ireland was experiencing its own economic crisis and looking to modernize itself. The Jewish industrialists were trying to get out and save themselves, while Ireland was looking to attract investments." The Jews managed to bring over skilled people, together with their families, and established factories that manufactured hats and hat trimmings. It became the biggest industry in the poor, rural area of western Ireland. One factory even manufactured the famous Stetson cowboy hats. Their success was also the community's success, since the factories provided desperately needed employment.
But soon after the war, these Jewish migrants picked up and left, going on to other countries. "They left completely. They even took their dead with them, the graves have disappeared and there is no Jewish community there," marvels Beiner. "So here you have a remarkable case in the history of memory: on the ground, people remember; but officially there's no remembrance."
At Ben-Gurion University Beiner teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in modern European history, into which he intends to introduce a critical appreciation of oral history. "This multi-ethnic society is a great place to interview family and friends. Without leaving Israel, students can collect oral histories from all over the world," he says. "We should re-examine the usefulness of oral history and explore new ways in which memory can complement conventional written history."