This weekend was in a word bleak. The confirmation that the mass grave in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home dated to the mid 20th century confirmed our worst fears about these institutions. This has lead to intense debate around life and sadly death rates in other similar institutions. It is inevitable that there will be further investigations where historians will play a central role, although their exact function seems to be debatable.
In the midst this debate this 2014 clip of Ireland’s most well known historian Diarmait Ferriter emerged
Diarmaid Ferriter 2014
— Newsworthy_ie (@newsworthy_ie) March 5, 2017
The full interview is here and like any edited clip, Ferriter is to an extent, taken out of context. He could argue unfairly even. Most criticism has focused on one sentence. After warning how we should not rush into definitive declarations he did exactly that by saying
‘This erroneous assertion that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That is not true’.
Recent events disprove this claim, stated as fact in the interview. He clearly had no basis for saying this in 2014. However some of his later comments in that same interview are more problematic. At 14-35 minutes, the interviewer raised the issue of blame in relation to wider abuse in similar institutions and Ferriter replied
‘Historians…are not and should not be in the blame game’
‘Our function as historians is to try and uncover… the evidence that is there so when it comes to blame, we need to be much more aware of the need to establish what happened as opposed to trying to attach blame’.
While it goes without saying historians should not set out with the intention to blame someone, Ferriter seems to believe historians should not blame full stop. This should be left to someone else. Given most if not all directly involved in the running of Tuam are now dead, if historians are not willing to apportion blame (if the evidence is there) who will?
Furthermore historians frequently attach blame. Much of the history of the Second World War focuses on precisely this question – who was to blame. Therefore Ferriter’s reasons for taking this approach are difficult to understand. However this attitude is not isolated – it has deep roots in Irish historiography. Coilin Toibin in his 1998 essay Erasures flagged this in relation to another controversial topic – the Great Famine.
Irish historians, on the whole, do not become emotional about the Famine. Like historians elsewhere, they are happier to describe and analyse than blame or use emotional language or emotional quotations.
Toibin went on to ask about the Famine
Why should we remain cool and dispassionate and oddly distant from the events of 150 years ago?
The reasons why historians avoided blame around the Great Famine were tied up in part at least in ‘The Troubles’. Joseph Lee in ‘The Famine as History’ in the book Famine 150 explained it in the following terms
‘Scholars who feared that their research might provide ammunition for IRA interpretations of Irish history were naturally enough particularly loath to risk furnishing potential support for policies they detested’.
Why a similar reticence to blame persists around a topic like Tuam is unclear. Ferriter’s attitudes I suspect have more to do with ingrained methodology than political concerns. He certainly cannot be dismissed as someone seeking to defend the Catholic Church or thwart investigation – he has published widely on institutional abuse in Ireland. Whatever the reasons it is not a useful approach and should not be allowed to shape historical investigations into Tuam.
In the coming months and years Irish historians will play a central role in not only understanding what happened in Tuam but also in other similar institutions across the island. A ‘blameless history’ in relation to this will prove problematic. An integral aspect of understanding what happened at Tuam will precisely need to focus on who was to blame.
While this may be impossible to establish given the lack of sources, historians should be open to apportioning blame if the evidence is there.
If historians don’t who will?