Shining a light on the past secures the future

A history festival featuring singers and actors? Why not, says Jonathan deBurca Butler

“If you know your history, you would know where you’re coming from.” — Bob Marley, Buffalo Soldier

LAST year, there was much controversy over discussions on the merits of history as a mandatory Junior Certificate subject.

Academics and teachers were aghast at the possibility of it becoming optional. Many of them believe, like Marley, that without history there can be no informed going forward. Without history, the future has no context and we are destined to repeat mistakes. The words ‘David McWilliams’, ‘Japan’ and ‘property bubble’ are probably sufficient to illustrate the point.

The coordinator and organiser of The History Festival of Ireland is unapologetically militant in his aims for the event.

“It is 100% to get more people interested in history,” says Turtle Bunbury. “And not just to broaden interest but also people’s understanding, because there’s so much spoon-fed baloney about it.”

Now in its second year, the festival will take place in Duckett’s Grove in County Carlow. The setting could not be better; an old ruined castle on top of a hill guarded by lordly oaks and surrounded by fields.

“It’s a particularly interesting place,” says Turtle of the imposing ruin. “It was basically a Georgian house which was turned into this fantastic fairytale castle in the 1820’s. They stuck turrets and towers on it and made it gothic. It’s straight out of a Brothers Grimm movie.”

The event takes place this weekend and will feature 50 speakers and actors from Ireland and abroad in four venues within the grounds of Duckett’s Grove.

According to Turtle, this year’s festival has a “certain showbiz side to it”, and without doubt the top draw for younger attendees will be Turtle’s interview with Nicky Byrne from Westlife. For the last few months Turtle and his team have been looking into Byrne’s family history and the results promise to be intriguing.

Stage shows include musical performances from actors Gerry Stembridge and Paddy Cullivan, while Mary Kenny has scripted the play Allegiance: Michael Collins v Winston Churchill. This intriguing piece dramatises what turned out to be an allegedly boozy meeting between these two powerhouses of history at the time of the Treaty negotiations in London.

As expected, much of the festival will centre on debate and argument; and there is plenty to savour. A debate on The Great Famine involving among others Tommy Graham of History Ireland magazine, Conor McNamara of St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and artist Robert Ballagh, can be expected to be animated, while Turtle believes that a debate on Elizabethan espionage between former head of History at Trinity College Dublin Ciaran Brady and author John Cooper will draw the crowds.

Turtle has also decided to look at the Irish abroad.

“There’s definitely a slight Gathering-type theme,” says Turtle. “We have a talk on the American Civil War in which over 200,000 Irish people served and whether it made much impact here. Conversely, we have the Easter Rising and the American reaction to that; how that changed our relationship with America. That’ll touch on everything from Eddie O’Reilly and Erskine Childers who were married to rich American heiresses, through to Kevin Barry and the outcry in America when he was executed.”

With so many academics on show, Turtle is aware that there is a slight risk of an ego orgy.

“We’re hoping to get some more audience participation,” says Turtle with a laugh. “There’s a danger when you get so many academics together that the audience might get lost and we don’t want to that. So we have some very good chairpersons in this year who are going to keep the speakers on track but are also going to allow more time for the audience to pitch in.”

For Turtle access to and immersion in history is the central tenet of the festival.

“One thing that’s of particular interest to me is a talk that’s being given called A Future for our Past,” says Turtle. “It’s going to look at how we can teach history from here on in. There’s all this new media; I run a Facebook page called Wistorical which has 7,000 followers and it’s amazing to be able to get people interested in history through these new media. You need to hear people discussing it and arguing over it and you need to hear both sides. And I think we need to understand that history is a hell of a lot more complicated than we think. It’s also a hell of a lot more interesting than we think.”

Undoubtedly Bob Marley would agree.

*The History Festival of Ireland takes place in Duckett’s Grove, Carlow, this weekend. See www.thehistoryfestivalofireland.com/

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