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By Mark Noll


In the Names of the Fathers

Imagine a festive rally staged by the Daughters of the American Revolution--held annually on the seventeenth of October to commemorate the American defeat of the British at Saratoga in the year 1777--and featuring brass bands, colorful displays of the American flag, and thousands of paraders marching through Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and other Canadian cities where the memory still lingers about who fought whom for what in the American Revolution.

Or imagine--in a sadly much less far-fetched example--that you lived somewhere near a border between Serbs and Croats or Serbs and Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia and that you knew you and your family might today be menaced by someone whose parents had been killed by "your folk" during World War II (or whose grandparents to the sixth generation removed had been cast off their land by "your folk").

If you can imagine both situations--the flaunting of partisan victory square in the face of the defeated or the threat of ethnic violence beclouding every day--and if you can put yourself in a frame of mind in which the effects of history really and truly matter, then you have come to Northern Ireland. Or at least you have come to what Northern Ireland has been for much of its population for much of the last four centuries.

As set out succinctly, though not for the first time, in Michael Hughes's "Ireland Divided: The Roots of the Modern Irish Problem," a helpful combination of interpretation and documents, the tension between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland (or "Protestant" and "Catholic" in a rough simplification) could not exist apart from an "obsession with history." This obsession, as Hughes phrases it, has led to parallel, but antithetical, "myths by which each defines itself and its position regarding the other." One of the myths goes like this:

The Nationalists believe that they are the heirs of the original inhabitants of Northern Ireland. … Even after the decline of the Irish language as a consequence ...

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