The Formation of Modern Irish Memory, c.1740–1914
The long nineteenth century saw the formation of modern Irish memory, although the nature of its novelty is open to debate, as it maintained a continuous dialogue with its traditional roots. A preliminary period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century has been identified by Joep Leerssen – following the German school of history of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte) pioneered by Reinhart Koselleck – as a Sattelzeit, which accommodated the Anglicisation and modernisation of what had formerly been a predominantly Gaelic society. In particular, antiquarian fascination with the distant past played a key role in re-adapting native bodies of knowledge for Anglo-Irish readerships, whether in the music collecting of Edward Bunting, the song translations of Charlotte Brooke or the writings of Samuel Ferguson, to name but a few. This concept of cultural transition is useful for understanding the changes in memorial practices, which came about through reinvention, rather than simple invention and imposition from above, of Irish traditions.
A record of remembrance in the countryside at the time of the transformation was captured between 1824 and 1842 by the Ordnance Survey, which, under the supervision of the noted antiquarian George Petrie, sent out fieldworkers, among them the illustrious Gaelic scholars John O'Donovan and Eugene O'Curry, to compile detailed memoirs of local customs, originally designed as supplements for the topographical maps. Characteristically, the agents of change also engaged in documentation and preservation of traditional memory. Whereas the loss of Irish language has been poignantly decried by Alan Titley as ‘the Great Forgetting’, the modernisation of Ireland was not a straightforward linear progression from a largely Irish-speaking traditional culture, steeped in memory, to an English-speaking capitalist society, supposedly clouded by amnesia. It should be acknowledged that the Irish language maintained a substantial presence well into the nineteenth century. Moreover, during the cultural revival of the fin de siècle, language enthusiasts such as Douglas Hyde collected folk traditions in Irish in order to make them available as a resource for a modern national society. Overall, the increase in literacy in English did not necessarily eradicate oral traditions. Examination of popular print reveals that it functioned as a vehicle for reworking memories, which then fed back into oral culture.