What if we approached the past differently?

Remembering Past Futures: Commemoration and the Roads Untaken

By Nicola Stathers


Traditional approaches to history overlook the possibility of historic moments and overemphasis the present narrative, according to Dr Heather Laird, a lecturer in English at University College Cork.


In a plenary lecture this Friday (July 29) during IASIL 2016, she will discuss her research in a talk titled “Remembering Past Futures: Commemoration and the Roads Untaken”.




‘In conventional historiography, history tends to be read backwards.  The events, ideas, groupings and individuals that receive the most attention are those that are believed to have had the most impact on what happened afterwards,’ Laird said. 


‘The implicit starting point is the present.  The primary focus of attention is that which has most obviously led to this point in time, to our point in time; thereby making the present seem inevitable. But what if we approached the past differently?  What if we viewed each moment in time as a moment of possibility, while recognising that some time periods are particularly potent with possibility.’


These reflections will be of particular interest to those who have been involved in the national year of Commemorations throughout 2016.


 ‘A passage from Ulysses, written during the decade we are now commemorating, paves the way for this more radical approach to history:

“Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a bedlam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death.  They are not to be thought away.  Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted.  But can those have been possible seeing that they never were?  Or was that only possible which came to pass?” 


‘‘Branded’, ‘fettered’, ‘lodged’: a language of servitude, slavery and entrapment is used in this passage to describe the process via which the selective narrativisation of the past that is history not only suppresses alternative versions of the events that happened, but closes off the stories of what else might have been.  But how do we access alternative pasts and the futures that they could have given rise to? We must broaden our focus beyond the events, ideas, groupings and individuals that are now perceived from our present standpoint as being the most important.  We must explore the roads that branched off to the side of how events actually unfolded.  We must engage in counter-factual thinking, considering not only what happened, but what else might conceivably have happened.’


Laird will evoke these ideas using skillful literary criticism, addressing an international association of students, teachers, scholars, and enthusiasts of Irish literature in English and in Irish at the IASIL 2016 conference, which explores the theme: CHANGE.

Keynote Lecture: 11:30, July 29, 2016 – Boole 4 Lecture Hall, UCC




Heather Laird is a lecturer in English at University College Cork. She is a postcolonial scholar whose research interests include theories and practices of resistance, connections between Ireland and India, Irish cultural criticism, and alternative temporalities. She has published several essays and book chapters on the consequences of, and responses to, colonialism in Ireland. She is the author of Subversive Law in Ireland, 1879‒1920 (2005), a book that explores the extent to which an unwritten agrarian code of popular justice in pre-Independence Ireland undermined the legitimacy of the colonial legal system. She is the editor of Daniel Corkery’s Cultural Criticism: Selected Writings (2012), a critical reader that situates Corkery, the most influential and provocative cultural commentator of the early Irish Free State, within an international context of anti-colonialism.

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