Article: Can collective memory can be a force for good?

Newry Cathedral News

This week across these islands and far beyond there has been a focus on the events in Derry from 50 years ago. Bloody Sunday was my first political memory as I was still in primary school. At that time, I had never even been to Derry but like many others, I was frightened by what had happened and can to this day still feel that fear. As a child I was conscious of it being the topic of conversation on the lips of many adults on those cold crisp winter days in 1972.

For many of us the iconic image of a priest leading a wounded man out of a war zone waving a bloodstained white handkerchief is stuck in our minds. The event was movingly commemorated this week in a production entitled ‘The White Handkerchief’ by the Playhouse.It demonstrated the power of using the arts as a peacebuilding tool to provide a vehicle for dealing with sensitive subjects. The story of the past needs to be told as healing is helped through remembering and reconciliation. Viewing our past through the lens of the present day can still be a real challenge even if we don the clothes of 5 decades ago.

Wherever we stand on the past, few could fail to be moved by leadership of Fr Edward Daly (later Bishop Daly) both during and after Bloody Sunday. He held steadfastly to the conviction that ‘violence is completely unacceptable as a means to a political end’ and reflected that ‘when you see what a high velocity bullet does to the human head, any romantic ideas about violence you may have go out the window’.

Norman Hamilton, the former Presbyterian Moderator who was among other church leaders who visited the relatives in later years commented that ‘most people feel a need to find a way into the future, no matter how great the pain of the past’. 50 years later we have ‘moved mountains’ but are not there yet. So how after such a collective memory of pain can we build a healthy future and still remember the past appropriately? Leadership at all levels is key as difficult and at times unpopular decisions need to be taken.

Anniversaries like Bloody Sunday can be a time when communities come together with families to dwell on pain but it can also mark the beginning of new hope, peace and togetherness. Sometimes those that have suffered most are the first to ‘take that step forward’ (sister of Jackie Duddy). This can be difficult when we are in a decade of 50th anniversaries and will be pulled back to 1972,1974,1976…… The greatest leadership does not use and abuse the past but remembers it with dignity and helps society as a whole to look to the future. Bishop Daly did this throughout his life recognising that society can definitely do more together than we can apart. Our children view the past through our eyes and in this way culture and pain transcends generations. We would not like the 1970s to be the reality for our families but we need to recognise that some find it difficult to escape the trauma of that past.

We pray that those who have suffered and are still carrying the pain of loss can be at peace and that they can find peace at their loved ones leaving. The words of St Columba from the 6th century are timeless.
‘See that you be at peace among yourselves, my children,
and love one another’.
The premiere of ‘The White Handkerchief’ is available at