We are guilty of having a selective memory of history of this island

I refer to “Memory of Protestant role in 1798 rising still lies beneath surface” (Opinion November 21).

The author Guy Beiner, gives an impressive list of instances where “unionist Presbyterians completely erased the memory of the participation of their ancestors in the rebellion of 1798,”

For some inexplicable reason, during the first fifty years of the Northern Ireland State, the teaching of Irish history was not included in the curriculum, in either primary or secondary educational establishments, of State Schools.

As Convener of the Education Committee of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, I attempted to correct this neglect of history. I did so with the publication of two booklets and organising a Bicentenary Commemorative Dinner, to mark the event, on 12th June 1998. The significance of 12th June 1998 is that this was between the battle of Antrim on 6th June, and the battle of Ballynahinch on 13th June.

The Rev. William Forbes Marshall, well known as the Bard of Tyrone, was not only a Presbyterian minister but also a poet and a proud Ulster-Scot.  He became a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and later District Commandant of the Ulster Special Constabulary. He served in the Home Guard during the Second World War. He and his brother the Rev. Robert Lyons Marshall, later Professor of History and English at Magee College, Londonderry, were solid Presbyterian stock and convinced Unionists and Orangemen. 

As W. F. Marshall later noted their brand of radical Presbyterianism which lauded the men of 1798, did not always fit in well with the big house Unionism of James Craig. He was to write to a nationalist friend in 1933:

I was probably – outside the IRA – Craigavon’s strongest opponent. . . On every possible occasion, public and private, in the pulpit and on the platform, I glorified the men of ’98. I did it in Orange Halls and in sermons to Orangemen. . . Craig’s people can’t understand folk like the brother and myself. They think we’re Home Rulers in disguise . . . They’re very much mistaken.

It is little wonder that a local historian, S. Alex Blair, accurately commented: “He was not the conventional Unionist and Orangeman but his dilemma is one many still experience today.”

The Marshall brothers represented that historically radical brand of Presbyterianism. Their background was that of the tenant farmer who had suffered under the ‘big house’ anglican establishment. They made a clear distinction between opposition to the ‘big house’ establishment and their commitment to the union.

Sadly, our selective memory of history means that Edna Longley is quite correct; “commemorations are as selective as sympathies; they honour our dead, not your dead”.

Rev Brian Kennaway, South Antrim

This Letter appeared in the Belfast News Letter on Wednesday 19 December 2018

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