Local history: a cross-community force

Jacinta Prunty

By drawing the enthusiast into diverse, interacting worlds, local history invites, fascinates and challenges us to understand difference. Its role in improving community relations and fostering respect for cultural difference has been widely acknowledged. Edna Longley, approaching the matter from the perspective of the literary critic and cultural commentator, insists that “the more widely a sense of historical complexity is disseminated, the less clear-cut the cultural battle lines become”. Where Ulster Protestants and Catholics “lose even one per cent of their historical-theological certitude it promotes an inter-cultural Northern Ireland”. To that end, “collective work on regional history, even intensely localised history, has been perhaps the most successful ‘cultural diversity’ activity in the North.”4 Within the Republic, there is also much room for loosening the bonds of certitude and expanding understanding on a cross-cultural basis – well-informed local history has a significant role to play here also. The cross-border dimension in the research and activities of local history societies has the potential to move the local history project into deeper and ultimately more rewarding areas.

The expansion in tourism opportunities and the veritable boom in the ‘heritage industry’ have given an added urgency to researching local heritage in a competent manner. The movement towards cross-border co-operation at practical, grassroots level in areas such as tourism marketing has been anticipated by the local history federations which have fostered cordial cross-border relations since their foundation.5 In terms of sources, methodologies and philosophies, research in local history is greatly enriched by being conducted in an all-Ireland context.

It also should be noted from the outset that some long-established societies have always crossed the Irish border, for example Cumann Seanchas Ard Mhacha (archdiocese of Armagh) and the Clogher Historical Society (Clogher diocese). The Border Counties History Collective is a more recent manifestation of the desire to work across not only political but also religious and other communal boundaries.

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