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If Monuments Could Talk

War memorials are more than a simple, objective way to commemorate the past; they can also, as a visual message, guide the memory of a society in certain political and ideological directions. Author Elisabetta Viggiani looks at and into war memorials in Northern Ireland — and what these say about the broader culture — in her just-published Talking Stones: The Politics of Memorialization in Post-Conflict Northern IrelandBelow, the author gives an introduction to her work, followed by an excerpt from the volume.





If memory was simply about the past, why would governments and public authorities be prepared to put their ever-shrinking budgets at its service? The answer is because memory is seldom about the past, rather it is about the present moment; as Pierre Nora puts it, ‘through the past, we venerate above all ourselves’. Talking Stones investigates how collective memory and material culture are used to support present political and ideological needs in contemporary society.


Since the emergence of ‘nation-states’ in the Western world in the late eighteenth century, ruling authorities and political elites in many geographical and historical contexts throughout the world have employed collective memory as a ‘political asset’ to shape and foster the collective identity, symbolic continuity and social cohesion of the nation’s ‘imagined community’. War commemoration, in particular, has become an essential weapon in the ‘symbolic arsenal’ that a state can deploy to project a hegemonic narrative of its shared past into the civic space by means of state-funded memorials and state-organized commemorations, which act not merely as historical markers, but more importantly as ideology conveyors.


Using the memorialization of the Troubles in contemporary Northern Ireland as a case study, this book investigates an unusual and fascinating scenario, where the lack of a clear political elite as a result of a prolonged situation of unstable governmental settlement and conflict has brought about an abdication from the state and its organs of the right to ‘manufacture’ official memory – and of the role of nation-building that comes with it. This public vacuum has been promptly filled by non-state, often proscribed, organizations that played an active military role in a conflict: as a result, Northern Ireland sets a precedent where multiple partisan narratives of the same past, which co-exist in a relation of dominance/opposition to each other and within wider society, can be concurrently observed in the public arena.


Based on a mapping exercise and database of over 150 conflict-related permanent memorials to the casualties of the Northern Irish conflict in the city of Belfast – available online at – and on 145 interviews with paramilitary ex-combatants, political representatives and the local population, this book interrogates the iconography and symbolism used at memorial sites, the spatial and temporal occurrence of forms of memorialization, the practical and symbolic reasons behind the construction of memorials to shed light on how collective memory in divided societies is used to: (a) project in the public arena ‘versions’ of the past that foster the national identification, symbolic continuity and social cohesion of opposing ‘imagined communities’; (b) construct opposing narratives of ontological, historical and ideological legitimation, and narratives of victimhood and moral justification for the use of violence; (c) subsume individual memories within shared mnemonic frameworks due to the asymmetry of power in the production of public memory; and finally, (d) mediate new political messages and shield political leaderships from criticism in times of political transformation or ideological takeover.


Here’s an abstract from Chapter 4, where the author investigates the relationship between individual and collective memory and the power of collective narratives about the past:


On a day-to-day basis, individuals engage with the varied ‘memory markers’ that dot their environment to differing extents, based on their unique experience of the events or the individuals commemorated. As such, memorials and other permanent forms of memorialization act as ‘vehicles for a conception’ (Geertz 1973: 91) of that event or individual, representing different things to different people. The level of engagement can also vary upon the contingent frame of mind or occasion in which the encounter takes place: thus, the same memorial can mean different things to the same individual at different moments in time. If a symbol is defined as ‘any object, act, event, quality or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception – the conception [being] the symbol’s “meaning”’ (ibid.), memorials must, therefore, be considered symbols starting from the base level of private interaction.


Anthropologist Dan Sperber (1975: 8–16) has argued that symbols per se do not possess a logical content or intrinsic meaning that must be elucidated or ‘revealed’ through interpretation; rather, it is the interpretative process that confers meaning to them: set in motion by a single image or idea that the symbol calls to mind, a series of cognitive associations take place, thus inevitably linking the symbol and its ‘sense’ to the agent that performs the interpretation and to the situation in which this action occurs. From this perspective, war memorials, like other symbols, do not possess one meaning that must be identified. They derive their signification from the complex interrelation and idiosyncratic permutations of discrete factors, including the memorials’ physical structure and aesthetic form; the ideas and feelings that creators or promoting committees intend to communicate through them; the cognitive and emotional response of beholders; the social use to which they are assigned; and the historical and cultural contingencies in which the interpretative action takes place.


Following the development of a vociferous debate on First World War memorials in Britain in the pages of newspapers, pamphlets and memorial committees’ records of the time, King (1998: 3) has shown how, despite vigorous efforts to assign them a ‘set-in-stone’ meaning, war memorials were intrinsically ‘elusive’ and ‘their capacity to convey a particular meaning was not entirely reliable’. Promoters and creators did originally ascribe to them deliberate meanings; however, such meanings were inevitably qualified and ultimately altered during the individual interpretative process. Applying Sperber’s theory to the postwar culture of memorialization in Britain, King (ibid.: 12) has suggested that the symbols and rituals of commemoration, and the symbolic language commonly attached to them, did not themselves propose how people should make sense of the war, or of social relations in the postwar world. Rather, they were things which required sense to be made of them, offering opportunities for people to express the varied senses they were making of the war and its aftermath.




Elisabetta Viggiani participated in numerous research projects carried out by the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast on public displays of identity, political rituals, and symbols in Northern Ireland. She has published in academic journals and co-edited Friends and Foes (2009), two volumes on the themes of friendship and conflict.