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Book Review: Ghosts of the Somme

GHOSTS OF THE SOMME: COMMEMORATION AND CULTURE WAR IN NORTHERN IRELAND. By Jonathan Evershed. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018. $55.

*Reviewed for Irish Historical Studies

The title of Jonathan Evershed’s first monograph should provide us with immediate intrigue. On one hand ghosts can haunt, torment, and induce paranoia. On the other hand, they are figments of our imagination, conjured from the past to fit with the experiences of the present. Loyalist memory of the Somme contains all of these ghostly traits, and their commemoration of this event ensures that it continues to intrude on Northern Irish society over a century later.

A glance at the references reveal a phenomenally detailed piece of anthropological work. Evershed skilfully navigates through the complexity of memory, history and commemoration in a heavy opening chapter before converging on an assortment of factors which have led a seemingly ordinary ritual of commemorating war-dead becoming entangled in an extraordinary inter and intra-communal tug of war over politics and identity. Most controversially, Evershed unsettles the ‘shared sacrifice’ deception of the Fist World War (FWW) and of the ‘decade of centenaries’ more broadly. Since 2012 it is arguable that a new brand of revisionism has emerged to promote a message of peace and reconciliation; reading the history of the war through the peace tinted spectacles of today; Evershed terms them as ‘peace propagandists’. This phenomenon has encouraged a selective reading of history whereby stories that are deemed to be divisive in nature are overlooked at the expense of stories containing reconciliatory qualities. FWW commemoration through the decade of centenaries has therefore (in some cases) promoted an abuse of history; it has glorified the art of massaging history to fit a contemporary agenda. As a direct consequence, those who have chosen to engage in single-identity commemoration of the war have been cast to the commemorative side-lines by the new revisionists. Thus, despite ‘starting from the historical facts’, it is evident through Evershed’s observations of loyalist commemorations that some historical facts are more acceptable than others.

Evershed critically dissects loyalism’s own rationale for commemorating the Somme. By offering the self-diagnosed voiceless with a voice, a platform was provided for loyalism to articulate its own interpretation of the Somme’s legacy. These interviews were not carried out blindly; they were often provocative and resulted in heated exchanges, occasionally generating the most revealing of responses. In many cases the discussion led to notions of a post-conflict ‘culture war’ in Northern Ireland. Many will dispute the validity of these culture war claims, but one thing that Evershed’s interviews have revealed is that regardless of the dispute over the existence of a culture war, loyalists have certainly decided that they are involved in one and the Somme is one of their weapons of choice.

At times the anthropological theory and abstract concepts are overwhelming, though they do root the study in a firm foundation, making it difficult at times to contend. Readers will note the absence of any detailed enquiry into the Somme battle (or any aspect of the war for that matter) and in doing so Evershed has successfully validated a fundamental pillar of his thesis; that commemoration has less interaction with events in history than it does with the politics of today. Historians, though, may note some claims that should be challenged. The assertion, for example, that Ulster’s contribution to the FWW was deliberately reduced to the role of the 36th (Ulster) Division may have benefitted from some evidence to support the claim. Furthermore, when critiquing the purpose of the war Evershed did not attempt to engage with any literature which might articulate a defence of the UK’s decision to participate in, and the necessity of winning, that war. This is an example of where the author has, at times, allows his own politics to get in the way of his arguments. It is easy to have a romantic opinion that the war should have been avoided; more difficult, however, to offer practical historical alternatives that might have realistically avoided that war. Such romanticised opinion has its origins in the Blackadder school of history which is informed primarily by cultural (not historical) works that almost always focus on the futility of war.

Nevertheless, Evershed has delved into a vast and complex world of historical commemoration in Northern Ireland; not to mention the tangled and dangerous world of Ulster loyalism. He did what all good ethnographic researchers should do and immersed himself in the topic by living and breathing this project during his time here; he felt that he saw Ulster and glimpsed its soul. The end product is a study which should stand as a monument, not to the Somme or Ulster loyalism, but as a monument to diligent research in the field.

Listen to Ghosts of the Somme author Jonathan Evershed in conversation with Jason Burke:

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