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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Is History Absolute?

 By Sarah Matz

In order to make sense of the world around me—including where I come from and who I am—I look to define the meaning of my experiences. I think we all do in some way or another. However, as I progress through the Gonzaga in Derry program, I can’t help but wonder if some things simply can’t be defined.

Over the past several days, we’ve had the opportunity to meet former combatants with backgrounds in various traditions, including nationalist and unionist. Everyone involved in the Troubles has been uniquely impacted by the sectarian violence. Over some 30 years, more than 3,500 people were killed, including innocent civilians, suspected informants, militia members, and soldiers from all walks of life. Thousands more suffered injuries and were maimed physically and psychologically for life. Residents in Derry, as well as other Northern Ireland communities, were sealed off in patchwork segregated neighborhoods divided by barricades and patrolled by the military.

Bloody Sunday mural in Derry
The Good Friday Agreement of the 1990’s was a catalyst to peace in the area, but the process is ongoing, and it seems most people are looking toward a future with some sense of shared community, understanding, and healing. While each party has grief and suffering in common, there are great social and cultural differences that may never be overcome. With this in mind and the complexity of the human experience, how is it even possible to make sense of this past? And if we can’t make sense of it, how will anyone ever move on? Must history be defined?

I don’t have the answer, but I think history is more than a singular event. History is a collection of many histories, which are subjective as well as objective realities that are reflective of the community that produces and consumes them. If anything, this experience has shown me that it makes no sense to insist on a subjective or objective recollection of the past—it is simply both, and all inclusive.

In John Stuart Mill's On Liberty he wrote, “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this. Nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.”

From this perspective, in order to understand the past, we must open our eyes to the experience of others and accept these stories as various truths. Otherwise, we risk excluding pieces of our shared past that are essential to peace and understanding, which is what the people of Derry are already doing through projects such as 'Towards Understanding and Healing' and 'Ethical and Shared Remembering'. This experience has helped me see that our histories—whatever they may be—are maintained by acts of communication between each other, in all their variety, and with all their strengths and weaknesses.


  1. Excellent piece, Sarah. I wish we could have spent more time on our visit, to absorb more of the various histories, and personal narratives that you are hearing.

  2. Great posting Sarah. In a very short time you've grasped the complexities of conflict in Northern Ireland and the need for ethical and shared remembering in order to move forward and not repeat the past. Glad I could be part of your experience.