In this latest Blog Post, Philip McDermott talks through an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project on ‘Diverse Perspectives on a Global Conflict: Migrant Voices and Living Legacies of WW1’.
Via the Living Legacies WW1 Engagement Centre, Philip has worked closely with migrant communities in Northern Ireland on questions of identity. Their partner on this project was the North West Migrants Forum in Derry,
In 2016, I was fortunate enough to engage in a conversation with Lilian Seenoi, Director of the North West Migrants Forum in Derry~Londonderry. Lilian noted, “Understanding a place and its history is vital for any migrant but we also need to look closely at the difference and, most importantly, the similarities in our experiences”. This interaction led to a joint project between Ulster University and the North West Migrants Forum funded under the Living Legacies 1914-1918 Engagement Centre to explore this very perspective through the story of World War One.
The resulting project, “Diverse Perspectives on a Global Conflict: Migrant Voices and Living Legacies of World War One”, sought to provide a platform for the wider storytelling of WW1 from the perspective of migrants living in Northern Ireland. At the same time the project aimed to provide a means through which to broaden the debate on WW1 in this region, a story which has often been framed amidst competing narratives of Britishness and Irishness – thus hiding global elements of the story.
Through the North West Migrant Forum’s membership participants from Poland, Romania, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Italy, Guyana, Cameroon, Congo, China and South Africa approached the project in order to prepare a panel exhibition telling their countries’ experiences of the conflict. Individuals attended a number of workshops and, with the help of a history/heritage facilitator, drafted a short text about the story of WW1 in their country, whilst reflecting on its contemporary legacy.
Whilst some participants were acutely aware of the impact of WWI on their own country, others were surprised when they uncovered how deeply their region had been involved. Whilst some places actively ‘remembered’ others consciously ‘forgot’ – as later stories of independence had become the most prominent acts of commemoration.
In Summer and Autumn 2017 the participants continued to work with the project team to acquire images for the exhibition which will tour Northern Ireland in 2018. The first launch event was held at the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry as part of the intercultural festival and attracted more than 400 participants. Following this, the exhibition will be on display at Ulster University before touring locations in Northern Ireland.
In reflecting on the memory of WWI one participant noted the resonance of the project for a post-conflict region like Northern Ireland. She said: “We must remember the events that helped shape today’s world. How can we understand the present if we do not know the past? Especially in a place like Northern Ireland. If we remember our shared past our children can learn about the price for division.”
Commenting on the project Lilian Seenoi noted “through this project our members have in some instances revisited histories they were aware of, whilst others have engaged with these sad stories for the first time. Projects like this are important in so many ways in that they show community organisations like ours how subjects like history and social science can help us in our own aims of promoting positive dialogue between migrants and the wider population”.
“Diverse Perspectives of a Global Conflict” will next be on display at the Belfast Campus of Ulster University from 5th-9th November. Ulster’s heritage research cluster will also host a special event on 7th November (17:30) in the foyer of the Belfast Campus to mark the exhibition and the launch of “Heritage After Conflict: Northern Ireland” (Routledge), edited by Professor Elizabeth Crooke from Living Legacies and Dr Tom Maguire. Speakers will include Paul Mullan the head of Heritage Lottery Fund, Northern Ireland.
The exhibition will then begin a tour with the Northern Ireland Library Service starting in Omagh, County Tyrone, on 19th November.
Dr Philip McDermott is a lecturer in Sociology at Ulster University. He continues to work closely with migrant communities in Northern Ireland and welcomes comments, via the Blog.
Photos of Millennium Forum Showcase Event are attributed to Gerry Temple.