The History Woman's Blog

The discovery of a C17th logbook and the neutrality of history

Posted in Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on October 24, 2009

A logbook documenting the arrival of William of Orange in Ireland before the 1690 Battle of the Boyne has been found in Belfast. According to an article in the Irish Examiner, it was uncovered during recent renovation work at City Hall. The book of William’s Paymaster General Thomas Coningsby contains a “detailed record of every soldier and regiment in the 35,000-strong army that accompanied Protestant William III to Ireland to do battle with deposed Catholic English monarch King James II”, writes the Examiner’s David Young.

I’ve heard of old masters being found in elderly ladies’ spare bedrooms, of manuscript autobiographies by Civil War radicals turning up in old castles and many other stories. Yet, I was still surprised to hear about this recent find. Surely someone at Belfast City Hall must have come across it earlier?

Now call me overly suspicious, but I’ve been wondering whether they thought it wise to keep it under lock and key for the past decades to avoid upsetting the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland while religious conflict was still a big issue or whether they just had better things to do than worry about dusty documents. 

I was all the more surprised (or maybe not) to read that the C17th tome had now been presented “to the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, which plans to display it at its headquarters in Schomberg House in east Belfast.”  Is that such a good idea considering that the Orange Order marches this year probably attracted more violence than they had in a decade? Have they really thought that one through?

Surely if the conflict between Protestants and Catholics were no longer an issue one could keep the historic document in a place that doesn’t hold any political or religious connotations? One could keep it as a neutral document in a neutral place. But then history is never neutral. By giving the document to the Orange Lodge, Belfast City Council might just confirm that history is always written by the victors.

However, enlightened contemporaries might argue that most documents about the Quakers are held at the Friends House in London, and that documents from the wars are kept at the Imperial War Museums, so documents relating to the House of Orange and the Battle of the Boyne should be kept at the Orange Lodge. That is right. Yet, it is also true that the history of the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath has always been very strongly biased in favour of the Protestant cause as has a lot of Whiggish history writing and indeed writing about the Reformation on the British Isles.

Maybe I just like to defend the underdog. Maybe I am just too suspicious. After all, the find was cheerfully reported by an Irish paper published in Cork with no bad feeling emerging from between the lines. Maybe the article just made me think about the politics of history, and maybe it just made me realise how difficult it is to remain neutral.

gm

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