The Challenges of Commemoration

But how can we remember these lives? How should we? And how can we take on remembering of this kind when commemoration has been, and remains, such a charged issue in Irish history and experience?

We considered various approaches to telling the story of this site, and in all our research we were guided by Greg Quiery’s indispensable history of the Irish in Liverpool, In Hardship and Hope (2017). This extraordinary study sent us to many other resources, including the archives of Liverpool newspapers in the 1840s and 1850s. In column after column these papers reveal how Ireland was never far from Liverpool in this period, from local politicians lobbying Westminster for greater relief as thousands upon thousands of migrants arrived in the city, to the reports of hearings at the Coroners’ Court, which attest without fail to the poverty, disease, and desperation in which so many Irish men, women, and children lived and died.

The more we read and talked about this piece, the more we felt that to recover one story from the historical record and make it stand for 2600 stories which left no trace would be out of keeping with the gesture of acknowledgment we felt Whose History? might perform on Mulberry Street. So we went back to the street itself.

We looked closely at the pavement, the tarmac, and the patch of grass in front of the student accommodation block which now occupies the site of the graves. They thought about how every act of commemoration belongs to its present moment, even as it looks to the past. And they kept thinking about that number, 2600.

The film Sidelong Glance has devised seeks to incorporate both the contemporary reality of the street, and our contemporary relationship with its history. We invited 26 people of all ages, many of them with a direct connection either to the university or to Liverpool’s Irish community, or both, to assemble on Mulberry Street. Each of them was given a piece of chalk and invited to choose a small fabric pennant. In turn, they stepped forward to the pavement in front of the accommodation block, knelt down, and made 100 marks on the ground. Then they tied their pennant to the inconspicuous wooden railing which separates the grass from the street. To end, we felt we had to make space for a different kind of silence – the false silence of the city. Once our participants departed Mulberry Street, the scene was left almost as we’d found it: the sounds of traffic and city life in the background, but the quiet acknowledgement – the marks on the ground, and the pennants on the railing – of the 2600 remained.