An interview with Liam Hogan (@Limerick1914)
Encountering and Refuting Misrepresentations of the Past Online, an interview with Liam Hogan
With the advent of social media, sharing, discussing and absorbing historical knowledge has become easier than ever before. Conversely, the internet has incubated new ways to misrepresent the past and facilitated the wide dissemination of historical narratives that fuel nationalist and racist discourse. Through examining the myth of ‘Irish Slaves’ one can see how such information spreads and to which groups these narratives appeal through for example, Twitter. This topic questions what obligations modern historians have, particularly with the ubiquity of information-sharing technology, to provide clarity and consign easily refutable and malign interpretations of the past to an academic graveyard.
Liam Hogan (@Limerick1914), a Limerick based historian, has dedicated a portion of his academic output to refuting the ahistorical and fabricated notion of Irish chattel slavery. Hogan notes that prior to studying history he took the idea that Irish colonial subjects were once deported and made chattel slaves by Cromwell during the 17th century at face value. In his article ‘The Myth of “Irish Slaves” in the Colonies’ Hogan concisely refutes the notion by interrogating the historiographical source of the claim and exposing the social context that fuels it. ‘It’s a myth that’s been around for decades’ notes Hogan, who first decided to counteract the claim when respected public figures began to share a Global Research article outlining the spurious history online.
This particular misrepresentation of the past has an easily traced lineage. To Hell or Barbados, a book by Sean O’Callaghan released in 2000, propelled the narrative into the 21st century. Hogan describes the book as ‘responsible for much of the belief in the myth’ and elsewhere has thoroughly undermined both its sources and conclusions. Hogan has also performed historiographical assassinations of works by Don Jordan and Michael Hoffman that are frequently cited by those who support the ‘Irish Slaves’ claim. The authors of the myth, much like its followers, have crafted a narrative that can be imbued with a sense of victimhood and white supremacism, making it ideal ammunition in racially charged arguments. Hogan notes that these books ‘feed directly into the Irish victimhood industry.’ This defensive industry cares little for critical examinations of its accepted narrative of the past, demonstrated by the emotional user reaction on Irish Central, an Irish-American website, towards any challenge to their interpretation of the past.
Irish Central’s article outlining the ‘Irish Slaves’ has garnered 77,000 shares via social media, while another Irish Central post referencing Hogan’s findings of Irish engagement with the slave trade has received less than a thousand. With reference to the popularity of these narratives, Hogan acknowledged, ‘People enjoy what I would term ‘junk food history’ that comforts their own identity. My fellow historian, Barry Sheppard, has labelled this “Chocolate cake history”. It follows the same theme with regards to those pro-slavery/pro-Confederate apologists who have argued for almost a century that the American Civil War was not about slavery.’
Given the baleful appeal that ‘junk food history’ can have, historians seeking audiences outside of academia must strike a balance between pandering to public interests and pursuing history for purely academic purposes. In this regard, Hogan believes that historians should set aside more time to engage the public, and challenging ‘bad history’ can be ‘a kind of public service.’ Hogan notes that directly engaging the ideologues, who spread myths of this nature is ‘frequently pointless, but sharing verifiable research and contextualised history with a wider audience is essential.’
Aside from making his research publicly available for free, Hogan has taken the innovative approach of screen-shotting instances of the myth appearing online and tweeting the images. His page on Storify collates a series of these posts. ‘I decided to do this as Twitter is a public forum, and I felt that if these people were willing to broadcast their views on this topic, then what sort of decisions were they making in their daily lives to sustain such overt racism?’ Hogan points to one account that tweets the Global Research article every 2 hours; ‘I find this interesting from an information science point of view, that such a concerted effort is made to spread disinformation, which underlines the fact that the internet is merely a medium, and that people should think far more critically about what they discover there.’ On a basic level, the images are primary source documents to support Hogan’s argument and he notes that this part of his research is more sociological than historical.
The lack of critical thinking that lead to the historical issues Hogan engages with reflect two systemic problems: ‘Firstly, the fostering of critical thought should play a key part of primary and secondary school education.’ Secondly, the engagement raises the question of identity and nationality, Hogan notes: ‘The creation of a national identity invariably leads to an “us and them” situation which is often applied retrospectively.’ Hogan advocates garnering a better awareness of Social Identity Theory to present us with a critical framework ‘for exploring our complex history.’ He agrees that historians should strive to reach wider audiences by releasing their findings in more easily digested forms. To help achieve this goal, Hogan has condensed the salient points of his research into a shorter article published on openDemocracy.org.
The development of modern technology has provided a series of innovative tools through which historians can engage the public and encourage a more complex appreciation of the past. No longer confined to journals secreted away in the alcoves of a university library, our research now has the capacity to reach far wider audiences. This brings with it a set of challenges and imperatives, demonstrated aptly by Hogan’s engagement with the myth of Irish slavery.
NOTE: The bibliographical items Zotero has attributed to ‘Anon’ are authored by Liam Hogan.