This post is part of my 2020 commitment to writing extended posts based on the thoughts I would normally splurge on Twitter, a platform that I have come to realise is ultimately disastrous for progressive potentialities.
I am perhaps more reluctant than most to join the chorus of groans from historians whenever a person or topic is described as “forgotten”. Firstly, I see it as inevitable marketing spin to encourage people to read articles or books. After all, readers are more likely to click on a link about the first woman MP elected to Westminster when it is titled “The Forgotten History of Constance Markievicz” rather than something more prosaic – even if the woman in question is one of the most immediately recognisable figures in modern Irish History.
I also don’t define “forgotten” in absolute terms. To describe events or figures as “forgotten” does not suggest that no other living person has yet heard of them (inevitably false) but that a sizeable group of people have not yet understood the importance and relevance of this period or person in history (usually true). Unfortunately, there are cases when a scholar has worked hard to research and publicise something which a third party has unscrupulously copied and repackaged as “forgotten” “lost to history” or an “untold story”. But in other cases, reading the term “forgotten” in an article or book title is an invitation to ask: who has forgotten, why have they forgotten and what were the processes that led to this forgetting?
Recently, the Dictionary of Irish Biography published my entry for May O’Callaghan (1881-1973), an obscure Wexford-born communist, whom I want to offer as an illuminating candidate for the title “forgotten”. When I started my PhD, there were only a handful of references to O’Callaghan in scholarly sources. One described her simply as “a mystery woman” and another misidentified her as British. By tracing O’Callaghan across archives in the US, Ireland, the UK and Russia, I was able to expand the life of a woman previously relegated to an inaccurate footnote into an entire chapter of my thesis.
Raised in a small Wexford village and educated in turn-of-the-century Vienna, O’Callaghan was once the sub-editor of a militant feminist paper in wartime Britain and later the head of English-language translation in the headquarters of the Comintern, the world’s most formidable revolutionary organisation. She spent her days inside a smoke-filled office or sitting in a Kremlin Palace booth during the debates that decided the course of Soviet history and spent her evenings attending parties with major Soviet figures. One of the letters in the personal archive of Vladimir Mayakovsky, easily the most famous poet of the Soviet era, is a friendly 1928 missive from May O’Callaghan. She watched Sergei Eisenstein’s film “October” at a private screening in his flat. When she died in a North London nursing home in 1973, she was the last of her family and almost entirely unknown.
By any definition, hers was a truly remarkable life – so why has O’Callaghan languished in obscurity for so long? One could say: “O’Callaghan was a woman and the patriarchal structures of society have shaped how we research and write history”. True, but we need to reach beyond this point and explore deeper within it, because there are many more factors at work.
The first is how we think about the Irish radical left in history – and particularly the ultimately restrictive generalisation that the socialism of Irish radicals was inevitably in conversation with Irish nationalism. O’Callaghan was certainly an Irish radical and a leftist, but atypical on both counts. She engaged with the Irish revolution from a distance and could scarcely be described as a republican or nationalist. O’Callaghan was also a communist but not a member of a Communist Party – a major distinction during the interwar years. But perhaps most importantly, the activism that O’Callaghan carried out in service of her revolutionary causes was not what historians might commonly consider as “revolutionary”. She raised no flags over buildings and authored no incendiary texts. She did, however, raise a child that was not her own as an act of loyalty to a comrade and typeset, translated and edited the incendiary texts of others. She was an administrator of revolutionary activities, not an instigator. The technical workers of the world revolution are a class of activist about whom we know little.
Even if figures from the past actively desired oblivion, it’s ultimately not their choice. In designing our research frameworks and adopting new perspectives in historiographies, historians take part in the process of deciding who gets forgotten. There is no committee that decides who and what gets to be “important” or “relevant” in writing history (and, therefore, remembered). We as historians decide this collectively.
My next project will (all things going to plan) expand on all of this, exploring the intimate and the emotional in the Comintern, hopefully allowing us to better understand how a globe-spanning revolutionary organisation relied on the labours of a legion of technical workers, many of them women and each of whom had their own complex moral universes and dynamic social worlds. Quite a few of them have, like O’Callaghan, been forgotten.