What is it with Ireland and our generally poor documentation of the past?
I spent the weekend reading Martin Sixsmith’s account of how the nuns at Sean Ross Abbey expunged any details that might have re-united Philomena Lee with her son Anthony in a bonfire. Yesterday afternoon, I picked up Kevin Cullen’s report of how Richard O’Rawe burnt his returned account of his life in the IRA.
Even though it wasn’t directly deliberate, the torching of the Public Records Office, shredded much of the details of our personal histories, so that our ancestors often only step out a deep historical darkness once they emigrate to America or Britain or Australia.
Perhaps we just aren’t good at living with our histories, or are at least have suffered considerable misfortune in that regard…. Nick Garbutt writes in the News Letter:
…where else in the world do you get politicians of all hues, invoking the distant past in order to make sense of the present? And wherever else do we have such a confused interpretation of what actually happened which so distorts our behaviour today?
Many historians have always known this. FSL Lyons famously wrote at the outbreak of the Troubles “to understand the past is to cease to live in it”.
Our #DigitalLunch session on History explored the tensions between historians and politicians and the accounting of facts, and the development of historical myth-making. The myth making is essentially part of the natural political bargaining that takes in the public square.
In much of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the pre-occupation was with turning ‘Peasants into Frenchmen’ or grafting older traditions onto the newly formed ‘nations’ of Italy and Germany, in order as Hobsbawm describes it, “to maintain or even establish the obedience, loyalty and cooperation of its subjects or members” .
But at this messier end of nationalism, accounting, accountability and the core data have to be clear and trustworthy if further myth making (or political storytelling to use a less pejorative term) is to be both resonant and earn public trust.
Perhaps it is something that needs to begin (to borrow a Carl Rogers phrase) in the here and now, rather than just leaving it to another generation to ‘rise out of’ our habit of ‘covering up’ and ‘muddling through’?
“…the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity.”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty