Join The Party

Do you like to attend parties? At Christmas time, many do. To sour the moment with the backwards glance of a historical reflection may seem about as appealing as walking down the street alone with a black Santa “bah humbug” hat on, or going around with a perpetual scowl on one’s face. At the risk of being a party pooper, however, this is what I am about to do, for I am about to reflect on that “other” meaning of parties.

At a winter film festival a good few years ago, I remember an intense reaction from a Dutch and Czech person to what seemed to be a casual reference within a film to the idea of a (political) party. A single reference to party as a definite article—as in “the party”—evoked immediate negative mental associations in this audience of a totalitarian nightmare and the suppression of all intellectual freedoms. I remember a few days later being at an Irish history book launch where a similar reference seemed to evoke the opposite reaction; namely, knowing grins and intimations of secret identifications. I am not sure which experience I found more unsettling. At the time—when I was at a perhaps more impressionable age than I am now—it seemed to me as about as appealing as being a participant in Joseph Cotten’s memorable lecture on the modern world and after-lecture repartee with a Romanian in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man (1950). The late Irish historian Ronan Fanning was a good figure for being outspoken. I recall him stating, for unspecified reasons, that, in Ireland, history is considered “too important to be left to the historian” and, therefore, party politics seemed to reign supreme in shaping scholarship or, indeed, the comparative lack thereof. To hear such comments from such a prevalent figure created a distinctly uncomfortable feeling, for I had every inclination to be a historian and no inclination at all to be a member of a political party. Did that mean I was inherently a “fish out of sea”, or about as naïve as Joseph Cotten’s character in the Third Man? Let us banish such nightmare thoughts.

However, the Irish experience may not be so exceptional. A disappointing discovery in digital humanities literature this past year was how much of it seemed to be but an echo of a kind of cultural, or ideological, war that seems to have been taking place in academia in the United States since the 1980s. This may even be growing, even though my impression has, or had, been, that the Americans were not as prone to this kind of wrangling as, say, Europeans were during the interwar years. Another unpleasant thought is this: how much are historians to blame for creating, or perpetuating, such ideological wars that might otherwise not even exist? Is, in Ronan Fanning’s words, “history too important to be left to the historian” not only in Ireland but “everywhere”? What a terrible thought that might be, bringing to mind associations of endless intellectual own goals or confirmations of total futility. Yet an answer to this conundrum can perhaps be found.

I came across an interesting video recently of a five-year-old debate by four historians that dwelt largely on Ireland’s relationship with the world during the Second World War. If the debate was boiled down to a single issue, the polarising point of the debate was largely a question of “was non-participation in ideological conflicts in international affairs tantamount to a reneging of social responsibility?” A corollary of that same argument is that one simply “must” take a definite stand within an ideological conflict if one is to have a defendable historical position. Is this perspective, however, not at the root of the whole problem? Is the creation of such polarities not akin to the creation of red and black Santa hats, to use an entertaining metaphor, rather than just being satisfied with the plain old red? Personally, I think it is. If historians can walk down the street without inflicting ideological perspectives upon either themselves or others, they may become as deserving to wear a red Santa hat as much as a red graduate’s robe and the world may be “all the better” a place for it. Perhaps that is a naïve perspective. But it is a good historical thought for Christmas.

Playing A Different Tune

It was interesting this week to hear that the National Folklore Collection, with whom I worked once on a voluntary basis as an archivist, and the Uileann Pipes have received recognition as being culturally significant as part of UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register”. The Uileann Pipes are a more sophisticated instrument, in terms of musical range, than the bagpipes that can be found in many cultures, while the Irish traditional style of utilising grace notes (a feature not common to African and most European musics, outside of some Slavic, Scandinavian or Russian musics) is a distinctive technique that later reputedly influenced the development of most melodies in the USA, including African-American ones. Like all instruments with chanters, however, they do require that a player pay particular attention to the bass note and, indeed, as in all musics, the difference between tunes can generally be located at that starting point. In music, as in most things in life, one’s starting point generally determines everything that occurs afterwards so if one does not have, or start from, the right base, everything else one does will be out of sync and downright unsuccessful.

Does this have anything to do with the study of history? Perhaps it does. Different interpretations of history are rather like than different performances of a tune, though some historians may be more sensitive to such tuning issues than others. An economist and historian of Anglo-Japanese relations, Ayako Hotta-Lister, has identified the sonorities of the koto as a key aspect of all Japanese culture in much the same way that the Historical Harp Society Of Ireland has identified the sonorities of the wire-strung harp as a key to Irish culture, although appreciation for either historic art form is not particularly strong in either culture. In the past week, at a time when the Irish government was criticised frequently across the Irish Sea for being “out of tune” with the Anglophone world, an anniversary of Irish-Japanese relations was commemorated with a book that, in common with past studies of Ireland’s role in the United Nations no doubt highlights how the 1950s was an era of great expansion in the international profile and international relations of the Irish state. I would be inclined to judge that, potentially, this meant that Ireland’s international profile was no longer to be shaped primarily by Reuters, as had essentially been the case when Ireland was still a member of either the British Commonwealth or empire, although appreciation for this fact was evidently quite limited in the Ireland of the day. For instance, the RTE documentary Seven Ages (2000) essentially portrayed Ireland in the 1950s in an entirely negative light, as the common labour market that still existed between the UK and Ireland was effectively serving only the economic interests of the former. Therefore, it is not surprising if Irish diplomacy of the day did not win many accolades or, indeed, if such a trend in public opinion became a common occurrence. The trend for “either” insular “or” Anglophone schools of writings on Irish history, rather than an internationalist sense of Irish history, is but an echo of this same economic dynamic.

Being a historian and music lover, it often seems to me that the history of thought and of culture is frequently reflected in its truest form via music, which may even explain the growing popularity, or interest in, different folk musics around the world (“world music”) in the same age as people talk of “globalisation”. This is reflected in the studies of music academies far more so than it is in the commercial entertainment world. If we can read the humanity of a people through its music as much as its words then the possibility of identifying parallels between cultures and peoples in all different parts of the world in the same economic age is perhaps all the greater. Not surprisingly, however, connecting music and international relations is hardly a common occurrence. To do so, for instance, would not fit with the conceptual models underpinning international relations theory, which, if the pages of the International Organisation journal are to believed, are developing in a very different, as well as purely theoretical, direction compared to the enthusiastic cultural humanism that underpinned the initial idealism of the United Nations that was witnessed in that journal (and organisation) during its first twenty years of existence. Be that as it may, a good ear for music may still be helpful in ascertaining whether or not one is in, or out, of tune in developing a good historical understanding of both individual societies, as well as the common human nature one can find in each part of the globe. If one is out of tune with human nature, one will surely be out of tune with history as well. So there may be words of wisdom in that old adage that one should be alive to the fact that sometimes there is a need to start playing, or hearing, a different tune if whatever tune one is hearing, or is being fed, does not harmonise with a greater understanding. Choosing your base notes carefully is essential to being in tune. Whether or not one has the opportunity to play in harmony with others, however, is a question that always remains in the lap of the gods.