An Israeli historian of Ireland once said to me that he believed no historian should draw a conclusion until all his/her research was complete. Pre-empting conclusions is a no, no. There’s sense in that. Then again, if one has perhaps ridiculously set oneself the task of conceptualising everything from Brian Boru to the EU in a single-authored and single-themed work, some kind of roadmap, preferably not to the stars, may be in order. So here’s a mental note to myself made public: sweet talking hippie, ride on…
Chapter 1: Ireland’s place in world history: from the Fianna to the First World War
Chapter 2: A republican moment: Ireland’s independence struggle in a global context 1919-1922
Chapter 3: Financial quagmires and legal limits: Irish Free State diplomacy 1922-1938
Chapter 4: A spirit of non-alignment: Ireland in and out of the British Commonwealth 1938-1955
Chapter 5: Introducing Ireland to the United Nations and the European community, 1955-1968
Chapter 6: Small worlds: globalisation, the northern question and Irish crisis diplomacy, 1968-1982
Chapter 7: Ireland and the reinvention of the European political order, 1982-1994
Chapter 8: Beyond hegemonies: Ireland in the EU and on the world stage since 1994
Conclusion: The evolution of Irish international relations, past and present
People’s sense of history differs. Aside from being a tall order, trying, of late, to write up some of my thoughts about Ireland in the era of the Second World War throws up a couple of different perspectives. First, the fact that this is not a research speciality of mine and, therefore, whatever I “come up with” will, no doubt, be more akin to review essay material. Second, what on earth is my actual sense of the Second World War in the first place?
A question like that brings to mind an old frequently occurring thought: the difference between a) those for whom history is an endless source of fascinating questions and b) those for whom history is a memorable record of chronological events. I tend to fit into the former category. Why exactly, I am not sure. But the idea of history being an endless narrative of wars provides a mental clue.
My late father was one of those individuals who could probably recite a chronology of the names of all Popes and English kings in history. He read many history books, but was more interested in reading a chronological description of events like the Second World War than he was in analysis, which he found tiresome. My mind tends to work in the opposite direction. Narratives of wars and battles are to me like quintessential boring TV documentaries or the immediate mental turn off of seeing yet another war movie on TV with men strutting about the place in black uniforms and coloured armbands. The problem with my type of outlook, however, is if someone asked me what I thought of the siege of Leningrad, I might actually have to stop and think, as if trying to remind myself, what actually was the siege of Leningrad? It is shocking to think that, right now, I can’t remember any real details or context, even though I was actually “on the spot”, so to speak, with my father, on a brief holiday back in the late 1990s.
The open-air monument and underground museum is an incredibly impressive site, but my memory of the visit is this: my father walked around every square inch of the museum, reading every detail on every plaque on every wall, while I walked around the place in a complete daze, reading nothing and seeing nothing, feeling like I was in one of those 1950s Ray Harryhausen movies where giant statues come alive and the human ants start running away, screaming in all directions, with some inevitably getting crushed under the statue’s feet in the process. The sheer scale of the place I was standing in was all I could think about, thinking with my senses rather than my brain, making it impossible for me to read, and possibly still wondering why the proportions of a photo I had recently taken had come out in equally confusing proportions.
My dad walked away from the museum feeling that he learnt some new interesting details. I walked away from the museum with my head full of impressionable or incoherent nonsense, even though it was I who had recently done a history degree, including sitting through a seminar conducted by a medieval history lecturer who played us excerpts of Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony in order to give us a sense of what “war and society” is all about. I had heard it before (my parents were fans of the music), but all I could think about on hearing the symphony again in class was that it involved no mental association for me with a perpetually repeating snapshot of what Soviet Russia “was all about” in my mind: the end scene of The Mother (1926), where a rebel flag turns red in a black-and-white film as the mother gets cut down by soldiers on horseback, carrying sabres, as she stands alone, on a bridge, at the tail end of the 1905 rebellion. More impressionable nonsense, perhaps, no better and no worse than all those quintessential TV history documentaries or films, where the presentation indicates that if no cannons are being fired, nothing interesting in history really happens.
And what do Russians themselves think of all these things? Should we ask Sting? (!) Well, I remember, years later, talking (as in internet message-boarding) with a Russian jazz guitar player from Saint Petersburg about, well, music and “vibes” mainly…but I also mentioned about my brief trip to Saint Petersburg and my memory of the siege monument and museum, and his response was: “yes, that commemorates what was really a great war”. That comment gave me a mental flashback to standing on the square ten years previously and what sense I had of the place, and it strangely seemed to fit. A monument and museum to 900 days of suffering and hunger and hardship exists, almost like an Irish famine monument, but the first and last impression I was left with, standing in the spot, was a militaristic one, represented by the two fifty-foot or more soldiers standing under that gigantic pillar, as if representing, first and foremost, a great military victory rather than the end of a siege. Sometimes lasting impressions, even if they are at first incoherent, can later help us fill out a picture.
A few years ago, someone who works in the heritage sector said to me “that it is up to every generation to interpret history totally afresh”. I remember feeling a sudden instinctive doubt or even ‘profound disapproval’ about that idea. On one hand, it can seem self-evidently true that this is what ‘naturally’ happens, as I remember a stoned Irish-American rock band (not exactly a reliable source) claimed in a rather intense song I heard during my teens. On the other hand, if the next generation of scholars “worldwide” decided, for some obscure reason, that the centre of the universe lies in Stoneybatter, then there is a possibility that a sense of perspective may actually end up being lost. To my mind, this ties into the reality, or even the unreality, of “the latest scholarship”.
In academic circles, there is a dynamic whereby writers feel a need to both identify and critique “the latest scholarship” and to frame understanding according to such bibliographical references. This is understandable because a collective sense of existing literature can often present the fullest picture. Nevertheless, I always found this idea a little difficult to identify with specifically as a researcher. This is because, in my research experience, any time I pursued a research topic, it often seemed that some of the most insightful comments could be found in the strangest places. For instance, an obscure newspaper article or pamphlet from 1912, or something, might offer an opinion as a throwaway remark that, today, can seem almost like a historical “eureka” moment that makes one say, “wow, that is a good interpretation”. However, if one reads the latest book by a university press that is most preoccupied with the latest books published by other university presses it can seem like scholars are simply chasing their own tail, or each other’s tails, in an endless self-referential loop that actually has little or nothing to do with what any historical research source might either tell one or indicate. This might lead one to feel compelled to frame interpretations far more around original source material than other historians’ interpretations, even if it is always good to be aware of the latter.
The idea “that it is up to every generation to interpret history totally afresh” comes to mind again today, however, for a slightly different reason. An associate of an associate found a heap of old dusty history books in their attic. Rather than dumping them in the garbage, as was intended, they evidently said “maybe that guy down the road might be bothered with these” and so they’ve fallen into my possession. Books by French Marxist historians of the 1950s, “Sir” (was he a sir?) Denis Brogan, a few other academics or trade unionists from the mid twentieth-century that nobody references any more, and the thought that comes to me on glancing through these volumes: what happened to these author’s collective wisdom, presuming, that is, that they (no doubt) had some? Are these examples of “yesterday’s men” who had believed that “it must get better in the long run” (another old pop lyric reference there) only to find that as soon as their moment of active authorship had passed, “that was it” and the next generation cares as little about their work as a Buddhist monk cares about all-the-things-they-are-not-supposed-to-care-about as they start into conscious oblivion? Impermanence and History: there is a little conundrum.
Perhaps amidst many of the most dusty and most forgotten history books in many a private or public library, there are many original thoughts that may have been, or end up being, permanently forgotten. As such, maybe we should all give a thought to “yesterday’s men” even if each successive generation feels compelled to tell itself, as its motivation, that today’s thoughts are far more original than they actually are. If life, like a certain old school of historical thought, follows a circular pattern, it is probably best not to attempt to ascertain where in its revolution that wheel of fortune is at any given moment. The linear perspective of a historical chronology may exist solely to allow us that mental freedom in each successive generation. Which may just “go to show” how much reading and writing of any kind is a far more personal experience, or matter, than the quintessential bibliographical instinct, or faith in scholarship, may care to admit. In my experience, an endless reformation of that thought can serve as an antidote rather than a contributor to mental lethargy or exhaustion.