The Anniversary of…What?

Every calendar date is an anniversary of something, but what is in a date? Not to knock “Century Ireland”, but I do not think that centenaries of various newspaper articles provides one with a bigger picture, or vision. Can journalism?

I remember a line in John Wayne’s final film. As a dying “shootist” with absolutely no education, he buys a newspaper in the belief that if he read every line, he would know absolutely everything that happened on that day and so finally receive an education of sorts. In the film, it was intended as a moment of touching pathos: how only a person with no education, or significant experience of reading, could have such a blind faith in journalism as a meaningful or truthful entity. Yet people do try to convince others that it has precisely such a meaning.

From where springs such a conviction? I have had to ask myself that often. Why? I guess it is because if there is one thing that is also expected of historians, it is to speak with conviction. In my own self-estimation, I think that is partly why, historian though I am, I do not fit the bill for what is generally required of a professional history lecturer. Yes, I could speak well and spark the interest of others in a subject, to “a degree”. But the part of the actor required – to speak with the conviction of a “persuader” or as someone who believes that some aspect history is “important” or relevant to the present – I do not seem to be able to play that part. To play such a role seems absurd and that presents a mental block.

Pick any date and it is the occasion, or the anniversary, of a nearly infinite number of different events. Each of those events could be typified as a fragment of a short story that has never been written. The event itself tells no story. But it may invite us to try and create one. I am often haunted by a format of short story, where an interesting incident finishes “up in the air” with no resolution and yet it leaves a lasting impression. A first exposure to any historical source often makes a similar mental impact on me. This is partly why writing history always seems to me a bit like building a jigsaw where the picture has no definitive or predefined form.

A “devil’s advocate” argument once posed to me was: how can possibly one write a history of a revolutionary organisation if it left no archive? If there is no archive, there is no subject. But then, how are there histories with thematic subjects? Where is the archive for a subject like imperialism, or decolonialisation, or class, or women’s history? There is none. Instead, people are inventing their own jigsaw pictures from available pieces, like building castles in the air, and every resulting picture becomes unique to its author.

I remember the late Ronan Fanning saying once that there is no real difference between the investigative journalist and the historian. I may not have worked as a journalist for as long as Mr. Fanning, but I did not have that impression of the profession. Instead, I am inclined to think that there is a greater connection between the historian and the literary artist, being a creator of pictures with words. Journalism is immediate, of the moment, and incidental. History is crafted, an evolution, and a bigger picture.

Perhaps if an anniversary is a potential talking point for a journalist, it inherently means nothing to a historian, who must remain preoccupied with “the string”: a linear time without beginning or end that we attempt to, or evidently believe we can, define in some fashion. When we pass away, our own short story is finished, but a conception of time has nevertheless been put in print, in words rather than sheet music, and that remains as a composition. There can be history without an archive. There cannot be history without print. Such is the manner of my thought, which is perhaps why oral history has always seemed to me as only a source rather than a history. In turn, I think I prefer to write than to speak. Such a temperament, however, is a professional liability.

Time is silent. Maybe that is why we may imagine that it can be best reflected through print, as it the only means available whereby words can likewise exist in a perpetual silence. Would humankind be inclined to conceive of the existence of history without print? In my own way of thinking, “probably not”. I guess that it is why I have the suspicion that I would be a better historian if I were also an archaeologist, or a museum curator, even though the notion of valuing inanimate objects over humanity seems perverse to me. But it is true: the stone in my shoe may have a more interesting history than I do.

Can anniversaries exist in parallel dimensions? A meaningless coincidence caught my imagination recently: Camille Saint Saens, a French composer who died aged 86, seems to have entered his death bed in Algeria on the same date in 1921 as ‘articles of agreement for a treaty’ was signed by various English and Irish individuals in London, including someone (Arthur Griffith) of whom I once wrote a biography. 1921, from which we are now a century later, was not the end of a style of music. I am not inclined to think of it as a beginning or an end of a phase of Irish history either. But if we entertain the idea of centenaries, are we not automatically led to such assumptions, of a beginning or an end? How do we historians define the beginning and end of an event if the linear notion of time that we entertain is like the proverbial length of a piece of string? Only by attempting to fit an event into a bigger picture.

I was thinking that If I were asked to speak of the significance of either event on its centenary, I do not think I could convince myself that a centenary is an occasion for deliberate timings of such reflections. But on the other hand, why not? Why are there birthdays? Why do anything? So perhaps, for a change, I will make my next “blog” an article rather than a blog: on something specific, rather than general, in nature, like “Arthur Griffith and Irish republicanism”. But if it were to be defined in terms of just 1921 or its “centenary”, I fear the result could only be a meaningless snippet of string with no bigger picture being possible.