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Friday, 14 December 2012

History Belongs With the People

Over the past three years I have had the good fortune to have met, via the internet, a group of people whose shared interest is that they once were – and in some cases still are – contributors to a particular website. For me it was a writing apprenticeship. For many of them it was another source of income for people who were already professional writers with a significant body of work in print. Of those who have ceased to be contributors to that site, several have gone on to create and manage successful sites of their own. One of these, the excellent Decoded Science, contains articles intended to clarify for the non-specialist information emanating from academia. Following on from the success of the first such site its owner has proposed an expansion of the idea to cover a wide range of subjects each with its own “decoded whatever” niche site.

With my usual lack of temerity I suggested that one such site might be called “Decoded Ireland”. This led one of the participants in the discussion to introduce the subject of taxonomy – in “decoded” terms, the problem of cross-over between categories whenever an attempt is made to assign things to a collection. Specifically, does Irish History belong in a collection headed “History” or in one headed “Ireland”?

My instinctive response to this question is to assert that it is not possible to separate a place – and inter alia its people – from its history. In other words Irish History may be a sub-category of History but it is first and foremost a key element of any discourse about Ireland and the Irish. How can such an assertion be justified?

Where Does American History Begin?

I shall begin my argument by looking not at Irish history but at the history of America. Did American history start with Columbus or the Pilgrim Fathers? Evidently not: America (or the Americas) was populated by various indigenous peoples before those events so the continent’s history must include the history of those people as well as of the Europeans who came later. And those Europeans brought with them their own past history which profoundly influenced their subsequent behaviour.

During a recent BBC documentary about Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon spoke of his shock when a much earlier documentary, produced in the USA in 1969 drew a huge amount of opprobrium with sponsors pulling out because of the inclusive nature of the political message it contained. Simon confessed that prior to this he had no idea that the whole population of the USA did not share the liberal ideals with which he had been brought up in the North East and which he took for granted. To me that is an illustration of the different histories of the states in the North and the South of the US. And not just the Civil War, but the different histories that migrants to the North and to the South brought with them from Europe.

But American history is perhaps different from that of other places in a very particular way: many of the “founding fathers”, as those early settlers are often referred to, came to America to start a new life because they did not like aspects of life in Europe. This is true, too, of many of those who came later: the way their original homeland was being governed left them destitute or persecuted or treated as second class citizens. They were driven by the belief that they could make a better life for themselves and their families in this new land of opportunity. So the culture, the politics and social attitudes that shaped the new land inevitably diverged from the pattern of history that continued to evolve in their former homes. And it must follow also that the history of those former homes is different from what it might have been had they remained.

Roman and Other Influences on Britain

Going further back in time and looking at the British Isles, can it not be said that differences between England and the rest of the mainland and islands of this highly influential archipelago are the result of the Roman occupation? This was a period during which there was much greater assimilation between the invaders and the indigenous people close to the points of invasion than was the case beyond the borders of modern England. As a consequence Celtic influences remain strong in Scotland, Ireland and Wales 1500 years after the Romans’ departure. The North and South of the archipelago were similarly subjected to different influences by subsequent invasions and occupations. Thus the Viking influence is stronger in the North whilst the Norman influence is stronger in the South. Ireland, like England, suffered, if that is the right word, at the hands of both these later occupying forces.

Finally, when looking at Irish history it is impossible to ignore the fact that Ireland as an independent nation is less than a century old. Its creation was followed by a brief but bloody civil war that is still within living memory for some of its oldest citizens and continues to have a strong influence on the nation’s politics and culture. And yet despite that independence it retains a strong affinity with the remainder of the archipelago. Meanwhile, the part of the island of Ireland which remains within the United Kingdom, was the source of violent rebellion that spilled onto the streets of England and the Republic as recently as the 1970s and ‘80s. Indeed, as I write, protesters are issuing death threats to politicians in Northern Ireland over a decision to cease flying the Union flag on public buildings except on certain days, an issue that must seem incomprehensible to the majority of outsiders.

To conclude then, it seems to me to be axiomatic that, whether the specific subject under discussion is architecture, music, literature, the visual arts, politics or even the landscape it is inextricably linked to the history of the place where these things are found. In short, history belongs with place and people, not the other way around.

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