What use are historians anyway?

By Kevin O’Sullivan

It’s been a tough few months for history. In June, Diarmuid Whelan, lecturer in international politics at UCC, died at the age of just 37. The following month Peter Hart passed away in Newfoundland. And on Friday 6 August the profession lost Tony Judt, professor of European Studies at New York University, author of Post War: A History of Europe since 1945 (2005) and frequent essayist for the New York Review of Books, The New Republic, the TLS and the London Review of Books.

They left many friends, co-travellers, correspondents and discontents among history circles. Yet their work was also vitally important to a world beyond the gated communities of academia. Whelan’s searches through the Owen Sheehy-Skeffington collection in the National Library unearthed Peter Tyrrell’s Founded on Fear, a memoir of his life in Letterfrack Industrial School in the 1920s and 1930s and a vital contribution to the debate on child abuse in Ireland. The public view of Hart’s work may have, as one poster (Captain Rock) put it to Pue’s, ‘differed greatly from the academy’, but its findings and – most significantly – the debate it sparked were an important contribution to changing perceptions of Ireland and Irishness in the late 1990s. Judt’s contribution with Ill Fares the Land (2010) was a global one, but no less important to Irish society in its assertion that ‘something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today’.

It also showed what a good marriage hindsight and present politics sometimes make. Though flawed in parts, Ill Fares the Land is still the most inspirational book by a historian I’ve read in a long time. It reads – intentionally – like a call to arms for social democracy. It reflects the fears and aspirations of a man diagnosed with motor neurone’s disease in 2008 and conscious of his time on this earth. But in its eloquence and use of precedent from the recent and not-so-recent past, it also shows just what the profession has to contribute to the rebuilding of contemporary society.

The book begins, fittingly, with a quote from an eighteenth-century Irishman, Oliver Goldsmith: ‘Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay.’ What follows is an attack on the maladies of Western society: the dominance of neo-liberal economics and its faith in the ‘value’ of every thing; the rise and consolidation of individualism; the poverty of the Left and its inability, post-1989, to replenish the unravelling quilt of socialist doctrine; and the need for a re-generation of the values of social democracy. And it ends with a telling, and critical, admonition to link our dreams of the future to the lessons of our past.

But it is the book’s final lines that encapsulate what the best in our profession have achieved: ‘if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge. Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ That, for a world consumed by anti-intellectualism, fears of the same, grey philistinism, and distance from ‘real life’, is a most fitting epilogue.

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One Response to “What use are historians anyway?”

  1. Tony Judt: A passionate historian remembered | The Little Review Says:

    […] its theme is hardly the usual stuff of popular history, while his latest book Ill fares the land, a clarion call for a return to social democracy, looks set to do the […]

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