By Kevin O’Sullivan
Amid the deception, the outrage and the dark, dark humour of it all, last week’s events set me thinking about how we get to the history of the ordinary. In thirty years’ time, when historians – if they even wait that long – get to writing about the collapse of the Irish state, they will have no shortage of indignant voices to draw from. On Friday, the Irish Times carried ‘Two pages of your letters to the Editor’. On Saturday, the Financial Times devoted dozens of column inches to ‘Ireland on the Brink’. The front of this morning’s Metro Herald (or whatever it’s called these days) carries a photo of a hand-made paper sign posted at the entrance to the Department of an Taoiseach: ‘Traitors’.
It won’t stop there. The lucky few to access the RTÉ archives will get a glimpse and an earful of life after the horse has bolted. There will be a whole generation of emigrant stories to draw from, as the refugees of the ‘knowledge economy’ find their talents better valued elsewhere. And a raft of ‘new’ Irish, too, will find their voices and interpretations of life in post-Tiger Ireland.
I could go on. But what’s troubling me is not the process of documenting public outrage. It is simply to wonder, as we live through extraordinary times, how much of their crushing ‘ordinariness’ will be discarded or simply missed by future historians. I’m not claiming that people are uninterested in the manoeuvrings of the EU and the IMF and the massive impact they will have on their lives. However much his words were chosen in the interests of political points scoring, Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes’s comments on the government’s extraordinary ‘we’re fine’ line last week captured the mood of a nation: ‘it’s a pile of shit … and you don’t believe it’. Instead, I liken it to the complexity, and rapid reversion to an ‘ordinary’ existence visible in accounts of life under siege; at one extreme, in Anne Frank’s diaries or Emir Suljagić’s Postcards from the Grave (2005), or, at the other, in the literature of John McGahern or Brian Friel.
On a short, two-week trip to film a television documentary in Angola three years ago, I was struck by how much I had been conditioned to expect a certain kind of response from a population who lived in the horrific conditions of Luanda’s slums. What I saw, knee-deep in what I hoped was mud, was not the expected ‘daily fight for survival’, not a sustained depression weighing on their shoulders, or waiting around for aid money to lift them from destructive poverty. Just the simple routines of everyday life – however unimaginably difficult those lives were from our eyes – and a sustained laugh with (at?) the sunburning Irish asking the wrong questions.
It left me with a puzzle: how to capture the ordinary reactions to extraordinary events. What, in thirty years’ time, will be made of the thousands who preferred to tune into the latest warblings of that woman on X-Factor on Saturday night? The 10,000 who turned up to the Galway hurling final replay in Athenry? Or the Dublin student – not typical I admit (hope) – overheard on a Dublin Bus last week, whose only worry was that ‘the recession is over before my birthday’? Do we ever really understand the nature of popular reactions to events and times like these? How can we get to them? Through diaries and first person accounts? Through blogs, the letter pages of newspapers and Liveline? By engaging with oral history? Or do we simply risk hearing the prepared response of individuals who have been conditioned to think a certain way about events that were experienced differently in their own lives?
Not new questions by any stretch of the imagination, but important ones nonetheless.