Capturing ordinary life in extraordinary times

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.

4 Responses to “Capturing ordinary life in extraordinary times”

  1. Frank Says:

    As interesting, perhaps even more so, than those whose voices are heard during the recession are the many who choose, for whatever reasons, to remain silent at this time. Consequently, any historian of this period will have to be aware of this when he or she writes about it.

  2. Brian Hanley Says:

    I think historians will be struck by the consensus in the media about how to deal with the crisis. Apart from the very early stages of the collapse in late 2008, the media was been remarkably on-message about the fact that ‘everything’ had to be on the table when it comes to public sector cuts, or reducing the minimum wage, but determined that calls for raising corporation tax or having a cap on ‘maximum wages’ are written off as hopelessly unrealistic. Note too how so many young journalists can state with confidence that Ray McSharry’s budgets in 1987-88 created the Celtic Tiger. The ‘we all lost the run of ourselves’ trope is another truism that may or may not tell us something about the era we live in. As indeed might the suggestion that we could ‘talk ourselves into recession’. If you look at opinion polls in the late 1980s the idea that you should raise taxes on wealth and protect those on social welfare was widely accepted, whereas that’s considered a far-left position now.
    On a wider level I think people will always try to cope by grasping escapism at some level, whether it be the X-Factor or something else. People went to movies and football matches during World War Two. And why not? At a basic level what happens to us in our personal lives is always more important than the ‘great’ events, until they they become too great to avoid.
    But there are shifts in mood. Last year I found mature students in particular annoyed at what they saw as the lack of concern among younger students. People seem more energised now and very large numbers of younger students took part in the march a few weeks ago. At the same time there is a fatalism about emigrating or not getting a job. This is one of those times you should be encouraging discussion in your classes!

  3. Felix Larkin Says:

    This very interesting piece reminded me of a wonderful sentence from John Updike’s BECK IS BACK: “It now seemed a marvel worth confiding that through those publicly convulsed years under two lugubrious presidents [he was referring to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon], the nation had contained catacombs of private life.” Also, to put matters in their proper perspective, can I recommend W B Yeats’ little poem POLITICS. Go and look it up!

  4. Juliana Says:

    Great post, Kevin.
    I often wonder if people treat politics pretty much the same as the X Factor. It’s often tedious, but strangely addictive. You can get temporarily quite wrapped up in the discussions and develop strong opinions about the outcome. But once you turn off the tv or close the paper you tend to get on with what you were doing. The complacency that Brian is pointing to seems to me to be partly the result of politics often appearing like a dull and repetitive television show. Are we going to have much record of the people who will be truly affected by a reduction in minimum wage or a cut in social welfare? Or, much like in the past, will their historical traces be limited to statistics?

    Juliana

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