By Kevin O’Sullivan
Ok, I know what you’re thinking: another piece of shameless self-promotion from a member of the Pue’s collective. Well I can promise you, this is far from that. We are living – in case you hadn’t noticed – through historical times. The fabric of our economic and social systems is unravelling before our eyes, while our politicians continue to play the ‘game’ of electioneering and party politics. I never thought I’d see the day when the spectre of a chess-playing Charles Haughey hovering over my name would seem less threatening than a click to the front page of The Irish Times. On Friday (21 January 2011), I even found myself agreeing with John Waters in the same newspaper (a momentous occasion indeed): ‘No matter how bad things get, our collective sense of what is important can always be diverted into the drama of politics, which we are prone to mistake for reality.’
But what – if anything – are historians to make of it? How do we relate our discipline to the state that is crumbling all around us? And how far, indeed, can we write the history of the recent past? Chaired by Diarmaid Ferriter, and featuring myself and an esteemed contributor to this parish, Brian Hanley, along with the social historian Mary Muldowney, the Irish Historical Society hosts a roundtable discussion on contemporary history tomorrow night (25 January 2011) from 19.00 at Boston College, 42 St. Stephen’s Green. It’s free, as it always is, so if you’re about, it would be great to hear your thoughts on that subject: the challenges of contemporary Irish history; how we write it, and what we can write.
If not, it might be interesting to continue the discussion here. Just how contemporary can contemporary history be? What are the pitfalls – and, indeed, the benefits – of writing the history of the recent past? What tools, sources and theoretical models can we use? Can we even do it?
As a starting point, I’d like to leave you with a quote from the latest edition of John Tosh and Seán Lang’s The Pursuit of History (Harlow, 2006: p. 50) that I was reminded of when preparing for tomorrow’s seminar:
‘…The recent past has also often proved a fertile breeding ground for crude myths – all the more powerful when their credibility is not contested by scholarly work. Academic neglect of contemporary history therefore has dangerous consequences. But the fulfillment of history’s practical functions does not mean the abandonment of more distant methods – far from it…’