How do we write contemporary history anyway?

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…’

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4 Responses to “How do we write contemporary history anyway?”

  1. Tweets that mention How do we write contemporary history anyway? « Pue's Occurrences -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew D Devenney and MLB, Pue's Occurrences. Pue's Occurrences said: How do we write contemporary history anyway?: […]

  2. Frank Says:

    Just did a quick check on journals with contemporary history in the title and came up with the following:

    Journal of Contemporary History
    Contemporary British History
    Contemporary European History

    Can anyone add a few more to the list?

    A google search of institutes and centres studying contemporary history will also yield a vast global multitude of results which give us further insight into just how contemporary such research can be.

    I hope the IHS meeting went well and for those unable to attend a short report on the proceedings would be much appreciated.

  3. The challenges of contemporary history « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] should only lead us home – to an oft-repeated but no less important phrase: history matters. In a post to advertise the original Irish Historical Studies event, I ended with a quote from John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History (2006): The recent past has also […]

  4. What is the point? « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] History is important. Kevin has written recently on the importance of contemporary history and its challenges.  He suggests, with John Tosh, that good contemporary history has a role in […]

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