The challenges of contemporary history

By Kevin O’Sullivan

I’ve been thinking a lot (again) recently about how we do what we do. First, the squeeze on public sector spending and comments made in The Irish Times by Glen Dimplex chairman Martin Naughton– ‘it’s crazy for the Government to borrow money and then give it away on overseas aid’ (3 December 2010) – put me in mind of the travails of the Irish aid industry in the 1980s and the lessons they offer to today’s policy-makers. Then, as I sat distilling my thoughts – we’ve been here before, don’t you know – an invite came from the Irish Historical Society to take part in a roundtable discussion on the challenges of writing contemporary history. More time for reflection, further opportunity to think and talk out the future of our profession – what procrastinating historian wouldn’t jump at the chance?

Of course, holding opinions is one thing; articulating them is another. But when I set to really thinking about my own experience of doing contemporary history – I’m currently working on a history of Irish foreign aid between the late 1960s and the early 2000s – three issues stood out. Each was born of my work on humanitarianism – what is, essentially, a global undertaking – but also of the inescapable influence of international trends in shaping everything from the economics, politics, and popular culture of this state, to the fortunes of our sporting and cultural organisations – the GAA included.

My immediate thought was that a greater use of comparative history would allow us to inquire into what Michael Cronin termed contemporary Ireland’s typicality, generality and uniqueness. It would help to identify the gaps in what Ireland did not experience in common with other countries in the West – and the places that we should be looking for questions and answers.

But that process could – and should – then be taken a step further: to break free of our national moorings and begin to write Ireland into the kind of transnational histories currently en mode elsewhere in European academe. So, for example, a history of student movements from the 1960s would situate the Irish experience within a broader Western story – in Britain, the United States and further afield. Or a history of militant nationalism might emphasise the links – direct and indirect – and common experiences between the IRA, ETA in the Basque country and the Corsican FLNC.

Yet this is not simply an argument for aping European fashions. There’s a good reason why our continental counterparts tell the stories of two world wars, the spread of political and social ideologies, and the rise of the European ideal in this way: because it works. Borders are fluid, and so too are the boundaries of human experience. As historians move to analyse an era – post-1968 – marked by what Niall Ferguson et al termed The Shock of the Global (2010), it appears – to these eyes at least – that it will be next to impossible to tell the story of our island as sinn féin, ourselves alone.

(At this point I’m aware that there will be a cry from all you readers of early modern Ireland versed in Atlantic histories, Irish-Scottish studies and the bursting of European financial bubbles: this is no new idea. True, but it’s an important one nonetheless.)

It might appear self-evident to add something in this context about the importance of inter-disciplinarity. After all, historians have always been magpies when it comes to the social sciences. (As in: we take the good bits and line our historical nests with them; rather than: we get distracted by the shiny bits.) But it is, I think, an argument worth repeating. Mining the theoretical and analytical frameworks of the social and other sciences – not least through the medium of Irish Studies – seems to me to hold the keys to the kind of contemporary histories that, to paraphrase Mary Daly, are neither black nor white but forty shades of grey.* As someone trained in political science as well as history, my knowledge of international relations theory, for example, has always been indispensible to understanding the history of international affairs, and, however basic, a grounding in sociology has helped to shape my analysis of contemporary Ireland.

But exploring the myriad avenues of the social sciences 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 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.

And, as we muddle through the selective amnesia of another election campaign, these words take on a particular resonance. The problem, as Tosh underlined in 2008, is that ‘professional historians are strangely reluctant to adopt the role of expert. If they reach out to the public, it is usually to popularise academic history of a conventional kind; and most historians do not do even that, preferring to address only their academic peers’. That reluctance may have something to do with the nitpicking involved in pointing out that things aren’t quite as simple as is usually claimed. Or the fact that the history’s lessons are often difficult to extract. Yet the discipline’s importance remains incontestable: properly understanding the past will only ‘open the door to a broader sense of the possibilities of the present’. A very significant responsibility indeed.

* Mary Daly, ‘Forty shades of grey? Irish historiography and the challenges of multidisciplinarity’ in Liam Harte and Yvonne Whelan (eds.), Ireland beyond boundaries: Mapping Irish Studies in the twenty-first century (London, 2007), pp. 92-110.

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9 Responses to “The challenges of contemporary history”

  1. Tweets that mention The challenges of contemporary history « Pue's Occurrences -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Royal Irish Academy, Pue's Occurrences. Pue's Occurrences said: The challenges of contemporary history […]

  2. Sarah Says:

    I agree that we should take a more interdisciplinarian approach to Irish history, however, I’m starting to wonder myself if this is easier said than done. Neil Hegarty’s new book, ‘The Story of Ireland: In search of a new national memory’, which is part of the BBC/RTE landmark series, tries to internationalise Irish history, viewing the main events of Irish history since St. Patrick from an international perspective, instead of our usual national introspective view. And yet, he doesn’t seem to pull it off. The sentiment is a good one, but the practice seems more difficult.

  3. Andie Newton Says:

    Great Post!

  4. puesoccurrences Says:

    @ Andie – Thanks!

    @ Sarah – I think that you make a very good point here: that in practice it is difficult to undertake these kinds of history, and that the Irish have, as you say, to date been introspective.

    I’d make the distinction, though, between being interdisciplinary and being comparative or being transnational in approach. It is, for example, possible to adopt an interdisciplinary approach and still be very insular.

    I’m absolutely agreed that it’s not easy to write the kind of history that ‘internationalises’ Ireland’s story – particularly given that people are not necessarily trained in that tradition here – but I think it’s certainly worth trying.

    If we try comparative history and the comparisons don’t seem to be there, then that’s fine – but I think that will highlight some of Ireland’s ‘uniqueness’ and help to bring some of the cultural factors that shape our history to the fore. Bill Kissane’s work on Ireland and Finland, Eunan O’Halpin on Ireland and Afghanistan, and Julia Eichenberg’s comparison of post-WWI Ireland and Poland are all good examples of comparative history working, and bringing something new to the table.

    Transnational history is, of course, an entirely different beast, and in many ways a much more difficult undertaking. It takes a very different approach and – and here’s another thing that we seem to miss in Ireland – a better approach to using foreign languages. In transnational history, the focus is removed from the state to look at the issue at stake, with a focus on issues that have no national boundaries. That makes the research and writing all the more difficult, yes, but certainly worth attempting.


  5. Juliana Says:

    Really great post Kevin.

    In my recent reading of Tosh, I marked the same quote because it struck me as a more sophisticated and ‘operational’ phrasing of the usual hoary chestnut arguing for the importance of history so as to avoid repeating it. I was sorry to miss the IHS discussion, it sounds like it was really good.

    I’ve had a lot more cause to deal with scientists of late which reminds me how much better they are at presenting their work to the public. Some of this no doubt derives from a kind of scientific egotism which accepts that what they do is not just important but integral to human society. It also derives from expectation from scientific funding bodies that public engagement is part of the scientist’s professional role. This was not the case in the not very distant past. I would have hope that the same interest in more than superficial popularizing is now abroad in the history community (especially younger historians) and will lead to change in the historian’s public role.

    This is, as Kevin has pointed out, not unrelated to either interdisciplinarity or to transnational history. If we truly think that history is integral to humanity than it must be the history of humanity that we aim for. This means being aware of the ways in which different disciplines address the same questions that historians do and acknowledging that the political state is not always the correct viewpoint from which to pose a question.


  6. puesoccurrences Says:

    @ Juliana


    I think it’s interesting to hear about the links to the sciences. This might appear tangential, but a number of things have put me in mind recently of the idea of doing ‘big ideas’ history. Three things in fact: I’ve been watching a bit of Tony Robinson’s Channel 4 series about the origins of Britain; I’ve been reading Neil McGregor/BBC’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’; and this morning on the commute I was listening to an old episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ about the Neanderthal – what the species was, its habits, etc. It struck me, as it always does when listening to that kind of analysis, that what is being constructed in labs, etc – as archaeologists also do – is essentially history. It’s history of a different kind, in that it’s not text based, but it’s history nonetheless. And focussing on something like climate change and its effects on the globe creates a whole new framework for ideas and how we think about the world. Not least since the existence of the modern state – and even modern society – is so relatively young in planetary terms.

    But I think it’s the sentiment of your last paragraph that really hits the nail on the head:

    ‘If we truly think that history is integral to humanity than it must be the history of humanity that we aim for. This means being aware of the ways in which different disciplines address the same questions that historians do and acknowledging that the political state is not always the correct viewpoint from which to pose a question.’

    Spot on.


  7. 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 combatting the serious […]

  8. Help! Know any planetary history? « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] last month, in response to a post that I wrote on the practice of contemporary history in Ireland, Juliana made a simple but telling comment: If we truly think that history is integral to humanity, […]

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