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.