REPUBLIC DAY CELEBRATION HELD IN DUBLIN FOR EIGHTH CONSECUTIVE YEAR

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

On Monday 25th April people gathered in front of the General Post Office building in Dublin city centre. The occasion was the commemoration and celebration of the reading of the Proclamation of Independence by Patrick Pearse outside that same building, shortly after the 1916 Rising had begun under his overall command. Standing nearby during the reading had been James Connolly, Commandant of the GPO Garrison and also commanding officer of the Irish Citizen Army. Both were executed by the British weeks later for their part in the Rising, along with another thirteen (twelve in Dublin, one in Cork) and months later Roger Casement was tried in civilian court in London and hung.

 

Tom Stokes, who has been a chief organiser of this event since 2010, opened the proceedings, addressing the crowd and the flag colour party. He reminded his audience that in 1917 it had been Republican women who had organised the 1916 commemoration, printing many copies of the Proclamation and pasting them around the city, also defying British military law to gather outside the GPO to mark the events.

Tom Stokes speaking at the event outside the GPO (photo: D.Breatnach)

Among the reasons for this given by Stokes was that many Republican men had but recently been released from British prisons and concentration camps but also that the women had a special stake in the Republic for which the Rising had taken place – they in particular stood to gain from its achievement the status of citizens and many other changes in their status as a result.

So it was appropriate, Stokes said, to have women take prominent roles in the event, starting with Evelyn Campbell, who accompanied herself on guitar while singing her compositions Fenian Women Blues and Patriotic Games.

Evelyn Campbell performing (photo: D.Breatnach)

Following that, Tom Stokes gave the main oration, outlining his vision of a Republic and castigating the Irish state for what it had produced instead, in particular attacking its treatment of women and declaring that abortion was a private matter in which the State had no right to interfere.

This was followed by Fiona Nichols, in period costume, reading the Proclamation and after that came Dave Swift in Irish Volunteer costume, reading a message given by a wounded James Connolly  (he had been injured Thursday of Easter Week by a ricochet in Williams Lane while on a reconnaissance mission).

Fiona Nichols reading the 1916 Proclamation.
(photo: D.Breatnach)

Cormac Bowell, in period Volunteer costume played an air on the bagpipes, Fergus Russel sang The Foggy Dew, Bob Byrne sounded The Last Post on the bugle and Evelyn Campbell came forward again, this time to accompany herself on guitar singing Amhrán na bhFiann.

Cormac Bowell playing at the event.
(photo: D.Breatnach

Tom Stokes thanked the performers and everyone else for their attendance and said he hoped to see them all again on the 24th April 2018, which will be a Tuesday. He said it was his wish that this day be an annual National Holiday and they had started the annual celebration because no-one else was doing it.

Some of those present marched to Moore Street with a Moore Street campaign banner, taking the GPO Garrison’s evacuation route on Friday of Easter Week through Henry Place, past the junction with Moore Lane and on to Moore Street, where Dave Swift, still in Irish Volunteer uniform, competing with the noise of construction machinery coming from the ILAC’s extension work, read the Proclamation before all dispersed, leaving the street to street traders, customers, passers-by and builders.

 

A chríoch.

 

 

Bugler Bob Byrne sounding The Last Post.
(photo: D.Breatnach)

(photo: D.Breatnach)

(photo: D.Breatnach)

(photo: D.Breatnach)

(photo: D.Breatnach)

Dave Swift reading Connolly’s statement after he had been wounded. (Photo: D. Breatnach)

 

 

RENOWNED COMPOSER CHOOSES DUBLIN FOR WORLD PREMIER OF HIS MOST FAMOUS WORK

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

On 13th April 1742, Dublin City heard the world première of the Messiah oratorio (a bit like an opera but not quite), composed by George Frideric Handel. The choice of Dublin shows the importance the city had in the European Anglo world, probably second only to London at that time, the city in which German-born-and-raised Handel had based himself.

A drawing representing the Great Musick Hall in Fishamble St (image source Wikipedia)

It may be also that Handel wished to remove himself from Anglican Church criticism and interference in of work built on religious material, problems he had encountered in London.

Incidentally, there is a tradition that Handel also played the organ in St. Michan’s (Protestant) church in Church Street (but not the organ that survives there today).

The oratorio was written in English, something of rupture in Handel’s work which had been firmly based in Italian-language opera. However, the fashion in London was changing and Handel gave in to it, writing first Esther in English, then the Messiah. The somewhat radical Englishman Charles Jennens wrote the libretto (like a script or text passages) for Handel to work in the musical score.

 

A COLONIAL CITY

Dublin in 1742 would have been primarily English-speaking, with pockets of Irish-speakers from the surrounding countryside and further afield, with linguistic artifacts of Irish and Norse audible in the English spoken by the lower social orders in the city, some of which survive to this day.

Ireland was then recovering from “the Irish Famine of 1740–1741 (Irish: Bliain an Áir, meaning the Year of Slaughter) in the Kingdom of Ireland, (which) was estimated to have killed at least 38% of the 1740 population of 2.4 million people, a proportionately greater loss than during the worst years of the Great Famine of 1845–1852.

The famine of 1740–41 was due to extremely cold and then rainy weather in successive years, resulting in food losses in three categories: a series of poor grain harvests, a shortage of milk, and frost damage to potatoes. At this time, grains, particularly oats, were more important than potatoes as staples in the diet of most workers.

Deaths from mass starvation in 1740–41 were compounded by an outbreak of fatal diseases. The cold and its effects extended across Europe, but mortality was higher in Ireland because both grain and potatoes failed. This is now considered by scholars to be the last serious cold period at the end of the Little Ice Age of about 1400–1800.” (Wikipedia).

Of course, it would not be the primary sufferers of famine, the poor (and largely the natives) who would attending the event and this was made clear by the advice to prospective audience members to leave their “swords and hoopskirts” at home so as not to overcrowd the premiere.

The main elements of the Penal Laws were still in place in 1742 and the Irish Parliament in College Green admitted only Anglicans, thereby barring representation not only from the huge majority of the Catholic faith but also from the next largest group, the Presbyterians and all the other ‘Dissenter’ groups.

However, the audience for the premiere may well have had wide representation from the higher social classes in Dublin across religious lines. Handel was, after all, a superstar!

George Friderik Handel without his wig
(Image source: Internet)

A tradition arose over the years for audience members to arise as the Halleluyah chorus begins. This is based on a belief that King George was so impassioned by hearing it that he stood up, obliging the audience to do so too so as not to remain seated when the King was standing. Of course, knowing the reason for that tradition would be enough to to keep any democratic republican firmly seated. But apparently the story is without foundation and it is not even certain that the murderous Royal was even present at a London performance.

The Messiah was performed in the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street (see video by Wayne Fitzgerald — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHWDJjS_JkU — the white arch is all that remains of it today). That street was a busy medieval one, close to what was the seat of foreign domination since the Norse built their fortifaction by Dubh Linn some time around 841. The Normans, after driving them out in 1171 and banishing them to Oxmanstown, constructed their own castle there in increments as they gradually became the “English” and remained in formal control until 1921.

I watched (if that’s the right word) a performance of the Messiah some years ago in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, not far from Fishamble Street. I had bought tickets only as a favour to a friend visiting Dublin and I was really impressed with it. The performers often stood on the pews to deliver their lines and I remember, despite my atheism, being uncomfortable with this – cultural conditioning runs deep!

No wonder the oratorio was a raging success in Dublin in the 1740s and since. At the Dublin performance, “the alto soloist, Susanna Cibber, was an actress who had attracted scandal in the past, but legend has it that her emotional performance of ‘He was despised’ moved Dr Patrick Delany – the husband of one of Handel’s most ardent champions – to exclaim ‘Woman, for this, be all your sins forgiven’” (!)  It took the London higher classes a little longer to take to the oratorios but they did so in time.  One is reminded of Shaw’s comment that went something like this: “No-one could accuse the English of failing to note a work of genius — providing someone was kind enough to point it out to them.”

 

End.

 

SOURCES
https://www.bsomusic.org/stories/5-things-you-might-not-know-about-handels-messiah.aspx

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Famine_(1740–41)

https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/the-story-behind-the-triumphant-premiere-of-handels-messiah

 

 

THE SCREAM ON A DECEMBER NIGHT

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

A high-pitched but hoarse scream cuts through the night. Again and again it is heard, then is silent. A frightening sound, perhaps of a person being attacked …. But no, it is a vixen, a female red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Why is she screaming? Is she in pain?  Not exactly — she is informing dog-foxes in the area that she is ready to mate and where they can find her.

Vixen screaming (sourced on Internet)

Vixen screaming (sourced on Internet)

 

But this is December and, according to Internet site after site dealing with foxes in Britain and in Ireland, she is at least a month early1. Perhaps she is a rare exception, this vixen in the Drumcondra area but it seems to me more likely that the sites have it wrong: either urban foxes breed earlier or the breeding pattern of foxes is changing. Actually, a combination of both is likely.

A vixen breeding in January would give birth to her cubs just over 50 days later, when in rural areas the earth is warming up in the Spring and when lambs are born, hares are boxing, eggs are being laid, greens are growing and being eaten by rabbits – in other words, food is becoming available for the vixen. Obviously vixens breeding in February or March will have yet more food available in April or May but may also find greater competition, in food and for a mate.

Say this rural vixen conceived on 1st January, then she would give birth on or around 22nd February. She will need feeding just before that and probably up to 24th March, a task falling to the dog fox and to unmated young females who may be part of the community. The cubs need the warmth of the mother’s body for up to three weeks after birth and she cannot leave the den. One month after giving birth the mother vixen may go hunting while the “aunts” look after the cubs, who are now venturing out of the den or “earth” (but staying very close to it).

The food brought to the young is carried inside the hunters’ bellies and regurgitated for the young to consume along with their mother’s milk which they will suckle until six weeks of age. After weaning, the cubs will eat solid food but cannot yet hunt for it themselves until perhaps mid-late Summer and, if males, will leave to establish their own territories in the Autumn.2 Males become sexually mature at one year of age.

A vixen breeding in December in an Irish rural area might have difficulty receiving enough sustenance in January or even early February, especially in decades past when winters were usually harder. However, with changing seasonal weather patterns tending to warmer winters – and in urban areas where a lot of food tends to be available for scavenging all year round – these problems are substantially reduced and so breeding in December should present little difficulties. So the thinking goes among the vixens in Drumcondra, anyway and, I suspect, in many other Irish and British urban areas.

The male or ‘dog’ fox can be heard sometimes too in a staccato bark, normally three (but occasionally four) rapid barks: bak, bak, bak!

 

THE URBAN FOX

The urban fox is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland3, as far as we know, although in Bristol, for example, they have been recorded since the 1930s. Up to fairly recently, a number of experts maintained that the fox populations of city and countryside had little contact with one another. But in January 2014 “it was reported that “Fleet”, a relatively tame urban fox tracked as part of a wider study by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s Winterwatch, had travelled 195 miles in 21 days from his neighbourhood in Hove, at the western edge of East Sussex, across rural countryside as far as Rye, at the eastern edge of the county. He was still continuing his journey when the GPS collar stopped transmitting, due to suspected water damage.”4

 

and the Country Foxes

Decades before I heard of this I often fancifully imagined a conversation between a fox, now settled in the “big city”, and his country relations when he returned on a visit. After the initial customary welcoming, sniffing, licking etc are over, the conversation might go like this:

So, Darkie, tell us, what is life like in the big city?”

Ah, it was scary at first, with cars and buses and lorries going all day. You wouldn’t believe the noise.”

(Sympathetic whine from the audience).

But I’m used to it now, Redthree, I have to say. And the food! You could not imagine!”

Good, is it?”

Lovely, Whitepatch, absolutely delicious.”

(Sounds of salivating all around).

Chicken, beef, lamb, fish, potatoes, bread, rice, vegetables, fruit – just left out there to be eaten!”

Ah, you’re havin’ us on, Darkie. We might be “Culchies” but we’re not stupid! You expect us to believe the humans feed you like they do their dogs, do you?”

No, of course not, Greymuzzle. Well, actually a few do leave out food on purpose for us but no, this is mostly food that humans are throwing away. We find it in plastic bags and metal containers.”

They throw away food?”

They do and huge amounts of it too. Then big lorries come and take away what we have not eaten ourselves.”

Where do they take it?”

I am not sure. I’ve never troubled to find out because, to be honest, I have all the food I need nearby.”

(Silence while country foxes imagine a huge mountain of food somewhere).

Er …. Darkie, so you never hunt now?”

Oh, yes, some – the city rats and mice eat the discarded food too and they grow plump and big. Yes, I catch and eat them too.”

Well now, what about all the humans?”

What about them, Lighteyes? They don’t bother us.”

Don’t the humans have guns in the city?”

Some of them do, Lighteyes. But they don’t shoot foxes with them.”

Really? What do they shoot with their guns then?”

Other humans, Lighteyes, just other humans.”

(Noises of amazement and disbelief)

 

THE INNER CITY FOX

The Internet sites all agree that foxes are more likely in suburbia than in the inner city but I think they ignore some important features of the inner city which foxes can frequent in relative safety and around which they are likely to find sufficient food: railroad lines and their banks, canal and river banks, parks, allotments, cemeteries and derelict sites. One can’t get much closer to Dublin’s inner city than Parnell Square, yet I have seen foxes in a laneway off there and also squeezing through the railings to enter the Garden of Remembrance. They have been photographed near the Irish Parliament, the Dáil (though some people might say that’s less surprising with the number of scavengers nearby :). I’d be surprised if they are not to be found along the banks of the Dodder, the Liffey, the Tolka and both canals, also along the railway lines and in Glasnevin and other cemeteries.

Fox in Leinster House car park in the winter of 2013 (Source: Sasko Lazarov via Photocall Ireland, reproduced in Journal.ie)

Fox in Leinster House (Irish Parliament building) car park in the winter of 2013 (Source: Sasko Lazarov via Photocall Ireland, reproduced in Journal.ie)

 

According to one Internet site5, the urban fox population in Dublin may be growing too big for its own health, as the ready availability of food allows unhealthy individuals to exist, diseased and covered in mange infestation (mites that denude patches of fur). I would need to explore this argument before I could accept it.

I am familiar with the overpopulation argument in the case of grazing animals or rodents, where too many individuals consume the available resources and the whole population suffers – a fate usually occurring when natural predators are not present to thin out the weaker individuals and thereby unconsciously preserve the general population in a healthier state.

But how would this work with regard to Dublin foxes? It seems unlikely that the food available is being reduced yet and if and when it is, one presumes healthier foxes will outcompete their sicker species members. Also, sick and undernourished foxes are less likely to come into oestrous and should they do so and conceive, to be able to raise their young. It seems to me most likely that what is occurring is that foxes that would normally have been winnowed out in the struggle of survival are now able to sustain themselves, which might be distressing to see but which will not necessarily have any effect on the healthy population.6 And will healthy individuals necessarily succumb to mange infection from infested individuals? And if they do now, might they not in time learn to chase infected individuals away?

Theories of overpopulation and scare stories about foxes attacking babies, cats and so on seem prompted by the intention to cull foxes, as Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, proposed. Johnson seems unwilling to learn from history, as “there was a large and expensive effort to reduce the number of urban foxes across the UK in the 1970s, but the population subsequently bounced right back.”7 The average litter now may be four cubs but vixens have been known to bear up to a dozen and with a low population-to-high-food-sources ratio, are likely to bear a greater number of cubs. And a recent National Health Service survey in the UK indicated that nearly 60% of all stings and bites admitted to emergency rooms were inflicted by dogs8 but anyone suggesting a cull of urban dogs would probably find a gathering bearing pitchforks and burning torches outside their home.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, was proposing a cull of London foxes (source photo: Internet)

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, was proposing a cull of London foxes (source photo: Internet)

There have been claims that foxes kill and eat lambs, cats, other domestic pets and poultry. Most experts have concluded that if indeed a fox killed a lamb, such incidents are very rare. A ewe is capable of protecting a lamb from a fox, an animal not much larger than a cat. However, foxes have been found to eat the afterbirths of lambs and would of course eat a stillborn lamb or one that died soon after birth, after which its mother would leave and the opportunist would move in; such incidents may have convinced some people in rural areas that the fox was the cause of the lamb’s death.

The Foxwatch study program in Bristol city filmed a number of confrontations between urban foxes and cats and found that in all cases, it was the fox that backed down. This makes sense, for a predator does not usually take on another predator of similar size except in defence of its young, its own life or, at times, its kill.

Yes of course foxes will kill poultry if they can get at them and are often accused in such situations of going on a killing spree. Foxes do kill and gather more food than they need at times and, like many other animals, hide it for recovery later, marking the spot with their scent. But when a fox breaks into a poultry pen and kills its inhabitants, it usually has to leave with what it can carry and will not be permitted to return for the rest. The answer for humans is to build secure pens into which to bring the poultry at night – and that applies also to rabbits kept as pets or for the table, etc. — or keep a dog outside, unleashed.

Scare stories and unscientific suggestions to one side, wild animal populations living alongside humans frequently do need management. All species of bats are protected in Ireland and Britain and should you find them in your attic you are not permitted to remove them but must instead notify the appropriate authorities. Some people have suggested that the red fox should be granted protected species status but it is difficult to see the rationale for this, since it is on the species of “least concern” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Pigeons receive no protection and, though often fed by people who consider them cute or pretty, do have a negative effect on our urban environment and, in the case of seagulls, who are protected, may be responsible for the disappearance of the many species of ducks that once were common in Stephens’ Green. Rats and mice are not deliberately fed or considered cute by most people (though I have kept both myself and found the individuals tame and harmless and, in the case of rats, quite intelligent) and humanity wages war upon them with traps and poison.

Do urban foxes require management? Zoologist Dave Wall9, who has studied Dublin’s urban foxes for some years, thinks not. In his opinion, the fox population in Dublin has remained constant since the 1980s. According to statistics regularly quoted but never referenced that I can find, Dublin fox families occupy on average 1.04 Km². 10 Given a rough and probably low estimate of six individuals per fox family (a mated pair and two unmated females and two cubs) and a Dublin City area of 115 km² would give us a fox population of 663 in the city. That might seem a lot, until one hears that London holds an estimated 10,000.

Given statistics of that sort, and information that the average litter is of four cubs, one may wonder why most urban dwellers see them but rarely and also why urban foxes are not a massively growing population. There are a number of controlling influences, ranging from the need to establish territory and fight to hold it, which may cost in injuries or even death, to deaths by traffic, the most common cause of fox death according to Internet sites (although how often do we see a dead fox on the road?). A common non-captive life-span of from two to four years and a fertility “window” of only three days for a vixen would be population-controlling factors and yet the allegedly stable population is puzzling, to me at least.

The rural fox tends to inhabit, widening when necessary, burrows already excavated by rabbits and badgers. In urban areas, the fox may have to excavate its own – under buildings and sheds and into railroad banks, for example – but will also use and expand other holes and gaps.

Many urban human dwellers, probably most, never see urban foxes, although they are becoming increasingly visible. They are active mostly at dusk and shortly before dawn and are mostly likely to be seen by people who rise very early for work, or who work at night or who are returning from late night socialising on foot, by bicycle or on foot.

In the Lewisham area of South-East London where I lived for some decades, I regularly saw them on the roads while cycling home from a late music session or a friend’s house. Lewisham would be considered midway between being city and suburban in nature and contained parks, cemeteries, allotments, streams or rivers and railway lines, houses with gardens but also high-rise blocks of local authority housing and very busy roads. I once passed about three yards near to an adult fox on the housing estate I lived on for awhile between Grove Park and Eltham (also in SE London). On my allotment in Catford, if I worked until dusk (which I did often enough when I managed to find the time), they would come out and play and dig for food less than ten yards away from me. And I frequently found trainers (running shoes) and balls they had taken from outside local houses and gardens, discarded on my allotment.

A number of theories have been forwarded for the penetration of urban areas by the fox, including the shameful wiping out of rabbit populations by state-inflicted plagues of myxomatosis but the real reasons are probably the same as those of the pigeon, rat and mouse – availability of food and home provided by humans and the adaptability of the species themselves.

 

THE MOST WIDESPREAD CARNIVORE ON EARTH

Indeed, the red fox has proved an adaptable animal – much like ourselves. She is an omnivore, as are we and can take her prey from animals as large as a goose to those as small as beetles or earthworms, also frequently eating wild fruit, especially in the Autumn. Studies in the former Soviet Union found that up to 300 animal and a few dozen plant species were known to be consumed by her11. Mice and rats are frequently on her menu and her ancestors are thought to have developed as specialist rodent hunters in Eurasia five million years ago but her kind is now the most widespread carnivore on Earth, with 46 recognised subspecies.

The fox has binocular vision which is particularly effective at night, excellent hearing over distance, including the ability to detect the squeaking of mice at about 100 metres (330 ft) and capable of locating sounds to within one degree at 700–3,000 Hz, though less accurately at higher frequencies12, compensated for by an ability to hear at very low frequencies, including a rustle in grass or leaves and the burrowing of rodents underground. It has evolved many tactics for hunting, including tracking, ambush, stalking, leaping, pouncing and digging.

The fox can also run at a speed of 42 km/ hour, climb some trees, leap high and swim well. Considering the latter, its absence from many islands near to mainlands may come as a surprise but I think that is easy to explain through eradication by human agency.

The red fox is to be found everywhere in Europe (where she is thought to have reached 400,000 years ago) and in North America, Canada, China, Japan and Indochina. Sadly, in the mid-19th Century her species was introduced to Australia by European settlers (at first for sport and later perhaps to control the rabbit, also introduced there by Europeans), where a population of 7.2 million red foxes now is wreaking damage among rarer indigenous wildlife and is considered responsible for the extinction of a number of species. It is classified as the most harmful invasive species in Australia and eradication and population control measures are adopted against it there, as are also against feral domestic cats and dogs, also imported by Europeans.

The dingo is regarded as a controlling agent on red fox population growth in Australia though not totally effective due to the fox’s habit of burrowing; this is interesting for a number of reasons: firstly, the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is itself a wild dog most likely imported from Asia by Aborigine settlers somewhere between 4,500 and 10,000 years ago and secondly, the red fox in Ireland and Britain does not tend to excavate its own burrows but rather to enlarge existing ones and then generally only for mating and rearing cubs. The Red Fox is currently absent from Iceland, Greenland, South America and sub-Saharan Africa.

The fox has been hunted by humans primarily for its fur, especially in winter when it is thicker and from foxes in the far north its silkiness is considered very valuable.

Reynard (one of the names traditionally given to the fox) has also been hunted for sport, usually by the aristocracy or country gentry, on horseback with hounds, an activity which gave rise to one of Oscar Wilde’s many memorable phrases: The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Of course, it was not only the English who did this but also the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (from which Wilde’s father himself came) and the upwardly-climbing Irish who aped them, ag sodar i ndiaidh na nuaisle.13 There have been numerous attempts to get fox-hunting banned and direct action such as protests and sabotage of hunts but it is still legal in Ireland and in Britain, though substantially reduced from a century ago.

Gamekeepers have also hunted the fox in order to keep it from killing ground-nesting birds such as wild pheasants, grouse and partridge, so that the landowner and his friends could shoot these birds down later14. Finally, the farmer has taken his toll, sending specially-bred dogs such as cairn terriers down earths to kill a hiding fox and in particular the cubs. The farmer wishes to protect his poultry but avoid the cost of building secure pens and so hunts foxes down; he could let his dogs roam his poultry area which would keep foxes away but dogs do often go chasing sheep too, which will also represent a loss to the farmer, either because the sheep are his or because his neighbours will claim compensation from him.

 

AN MAIDRÍN RUA and tradition

In Ireland, the fox was known as Sionnach, Madagh Rua (“red dog”) or Maidrín Rua (“little red dog”) and has given its name to a number of places, eg Cnoc an tSionnaigh (Fox Hill, Co. Mayo; another as a street name in Co. Laois); Oileán an tSionnaigh (Fox Island, Co. Galway); Carraig an tSionnaigh (Foxrock, Co. Dublin); possibly Léim an Mhadaigh, (Limavady, Co. Derry) and Lag an Mhadaigh (Legamaddy, Co. Down); possibly Ráth Sionnaigh (Rashenny, Co. Donegal), etc.15

Fox is also a family name and the Irish language version of it is Mac an tSionnaigh (literally “Fox’s son”).  The Maidrín Rua or Sionnach features in a number of songs in Irish and in English and here is one from the Irish language tradition of song but in a non-traditional choral arrangement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bJyqbPxTwU.

Widely represented in folklore from China to Ireland, the fox is also mentioned in the Old Testament Bible and in Greek stories such as the fables of Aesop as well as among the Indigenous people of the Northern Americas. He is never stupid but his intelligence or cunning is also often portrayed as devious, tricky and even malicious. On the other hand, let us not forget that the anti-feudal Mexican hero created by USA writer Johnston McCulley (February 2, 1883 – November 23, 1958), who fights for the downtrodden and indigenous people and mocks the Mexican aristocracy and large landowners, always escaping them, used the nom-de-guerre of “El Zorro”, the fox.

There is a sexual connection too in the representation for the fox: for example in English a “foxy lady” is one with a high level of sexual attraction and in Castillian (Spanish) a “zorra” (vixen) is a pejorative term for a woman trading in sexual favours or “of low morals”16. Have we come around in a circle to where we began, to the vixen’s scream? I think so, but loaded now with a patriarchal outlook. Men can openly want and enjoy sex, of course, that is natural – but a woman? Surely not … or, if she does, she must be bad!

 

End.

 

 

Internet Sources:

http://www.thejournal.ie/fox-urban-dublin-1537602-Jun2014/

http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/wildlife/mammals/foxes/family-life.html

http://www.wildlifemanagement.ie/dublins-urban-foxes/

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/our-confused-relationship-with-foxes-cull-them-feed-them-hunt-them-kill-them-1.1251806

http://www.newsfour.ie/2013/04/city-fox-controversy/

http://www.noticenature.ie/files/enfo/factsheet/en/WL33%20Foxes.pdf

http://www.conserveireland.com/mammals/red_fox.php

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_fox

https://books.google.ie/books?id=GjK93IUdAX4C&pg=PA96&lpg=PA96&dq=fox+can+hear+low+frequencies&source=bl&ots=BdWCosvgXg&sig=z76bvVOGnUjEQMnGTf4w44mqTyU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjN-dOm7v7QAhXoKsAKHQtsCGcQ6AEILTAD#v=onepage&q=fox%20can%20hear%20low%20frequencies&f=false

 

Footnotes:

1This is one of the very few sites to state that breeding may start in December http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/wildlife/mammals/foxes/family-life.html and Wikipedia also gave December as the start of the mating season and also as the month when the dog-fox’s testes are heaviest.

2Young females may remain another season and help care for the next litter of cubs.

3Although one article, without giving a reference, stated that foxes have been in Dublin since Victorian times.

6Other feature which makes this claim suspect are a number of scare items in the article: a) the sensationalist reference to the alleged danger to a baby from a fox in a bedroom and a link to the article reporting this event. Such an event, supposing it occurred, must be on a level of likelihood way below the danger to babies from, for example, pet cats and dogs. Also b) the reference to the danger of contracting roundworm (Toxocara canis), which can cause toxocariasis in children, while not however mentioning how low that risk is and that infection for children is most likely to be encountered from dogs and cats.

9Dave Wall B.A. is a postgraduate researcher in zoology at UCD. He has studied otters, marine mammals and Alpine badgers as well as studying Dublin’s urban foxes for the past few years. He is a Director of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.

12Ibid

13“Trotting after the nobles”, a derogatory phrase in Irish.

14Gamekeepers in Ireland and Britain also shot, poisoned or trapped badgers, otters, pine martens, stoats, escaped mink, eagles, hawks, buzzards, crows and magpies and often hung their carcasses in near their lodges to display their diligence in their tasks

16Often the condemnation of “low morals” is applied to a sexually active female but not to a sexually active male.

VARIATIONS ON A NAME

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Gaelic football team Sheares Brothers has been doing very well for a change. A reporter from the Irish Times is about to conclude his interview of the club’s Bainisteoir).

gaa-empty-field-changing-rooms

(Photo sourced: Internet)

Your club’s local nickname is “the Pats”, I’m told.

Yes, I’ve heard that too.

Is it true – what I’ve been told – that all your players, in your entire team, are called Patrick?

Well, now, many are named Patrick, right enough, but they are not all called Patrick.

[Reporter jots down in his notebook: ‘named not called – wtf???’]    Does that not cause problems, though, on the field? I mean, it must be difficult at times for your players to know to which of them the Captain is referring when he shouts out: “Patrick”.

[The interviewer smiles. He has shown the ridiculousness of this situation].   (Fucking unbelievable that this team got as far as its current position in the League! he thinks)

No, not all. Sure if the Captain called out “Patrick”, he’d be referring to himself! That would be a strange thing to do, for sure, to be talking to himself! Well, when with the team, anyway.

(This man is an idiot. An idiot managing a ridiculous team. Still, get the interview done, file the story. Then the pub ….)   Ok …. what if he wants to say, to indicate to a player, to pass the ball to the left midfielder? Would he just call the position – as in “Pass the ball to Left Midfield”?

Well, he might …. but he’d more likely say “Give Paudie the ball”. That’s Paudie’s usual position, you see.

Oh, right.

No, left.

(What a thicko!)     I meant “ok”. Your left Midfielder’s nickname is “Paudie”?

Well, it’s the name he goes by anyhow. Paudie Whelan.

So are all your players called a variation on Patrick?

Pretty much, yes.

Fifteen variations on Patrick?  And no repetitions?  That’s not possible, is it?

It seems to be.

OK, all right …. what about say, your Centre Forward?

Pa. Pa Walsh.

Hmm. Left Forward?

Packy Ó Braonáin.

Right Forward?

Emm …

(Got you now!)

Sorry, he’s just back from an injury. Patchy …. Patchy Stokes.

Left Half-Forward?

Patchik Mulhearn.

Centre Half-Forward?

Paddy plays that position – Paddy McGuinness.

Right Half-Forward?

Patch Hennessy.

(Has to run out of them soon).    Left Mid-Field?

You had his name already – Paudie Whelan.

(Smartass!)    Yes, of course. Right Mid-Field?

That’d be Pád Óg Trainor.

That’s P, a, u, d ……

No. P, á, d; Ó, g.

Right.

Right Half-Back?

No, I meant just “Right” , as in “OK’.

Right.

(Is he taking the piss?)    Well ….. where was I?

Midfield.

Yes …. thanks …. Right Half-Back?

I thought you said ….? Never mind …Paudeen Sullivan.

Centre Half-Back?

Pád …. Pád Carney.

P, a, u ….

No, P, á, d; C, a, r ….

I know how to spell Carney, thanks.

Oh, ok.

Left Half-Back?

That’s Patrick … our Captain. Patrick Burke.

Left Corner-Back?

Ah ….

(Have I got him?)

Ah, sorry ….

(Aha! At last!)

Pat Sheehan. His name slipped me mind there for a minute, sorry.

Oh …. Ah. Good. Full Back?

Páraic Ó Flaithearta. Will I spell it for you?

(Fucking smart-ass! I’ll get it from their website. Just let me run him out of Patrick variants first.)    No, it’s ok, I know my koopla fokol, gurra mah hugut.

Muise, tá fáilte romhat. Bail ó Dhia ort.

Well …. let’s carry on. Right Corner-Back?

Pádraig. Pádraig Lehane.

(Got you now!)  Pádraig. The same as the man next to him, the Full Back.

No, that’s Páraic. P, á, r, a, i, c.

Oh!  Ok, yes, I see. My mistake. Goalie?

Patsy O’Farrell.

Yes. Well, thanks. Yes …. I don’t suppose your substitutes are called Patrick?

No, neither is.

Oh, good.

Sorry?

Good … good story, thanks. I must be going ….

Don’t you want to know their names?

The subs?

Yes.

OK, yes I suppose. Yes, please.

PJ Hanley and Packer Dunne.

I …. see …. ‘PJ’ as in ….. Patrick Joseph?

Dead on!

Um … Well …. Thanks for your time. All the best for your next game in the League. I don’t suppose, heh, heh, your Junior team are all variants of Patrick too?

Ah, not at all! Of course not. Sure, that would be awful confusing. No, there’s Michael Fitzgerald, Mick Smith, Mickey Doyle, Mícheál Connors, Micilín Seoighe, Mikhail ….

End.

 

Appendix:

 

The Sheares Brothers GAA team.

Packy Ó Braonáin, Pa Walsh, Patchy Stokes.

Patchik Mulhearn, Paddy McGuinness, Patch Hennessy.

Paudie Whelan,                         Pád Óg Trainor.

Patrick Burke, Pád Carney, Paudeen Sullivan.

Pat Sheehan, Páraic Ó Flaithearta, Pádraig Lehane.

                       Patsy O’Farrell.

Subs: PJ Hanley, Packer Dunne

ASKING FOR IT!

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

travelling-bag-womans-legs

(image from Internet)

It was nearly ten o’clock at night when she approached me on a badly-lit street near Dublin’s North Circular Road. I had paused my bicycle to send a text on my mobile and I saw her coming towards me. I had the impression that, just before she made for me, she had been looking around as though to determine where she was – perhaps I had seen her doing that in my peripheral vision.

She had a handbag and was dragging one of those suitcases with an extending handle and trundling on little wheels. As she reached me, I asked her could I help her with directions, which actually interrupted her asking me for help. But that was ok, it worked against her being totally dependent, the asker – after all, I had asked too.  She had a USA accent.

Yes, of course I would help if I could.

Did I know the whereabouts of a certain hotel? Well, the area in the hotel’s name I do know but I didn’t recall the hotel itself. And sometimes they give themselvess the name of somewhere known or popular even though their hotel is not near the place at all.

Did she have the street name? No.

The phone number? Somewhere in her bag (she meant her case).

I explained that I don’t have Internet on my mobile phone but she could look it up on Google map?  She doesn’t have Internet access on her phone either.

Can she afford a taxi? Yes, of course.

Well, why not hail one? She has done that but they tell her the hotel is just down the road.

Well, why not ask them to take her there? She has, but they tell her it’s just down the road.

Hmmmm – a sliver of doubt entered my brain. Taxi drivers refusing a short drive fare on a weekday night? To an address with which they are familiar? And leaving a woman, clearly a tourist, on her own in that area on foot ….. Something is wrong with this story.

Still … what to do?

OK, so I’ll ride around on the bike and find the place (even if I have to stop a taxi and ask the driver, I was thinking). Then I’ll come back and tell her (and accompany her there too, I think to myself).

She is very grateful but I think it is not safe for her to wait for me here. Perhaps the courtyard of a pub a little further back? A well-lit one.

OK.

I walk the bike, she trundles the case. Talks about her plans for her two-week stay, which appear to be to arrive in Dublin and then figure out where to go from there. Relates having been booked into a Dublin hostel which another passenger on a bus told her was in a bad district so she didn’t go there. Something seems wrong about this story too.

We reach the pub – it is still in business hours and the courtyard, though deserted, is brightly lit. There are tables and chairs and and I ask her to wait there for me and I’ll be back in a few minutes. She agrees.

Three minutes later I have found the hotel and in four, five at the most, I am back at the pub.

But the courtyard is empty.

Oh, no! She just got up and went?!

Wait. Maybe she asked someone where it was and set off there on her own. But then I would have passed her on the way back – I couldn’t have missed her.

Maybe …. oh God! Maybe whoever she asked volunteered to take her there. And she went with them. Got into a car ….

Ah, Jayzus! What now? Call the cops?

But now I see her ….. coming out of the pub, pulling the case, carrying her bag, all of it awkward as she manages the door….. Maybe she didn’t feel safe out there on her own and went inside …. but no, she has a pint of lager in her hand.

I remind her that I asked her to wait and that I’d be back in a few minutes. I have found the place and was ready to accompany her there but now she has bought a pint. (I am hoping she will leave the pint but no chance).

She is so grateful and would like to buy me a drink.

It’s an offer I might well have accepted when I had got her to her hotel and she had checked in. Now, though? I show her where her hotel is, a straight walk down the road I point out to her, wish her well and ride off.

Asking for it – bloody asking for it! It’s a phrase that doesn’t usually mean someone wants something bad to happen, rather that their conduct makes that a likely outcome. Unfortunately it is used too often with regard to the victims of rape, when wanting it to happen is occasionally precisely what is insinuated – smearing the victim and exonerating the attacker. But usually, conduct with predictable bad results is what is indicated; for example, leaving your bag or laptop inside your car, visible to passers-by, is asking to have your car broken into. Leaving your bike unlocked in the open out of your sight is asking to have it stolen.

Surely it is not a healthy situation for a person to be walking around in a badly-lit part of a strange city at ten at night? And looking like a tourist, whom a predator might therefore assume to have some money and perhaps a camera, Ipad, etc? And a woman alone, considered a defenceless potential victim?

Surely one would want to get into one’s hotel as soon as possible? OK, I understand the appeal of the pint, particularly if one has been stressed out by travel and then wandering around looking for one’s hotel. But hotels have bars, where the worst that will happen to one (or the best, depending on one’s point of view) is that it will lead to sharing one of the hotel beds with a stranger. OK, if you want local colour with your pint, find a “typical” local pub after you’ve checked in. And be sure you know your way back.

But there she had been, wandering around a badly-lit street at night looking for a hotel (and walking further away from it when I met her). And someone goes to find her hotel and asks her to wait and in less than five minutes she’s bought a pint, which means she won’t be able to go to the hotel when the guy returns. And she blithely offers to buy him a drink.

Conduct over all? Asking for it.

End.

ON THE BASQUE LANGUAGE TRAIN

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

On the platform at Mundaka there are only a few to catch the 9.18 a.m. train to Bilbao. Mundaka is a popular coastal resort town in Bizkaia province, southern Basque Country.  “Egun on” (“good day”), I greet those on the platform in Euskara in passing, the Basque language, and they reply the same.

Bizkaia Train & Notice on Track

Train on the Atxuri (Bilbao)-Bermeo line. Note the warning sign to bottom left of image, in Euskera first and Castillian second. (Photo sourced on Internet).

A young couple with two little boys come on to the only platform (for both directions) and I think I hear the woman speaking to the boys in Euskara. But soon, I make out some Castillian (Spanish) words; however it is not unusual to hear some Castillian words and even phrases scattered through Euskara conversation, in the southern Basque Country, at any rate. But no, I can tell now that the conversation between mother and child is definitely all in Castillian – I must have been mistaken earlier, when I thought they were speaking in Euskara.

Mountains over Mundaka rooftop

A view from a Mundaka building a number of stories up. The port is out of sight to the left, the station behind. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Casa de los Ingleses

“Casa de Los Ingleses”, a beautiful if rather gothic-looking old house, residence of an English family with business interests locally many years ago. I passed it on the short walk from the town to the station. Behind it there were plots being worked for vegetables, all due to disappear beneath a new car park construction. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Servants House

The residence of the servants of the Casa de Los Ingleses, a lovely building in its own right.  Its demolition is planned to make way for a new construction (see design in next photo) — my guide encouraged me to write a letter of protest to the municipality.  (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The construction planned to replace the "servants' house" after the latter has been demolished. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The construction planned to replace the “servants’ house” after the latter has been demolished. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

“Miao, miao” says the smallest boy, pointing at some feral cats dozing near the platform. “Bai, katua” replies the mother and a flood of Euskara follows, both boys and mother and occasionally father too conversing in Euskara. And so they continue until the southbound train arrives and everyone gets on, except one man, presumably waiting for a northbound train to Bermeo.

On our journey southwards, soon passing alongside salt marshlands, I note that the names of the stations are in Euskara only: Itsasbegi-Busturia, Axpe-Busturia (in the broad estuary of the Urdebai river), San Kristobal Busturia, Forua, Instituto Gernika, Gernika….

The Wikitravel entry for Gernika translates it to the Castillian “Guernica” and opens with this: Basque town which was the site of the first airborne bombing attack on a civilian town during the Spanish civil war. The bombing, by the Condor Legion of Germany’s Luftwaffe in 1937, inspired Picasso to paint the landmark cubist work Guernica, now on display at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.”

Well, yes, but one might add for clarity that it was done as part of Franco’s fascist offensive and that the fascist press later blamed it on Asturian Anarchist “fire-bombers”. And one might update it by commenting that the Basques have asked for Picasso’s painting to be located in Gernika itself, a request which the Spanish state authorities, the political descendants of the fascist victors of that war, have refused.

Train tracks Axpe Busturia

Train tracks from Axpe Busturia, the estuary to the left and salt marshes on both sides.  (Source: Internet).

Onwards again, the next stop is Lurgorri-Gernika. At the next after that, Zugast station, a middle-aged man gets on with Berria, the all-Euskara newspaper, under his arm. This periodical, being in many ways the replacement of another newspaper, Egunkaria, has a noteworthy connection with history.

Founded in 1990, Egunkaria was the first all-Euskera daily newspaper in the world; it had a left-nationalist editorial line and a journalistic outlook, which led it to report ETA statements alongside those from Spanish unionist political parties and from the State. The Basque language was no longer illegal or banned since the transición, post-General Franco, when the fascist Spanish oligarchy brought the leaderships of the social democratic party and the Communist Party on board, along with their respective trade union leaders — and called it “Democracy”.

But on 20th February 2003, the Spanish State’s militarised police, the Guardia Civil, raided the newspaper’s premises, seized records, machines and closed down the periodical. They also raided the homes or arrested at the building a total of ten people associated with the newspaper, at least four of which were tortured subsequently. For one of those, the manager, a gay man, the torture included sexual violation.

Massive protest demonstrations ensued from an outraged Basque population. The arrested were released on bail.

On 15 April 2010, seven years later, the defendants were finally acquitted on all charges relating to ‘terrorist’ connections and the judges added that there had been no justification for the closure of the newspaper in the first place.

By then, Egunkaria was beyond recovery and anyway Berria had stepped in to occupy the niche (apparently with the blessing of the Egunkaria team). The case against the State for compensation for the loss of the newspaper and also for torture remains open, sixteen years later. The Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg found the Spanish state guilty of not investigating the manager’s complaint of being tortured and ordered compensation paid. It did not, however, as it usually does not, find the state guilty of the torture itself. Of course, torture is difficult to prove, particularly when the state in question keeps political detainees for five days incommunicado, without access even to independent medical practitioners, while its police goes about getting their “confessions”

On the train journey now, the next stop has the delightful-sounding name of Muxika. This causes some amusement to a teenage boy in a nearby seat, accompanied by an older woman – they have been talking in Castillian only since they got on. I wonder are they aware that in June 2013 José Mujica, President of Uruguay until last year, visited the townland that gave rise to his surname. Mujica was presented with a key to the town by the Mayor, who is of the Basque Abertzale Left party Bildu.

The train pulls out of Muxika, then on to Zugastieta-Muxika station as we continue running southward through thick woodlands, occasional industrial parks and small allotments where an occasional middle-aged man tends to his large tomatoes, the small elongated sweet peppers of the region, courgettes, climbing beans …..

Onwards to Morebieta Geralekua before the line takes a sharp twist north-eastwards to more woodlands, rivers, streams and mountains at Lemoa, Bedia, Usansolo, Zuhatsu Galdakoa. Now the built-up areas of Ariz Basauri followed by the contrast of the picturesque Etxebarri before a southward curve to Bolueta and then eastward, to run along the Nervion river to Atxuri station in Bilbo (Bilbao), journey’s end.

All of the stations along this route were named in the Basque language – not one had a Castillian version showing (although there will be plenty of that in streets and squares in Bilbao). The public announcements on this train, as on their counterparts in the Irish 26 Counties, are bilingual but with this difference – on the Basque train, they are always in Euskara first, Castillian second. Likewise with the signage. One is never under any doubt about which language is being given primacy there, nor indeed here, where the English version comes first and, when in text, is in a more dominant type or more contrasting colour.

The Irish language is being derailed even as, to mix metaphors, it is being given lip service. Further down the tracks, unless some urgent repair work is undertaken, lies the final stop – the cemetery of our national language.

end

OF WHAT USE IS HISTORY?

(words 7,420)

Diarmuid Breatnach

Of what use is history? It’s a question we may ask and, I would contend, should ask ourselves.

A lot of people would suppose that is of no real use at all – just part of one’s “education”, by which they mean gaining test certificates with favourable results, a number of which, at a high enough percentage of marks scored, will help gain access to desired employment. A probably smaller number would believe it is of some use, probably in giving them a sense of pride of belonging to a group. From my observation, it would seem that this sector, in Ireland at least, is mostly composed of working and lower middle class people. Some of these will go to third level education and study history – but very few.

Since History is a core subject on primary and secondary schools’ curricula in most countries around the World, and since at third level education entire departments of universities cater for the subject, one assumes that it must be widely considered to be of some use — by educational authorities at least. But those university departments receive funding so there must be people in political parties and perhaps industry who also think history is of value.

Many extensive libraries could be filled easily with published books of and about history, without taking into account related subjects of social studies and archaeology (for examples), not to mention historical novels, poetry and songs dealing with history, biographies, paintings, drama …. Clearly enough people think history sufficiently important to write it or to integrate it into their writing and enough companies can make a business out of publishing those products.

However, though many might agree that history is of use, the precise nature of that ‘use’ is a matter of some debate. It is linked to the question of what history is — and there’s an ongoing debate about that too. So it would be worthwhile to look at that issue first, if only to ensure that we agree on what we’re talking about.

WHAT IS HISTORY?

Los Angeles Police Sergeant Joe Friday, in the Dragnet television series of the 1950s, often asked witnesses to a crime to give him “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts”. Which is actually what most people probably think of as being history – the facts or “what happened”. They might add “when”, “how” and even “why” to the definition “what happened”. But “what happened” is not, of itself, history. And when “what happened” IS history, there’s a lot more to it than just the bare facts.

Joe Friday from the "Dragnet" TV series: "Just the facts, ma'am."

Joe Friday from the “Dragnet” TV series: “Just the facts, ma’am.” (Image from Internet)

Let’s imagine that John was knocked down in the road by a vehicle. We might say that those are facts, if there is sufficient evidence for them and, in a “history” of the event, they should be recorded. But more happened. John was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed as being in a coma; he was operated on and put on life support regime. Those too are facts that should be recorded in the “history”.

But there are a myriad of other facts involved; for example: where John was going and why, what he was thinking, what his general health was like, what he was wearing, what he had for lunch – and that’s just about John. We could ask lots of questions also about the vehicle driver, staff at the hospital, relatives and friends visiting the hospital. And about the vehicle, the weather, the road ….. In fact, we could smother the story in an avalanche of facts. We have to select the facts that seem to us relevant and confine ourselves to those, if we want to write a meaningful (and readable) history of the event.

And how do we know which are the relevant facts? We don’t, at least not all of them – the selection of them is based on subjective opinion which may or may not be “informed” by experience. But also by ignorance, superstition, prejudice, bias – and even experience is not infallible, since it too is conditioned by place and time, among other variables.

Ask two people what, in their experience, are the dangers to watch out for in crossing rivers: the person accustomed only to African conditions might say that the main dangers are drowning, being killed by hippopotomus or being eaten by crocodiles, while another, accustomed only to European conditions, might say that drowning or slipping and incurring an injury in falling are the only possible dangers and perhaps, in winter, contracting pneumonia after hyothermia. Yet others around the world might reply “Being cheated by the ferryman” or “Bandits on the other side” and still a fifth might consider contracting illness from polluted water to be the most prevalent risk of all.

Obviously, the same question can receive different but equally valid answers in different contexts.

BIAS AND SUBJECTIVITY IN HISTORY-WRITING

EH Carr directly addressed the question we are discussing in a series of lectures which were published by Cambridge University Press in 1961 under the very title: “What Is History?” I would highly recommend this book as an introduction to the study of history to the ordinary reader who, if she or he were to read nothing else about the subject would, despite its publication date and the volumes written on the subject since, gain a good basis for understanding what history is and what it is about. And it is short.EH Carr What Is History (Image from Internet)

In an extract from The Uses of Facts, historian G. Kitson Clark comments on EH Carr’s work:
Invited to deliver the 1961 George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures, he chose as his theme the question ‘What is History?’ and sought to undermine the idea, then very much current, that historians enjoy a sort of objectivity and authority over the history they study.

At one point he pictured the past as a long procession of people and events, twisting and turning so that different ages might look at each other with greater or lesser clarity. He warned, however, against the idea that the historian was in any sort of commanding position, like a general taking the salute; instead the historian is in the procession with everyone else, commenting on events as they appear from there, with no detachment from them nor, of course, any idea of what events might lie in the future.”

The historian is an observer but she is not impartial. She has her national or ethnic cultural background conditioning her, her class background, her gender, her sexuality and her political-religious-philosophical outlook. She can try for detachment but can never truly achieve it and, if as became the fashion for a while, she claims detachment or lack of bias, her history becomes accordingly suspect. Those historians who truly believe in their objectivity are the most dangerous of all. The historian herself is in the march of history, another actor – and people in her generation will be influenced by her writing to some degree, as may others in generations to come … and future historians will have something to say about her history writing.

The bias of the historian affects not only his interpretation of what he sees but also where he looks and what he looks for. Investigating a historical battle, for example, our past traditional historians would look to see who were the generals, who the overall commanders, what regiments participated, what weaponry and tactics were deployed and, of course the political-military objectives.

The political social historian will look for the economic causes underlying the conflict and the objectives of each side, the class and ethnic make-up of the leading participants but also of the participating masses, their culture and even their food. And at the attitudes to the conflict and the battle in the home grounds of the participants. Emperors may command (thinks this historian) and generals order battle … but which economic class rules and benefits or loses? Who does the actual fighting? What do they think? How fare the people at home and those where the military campaigns are being fought?

These are not small matters, even in affecting the outcome – we know the effect of morale on soldiers. The Russian Tsar’s participation in the First World War was one of the precipitating causes of the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 – it exacerbated civilian class tensions and economic complaints, as well as impeding delivery of food from the countryside to the cities as the use of trains was diverted instead to transporting troops. Lack of supplies and effective leadership, as well as defeats, affected the morale of soldiers; the failure of Kerensky’s Government to abandon that War was even more a cause of the October Socialist Revolution later that year. Soldiers and sailors took a decisive role in supporting both revolutions.

A year earlier, the morale of the insurgents in the 1916 Rising in Dublin was such that they were able to put up amazing resistance to attacking forces at least ten times their numbers, armed with artillery and machine guns, of which the insurgents had none. Later, during the War of Independence, in May 1921, General Sir Nevil Macready, in command of all British land military in Irelandreported to the British Cabinet on the adverse impact of the resistance of the Irish people, both military and otherwise, on the morale of the British soldiers and police under his command.

Morale was also a big factor in the long attritional but successful defence of Leningrad, Stalingrad and of Moscow against Nazi forces in WWII, grimly positive on the defenders’ side and slowly seeping into negativity among the invaders.

Jumping forward in history, there was eventually huge civilian opposition to the Vietnam War in the USA as well as vehement support for it, which was splitting its society more seriously than probably at any time since the American Civil War. From 1969 to 1972 there were nearly 900 incidents recorded in which US troops in Vietnam attempted to or succeeded in killing or injuring their superior officers, typically by fragmentation grenade – they had become so common that the act gained a nickname: ‘fragging’. History records, ‘Rambo’ fantasies aside, that the USA lost that war.

THE CONSTRUCTION BASE OF THE NARRATIVE

There is no great mystery about the construction base of the story, the narrative of history. It is composed of primary sources, artifacts, secondary sources and bibliography.

Primary Sources are accounts by observers or participants, related or written (or otherwise recorded) during, shortly or a long time after the event. Those must be the most reliable, surely? Well, not necessarily. A soldier might want to justify why he ran from battle or a general to justify why he ordered a retreat or why he was defeated. A participant might want to denigrate one side, question their valour, discipline, intelligence or to depict their behaviour as bloodthirsty – while of course painting his own side’s behaviour in different colours.

We also know that witness accounts of the same event vary and that time and reflection and discussion or external manipulation can remove or add to some elements observed, in addition to ‘remembering’ ones that were not actually observed (imagined memory)1. Let’s imagine that John was knocked down in the road by a vehicle. What colour was the vehicle? Answers from witnesses immediately after the event may vary from green to blue to a number of other colours and shades. At what speed was it travelling? Some might say 40mpm, others 50 or 60. What was John’s behaviour immediately before? He wasn’t paying attention/ he was crossing with due care but the car was too fast/ maybe he could have avoided it had he been a bit more alert …. the brakes didn’t seem to work very well. And so on. 

Now suppose John was well-liked and the driver whose vehicle hit him is unknown or a member of any group that might be the subject of mistrust or dislike. After a few weeks, all actual witnesses might be convinced that John had been crossing with due care and attention, the car had been speeding and driving erratically and had hit John without giving him a chance. Furthermore there might now be a widely-held belief, the origin and justification for which may murky, that the driver had been drinking. Or that he had been involved in previous accidents. Or a theory may even have arisen that the driver had some reason to kill John – it had been no accident!

On the other hand, can an investigator ignore the accounts of eye-witnesses? Of course not – but they need to be treated with caution.

Secondary sources is the name given to accounts written by people who gather the accounts of participants and contemporary observers and other evidence. What they report finding and their conclusions form the secondary sources – somewhat like the report of the investigator of a traffic accident. So surely the removed investigator, who writes a report, can be considered more reliable?

Well, perhaps the investigator didn’t like John or was bribed by a member of the driver’s family. Or she could be suspicious of or even hostile to the ethnic group to which the driver belongs. Perhaps the investigator drove the same make of car and thought the brakes were fine, or perhaps she was on a retainer from the car manufacturers. Or most of the witnesses were female and she felt they were trying for attention and tended to discount their evidence. Or she discounted the evidence of the witnesses from a particular social class because they used unscientific words and interjected swear words and on the whole she didn’t think their education was sufficient for her to rely on their accounts. Or she was aware that John was well liked and had a lot of powerful friends and that reporting that he crossed the road without due care and attention would do her career no favours.

No investigator is completely impartial and nor is the historian, as we discussed earlier.

Artifacts are a variety of inanimate objects such a trenches, weapons and fragments of tools and utensils, medals, uniforms and clothes, jewelry, tunnels, buildings, roads, vehicles, skeletons, grave stones, letters, graffiti, drawings, rubbish tips. All inanimate and, apart from some like drawings and gravestones, must surely bear impartial witness?

Impartial perhaps but they actually bear no witness at all – they must be evaluated, described and interpreted and it is the historian or archaelogist who does that. The investigator at the scene of the accident must measure the tyre skid marks, check the brakes, identify the model, check MOT examinations, collect the reports of the paramedics and pathologist. And remember, the investigator is never completely impartial and even less so is the historian.

Bibliography (or literature) is what other historians or investigators have written about the period or events, or biographies, or additional reading throwing some light on periods, people, lands, societies or some aspect covered in the history. Sometimes they contain accounts purporting to be primary sources which cannot be checked as they are anonymous or of which the source is not clear. It is not indeed unknown for some accounts to be deliberately falsified. But even without going to those extremes, we have already commented on the many sources of bias operating upon the historian.

The political social historian, the one who is consciously and admittedly investigating from a political and social standpoint will want to know what were the economic, social and cultural backgrounds of the combatants – and not just of both supreme commanders and their generals. She will want to investigate their conditions at home and at the war front, how well they were dressed and fed. What was their opinion of the war, of their officers, of the enemy?

Letters home and from home, testimonies and biographies, oral history records, courts martial records, food commissary records, equipment inventories, reports of public meetings at home, church sermons, political speeches, demonstrations for and against war – all these will be examined to build the story. Some of these are classified as Primary Sourcess, while others are Artifacts.

Of course the historian is unlikely to examine the original sources of all these and will be relying in many cases on special-focus work done by other historians, in published articles or books. Although their original authors draw on primary sources, unless the historian now goes to these directly herself but instead quotes from the literature, they become secondary sources, in the way that they are being used.

And here we have another factor – it is difficult to examine what cannot be found. If there were no letters or personal accounts surviving, as for example from the Peloponnesian Wars, we are reliant on the accounts of historians, while taking their probable bias into account – these contain Secondary Sources and are contained in the Bibliography, i.e the books and articles written about the period or events.

In those cases we are reliant too on archaeological finds – back to artifacts again. To take another Greek example, the truth or otherwise of most of the events recounted in Homer’s Iliad are a matter of speculation and the factual existence of the city of Troy was established only by comparatively recent archaeology – later in the 19th Century (most historians by that time had come to believe it all a fable). More recent archaeology and geographical work has come to the conclusion that a battle or battles did occur and that the probable site of the Greek invaders’ camp corresponds with the account given by Homer.1

To continue with the role of archaeology, the investigation of the wiping out of five companies of the US 7th Cavalry in 1866, went some way to undermining the myth of Custer’s “charge” against hostile Native American indigenous people and a long “last stand”, of a static battle against the surrounding Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe who gradually wiped out his 7th Cavalry and himself. Many elements of this story were disputed by witness accounts of Indigenous people and by their folk history or “historical memory”. According to Indigenous accounts, the battle was a short running one, as Custer’s troop had tried to attack a camp, believing it to be mostly occupied by women, children and the elderly. He didn’t know it was full of braves sleeping late. As the warriors poured out of their tents, according to those accounts, Custer and his men turned to flee, firing as they ran but were soon killed “in the time it takes a hungry man to eat a meal”. Much later, archaeological work with metal detectors found a pattern of shell cases that tended to bear out the Indigenous account.

In 1955-’56, Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition team to Easter Island were told a legend in which the people on the island had been ruled by a group called “long ears”, who were represented in the giant carved stone heads, against which the “short ears” rose up. Across one end of the island, to which the “long ears” retreated, the story went, they had dug a trench which they filled with flammable material, ready to fire if they were attacked. During an actual attack, the “long ears” fired the material in the trench but the “short ears” had found a way around and attacked them from behind, forcing them into the flames. There was indeed a depression in the ground across that part of the island but the story could have been created to explain the depression rather than the origin being the reverse. Excavating in the trench, Heyerdahl’s group found charcoal and human bones and teeth.2

What there is left to examine is of course a great help to the historian but it can also be a curse. We know how useful the Internet can be but also how much trivia and even incorrect information is stored there. Sifting through and making sense of it now is difficult enough but what will historians centuries from now make of it? In some historical periods, large number of household accounts were kept and these were preserved. Useful information, certainly but since they were available they were examined and written about by historians to a degree that was arguably out of proportion to the historical value of the information extracted.

All those things, the artifacts, the records, the personal stories, the marks left on the land, become history. But only when they are spoken about (oral history) or written about (written history). And in telling or writing about them, the historian is looking at them through his bias and, in doing that, becoming part of history himself.

THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE OVERALL NARRATIVE ITSELF

One might say that history is a story, a story of how we became who we are. In telling that story, it must also come to some kind of belief or statement about who we are now. In fact, the story teller makes an assumption about who we are now, then looks back to history, then according to findings adapts the view of who we are now, then looks back again and adapts the view of who we were and the road we travelled to get where we are now, and so on. And it is a story. In order to be history, it cannot be a totally imagined story unrelated to artifacts or scientific knowledge — but it is still a story.

So history is a story — and it needs to be, to an extent, an interesting story. Who wants to listen to a boring story? But not just for the reason of not boring the audience – the facts need to be significant. If “for the want of a nail a kingdom was lost”, as the old adage tells us, and that can be shown, then the loss of that nail was significant. But that doesn’t mean that every loss of a nail will be historically significant – indeed we might assume that most will not be. So we don’t want to fill every narrative with lost nails but nor would we want to exclude the loss of that particular nail, in that particular time, at that particular battle: the one for which the horseshoe was lost, and for which the horse stumbled, through which the king fell, and his troops lost heart and his kingdom was lost.

But was the nail loss, though significant then, a once-off, a chance in a million? If so, it is still history but not a general event in history, not one that we could apply to other battles. I don’t know, but perhaps examining horses’ shoes for possible loose nails became part of standard cavalry preparation for battle. Perhaps the cautionary tale arises from that practice and the knowledge that badly-disciplined or badly-trained cavalry or mounted infantry had suffered through insufficient attention to their horses’ shoes.

CHANCE IN HISTORY-WRITING

Some historians, especially perhaps from the Marxist school, have sought to eliminate the question of chance as factor in history. EH Carr was famous for his attack on historians who gave chance as an explanation for historical events and this is well expounded in the substantial Wikipedia article on his theory of history. What is not documented there, however, is that Carr conceded that chance had indeed influenced some important historical events and gave the example of the leader of an army who had become very ill at a crucial point during a military campaign. What Carr went on to say from that example was that yes, chance had affected the outcome but that one cannot generalise on chance and that therefore it is not worthy of historical study.

Despite my regard for Carr as a historian and a historiographer, i.e. as one who writes about the study of history itself, I wonder whether he was right on this. Napoleon famously asked about young officers being recommended to him, whether they were lucky. He seems to have ascribed great importance to “luck” and thought good luck accompanied certain people and bad luck others. He seems to have considered himself, on that basis, as lucky – but he did not neglect his study of military history, science or collection of current intelligence. His decisions then might have been influenced by feelings of luck but were not totally dependent on them.

Napoleon Bonaparte -- asked "Is he lucky?" when told about a new commander in his army

Napoleon Bonaparte — asked “Is he lucky?” when told about a new commander in his army. (Image from Internet)

And luck does seem to exist. Apart from the fact that we all know individuals who seem to be lucky and others who seem the opposite, some individuals are demonstrably more lucky at cards, for example. In scientific tests on drawing high or low cards, even when the human element is removed from the testers, some test subjects do score a higher than average rate of success. I don’t know but would expect that some subjects would also regularly achieve a lower than average score.

So it would seem to me that one can generalise about chance and luck – but only to extent that it is an unpredictable factor about which we need to be aware. Chaos theory in physics hints at this, although patterns are also being found in deeper study of chaos. And there exists a saying which sums up the importance of chance: The first casualty of any battle is the plan of attack.” This does not come from a famous military strategist but from a writer, Cory Doctorow, in a kind of science fiction novel, For The Win (2010). This statement is becoming so widespread now that I expect it to become an adage widely quoted not only among civilians but also among military strategists.

WISE SAYINGS FROM LESSONS OF HISTORY

There’s a general warning in our cultures not to underestimate the enemy. And there are many examples in history of generals underestimating the fighting ability or determination of their opponents, or their ability to cross difficult terrain. The Romans under several successive military leaders underestimated Spartacus and his band, for example, until the end of the uprising, thinking that these were a rabble to be easily defeated by Roman soldiers. Those Roman leaders paid for their mistake with their lives and the lives of many of their soldiers.

Statue in Bulgaria celebrating Spartacus, leader of the slave rebellion against Rome 72-71 BCE.

Statue in Bulgaria celebrating Spartacus, leader of the slave rebellion against Rome 72-71 BCE. (Image from Internet)

The British at Singapore in 1942 had all their major artillery pointing to sea, because the Japanese could not march through the thick jungle on the peninsula mainland– but nobody told the Japanese that, so they did and took 130,000 British, Commonwealth and Empire troops prisoner after little fighting.

The German Nazis at Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad in 1941, thought they would take the cities in weeks at most; not only were the struggles there long and hard but they turned out to be locations or sources of disaster for the invaders. The leaders of the French military at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 did not consider that the Viet Minh could haul artillery up mountain sides in order to fire on the French forces below. The USA overall, in the Viet Nam war, a superpower fighting essentially a “Third World” enemy in a territory smaller than the US State of Virginia, expected to win through massive firepower, airpower and technology; history records that they did not.

So we could say that the danger of underestimating one’s enemy has been a constant throughout history with harsh lessons periodically for those who failed to take account of it. Presumably its opposite, overestimation of the enemy’s potential. is also possible and no doubt there are historical examples of this too.

But this article is about history and not all of history by any means involves military affairs, although certainly a great deal of it does.

HISTORY IN EDUCATION

When all of Ireland was under British occupation, for a time the Catholic Irish (which is to say the vast majority) were obstructed from receiving education of any kind. But in the 1830s the National School System was set up and it proceeded to teach a history that would make each Irish child “Thank the goodness and the grace …… that made me a happy English child” (short school prayer)3. Patrick Pearse, himself a progressive educationalist though without formal qualification in that field, called this system “The Murder Machine” and wrote an essay about it under that title4. It was important for Britain, as a colonial power, that the Irish should identify themselves ideologically and culturally with their colonial master, in order to reduce the likelihood of movements for self-determination gaining a large following or to reduce the supply of manpower for its imperial armed forces. This was a process imposed not just on Irish people by British colonialism but was the general rule practiced by colonial powers on their subject peoples.

After Ireland gained partial independence in 1921 and the new Irish state had defeated its internal Republican opposition, it was concerned that the education system foster a kind of Irish nationalism and, apart from the addition of the Irish language to the national education curriculum, this was perhaps reflected nowhere as much as in the teaching of history.

Nations are built from different elements and it is necessary for those involved in nation-building to create a narrative that validates that which upon they are engaged. Therefore a largely shared history is necessary and where there are different elements, these need to be stitched or woven into the whole – or some deleted. The narrative may be largely ‘true’ or largely ‘not’ but all nations and all states embark upon creating such a narrative.

The national historical narrative for Ireland was basically that the Irish were Celts, Irish-speakers, sharing a common culture and ruled by the Brehon Laws, until we were first part-occupied by the Vikings and then by the Normans. The Normans in Ireland became largely Gaelicised while their brethren in England became English and then, largely because of the English King declaring himself Head of the Church instead of the Pope, most of the Irish-Normans allied with the indigenous Irish and fought at a number of junctures during the 17th Century but were defeated and the old Gaelic order destroyed. Subsequently the Irish (now including descendants of invaders and settlers) rallied and rose up again but this time for an independent Irish Republic, which subsequently they kept doing or trying to do until the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, when they finally succeeded in part-defeating the English and won Independence for part of their country. Such was the narrative.

Since the new state was a Catholic confessional one, in which the Church was in close alliance with the temporal power, it was important that the historical narrative reflect that too and so the representation of “the island of Saints and Scholars” was prominent and the Brehon Laws, which were essentially a product of a pre-Christian, i.e. pagan society and later of “Celtic Christianity”, were not represented in standard primary or in secondary education. Furthermore, as the almost exclusively Anglican and Presbyterian leadership of the United Irishmen in 1798 could not be swept under the carpet, nor the overwhelming Presbyterian membership of the Antrim rising, it became necessary to promote the Wexford and Mayo uprisings (although it also true these lasted longer than the others) and to promote the role of Catholic priests in the Wexford Rising. It should be noted that this is not a matter of falsification but a process of emphasising the desired and glossing over the undesired aspects.

It was less logical during the 20th Century that the oppositional national movement to the colonial State, the Irish Republican movement, should also seek to represent itself as Catholic in so many ways, from public praying with rosary for their fighters condemned to die, for example, to incorporating religious services and personnel into Republican political ceremonies. This accommodation might seem particularly bizarre in view of the abiding public hostility of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and much of the priesthood to the Republican Movement from the time of the United Irishmen up to the present.

Not only national states create a historical narrative but also national movements, both before gaining independence and after. In this narrative imagining an essentially Catholic nationalist movement, Jim Larkin, James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army were represented as nationalists – somewhat different to the Irish Volunteers, perhaps, but nationalists nevertheless. It would not do for them to have been represented as socialists with a very different programme to that of the IRB and the Volunteers, however united they were in their desire to free Ireland from British colonialism.

"James Connolly, the Irish Rebel" was the title of this LP by Eugene McEldowney, which also featured the song by the same title. Curiously enough, because McEldowney was not a nationalist and espoused a socialist republicanism.

“James Connolly, the Irish Rebel” was the title of this LP by Eugene McEldowney, which also featured the song by the same title — curiously enough, because McEldowney was not a nationalist and espoused a socialist republicanism. (Image from Internet)

As stated, not only the State created this narrative but also the Irish Republican movement, the leaders and members of which would see no contradiction in listing Connolly among the martyrs of 1916 and as one whose principles they were following while at the same time the IRA formally banned communists from membership in the 1930s 5 A song about the execution of Connolly sums it up in the title and refrain: “James Connolly, the Irish Rebel”: “He went to his death as a true son of Ireland” one of the lines of lyrics tells us but not one mention of the working class, the Irish Citizen Army, Connolly’s trade union or his socialist ideas.

HISTORICAL REVISIONISM

The term “revisionist historian” is widely seen as a term of abuse in Ireland. This is understandable since for the most part revisionist historians in Ireland have sought to undermine or destroy the previously dominant nationalist or Republican narratives and even the anti-imperialist socialist narrative which was tentatively emerging in the 1960s and ’70s (and which laid the groundwork for the overturning of the ban on communism in the Republican movement at some point during those years).

Revisionist historians in Ireland have come to be viewed not only as hostile to nationalism or Republicanism but further, as apologists for colonialism and imperialism. They are associated in the minds of nationalists and republicans with character assassination on martyrs and iconic figures of the anti-colonial movement and with depictions of the anti-colonial struggles which are even more distorted and partisan than any of the nationalist-republican view. The media courting of these historians, seemingly out of all proportion to their academic importance or degree of rigour in their investigation and research, has deepened their effect on historical perception in Irish society and caused much bitterness among those holding to the previously-dominant narrative or to a general anti-colonial and anti-imperialist viewpoint.

But in many other countries, historical revisionism has been espoused and promoted by progressive movements. In those parts of the world, historical revisionism has been concerned to ask questions like “What did so-and-so period mean to the workers/ women/ ethnic minorities at that time?” Also, “What was the role of workers/ women/ ethnic minorities in bringing about significant historical changes?” Historical revisionism also exposed the collusion with the German Nazi Occupation in a number of European countries where historians had previously sought to show the people in those countries as overwhelmingly actively resisting the Occupation. This debunking of the previous post-Occupation narratives had both positive and negative aspects, as with the debunking at times came an undervaluing of the heroism and sacrifice of those who did resist. Completely different of course were the revisionists who sought to deny the extent of the Nazi Holocaust (on Jews especially but also on Roma, Sinti, communists and socialists, homosexuals, disabled people).

But what is revisionism, actually? It is going over previous narratives and re-examining them critically, looking at alternative sources and documents, examining from a different perspective …. In fact, one might say that ALL historical writing is revisionist, to one degree or another. And essentially, that is as it should be – shoddy and dubious methodology and political motivation apart.


SO – AGAIN: WHAT IS HISTORY?

So, we can say that history is an account of events which are judged (subjectively) to be significant to the culture in which the history is being written, based on available evidence (subjectively chosen) and human accounts (subjectively “remembered”) and the whole subjectively interpreted by a person who is product of a time and place and a social, political and economic environment.

So anyone’s history is as good as another’s? I don’t think so. A historian who makes no attempt to allow for his or her bias and subjectivity, to weigh the evidence for and against, is not writing worthwhile history. And a person who does substantial research and then all the required weighing and sifting, but neglects to attempt a judgement, or whose prose is so boring that merely reading it becomes a great effort, is not writing worthwhile history. Of course, that is my subjective opinion too.

The narrative should be meaningful, based on sound research, open about its author’s bias, honest in its evaluation of sources and artifacts– and readable.

OF WHAT USE IS HISTORY?

Well, we have spent some time on answering the question “What is history?” — and now we need to go back to the original question, “OF WHAT USE IS HISTORY?”.

Of none, if we were to take Henry Ford at his word; “History,” he is famously quoted as saying, “is bunk!” Yet I doubt if even this anti-intellectual, anti-semitic and nazi-sympathiser Capitalist was entirely serious in that reply. He would surely have drawn some lessons from the history of motor-car development and mass production. Ford’s anti-semitic book, “The International Jew – The World’s Foremost Problem” (1920), drew on history and pseudo-history.

The Nazis, which Ford financed for a while, and who in 1938 presented him with their highest honour for a foreigner (though he subsequently made big money from the USA’s war against them) were certainly big on history. In proclaiming the start of the “Thousand-Year Reich” (“reign”, or “kingdom”), they were consciously seeking to surpass the 400 years of the Roman Empire; the adoption of the Swastika also drew on a historic (and pre-historic) symbol. Despite the non-Teutonic origins of the Roman Empire, the standards and flags of Nazi units with the eagle on top copied those of the Roman Legions and even the Nazi’s salute mimicked what is believed to have been the Roman salute.

The Nazis cared so much about history that they consciously went about searching for items that would agree with their view of the past and predict the future (upon some of which they had already decided), and consciously concealing items that would not support their view. Ironically, that process is most closely mirrored today in Israel’s study of the history of the Jews and of Palestine, which most non-zionist historians would agree is, for the most part, riddled with non-historical assumptions and inconsistencies. We may look with distaste or contempt at these attempts and yet need to be aware that all history is a construct and ‘national’ histories are constructed to suit a national identity. National identities in turn are constructed to suit a specific narrative which suits the dominant caste or class in the state in question.

HISTORY TELLS US WHO WE ARE, THE PATH WE HAVE TAKEN – BUT WHAT IF ….?

History tells us that we are human beings and, more precisely than any physiological examination of homo sapiens, of what we are capable – not so much as individuals, although that too, but as societies. It shows us that we are capable of measured reflexion and inflamed madness, of sadistic brutality and of great compassion, of incredible courage and craven cowardice, of sacrifice for principle and of self-seeking, of greed and of sharing, of honesty and of hypocrisy and deceit. And it also has something to say about which kinds of conditions have favoured the expression of one or the other attribute.

History shows us the path we have taken that has resulted in us being where we are now. In that, it is like an inquest or forensic examination (but on a living body), or a biography of an individual. Of course, in all cases there are some assumptions made about the body or the individual.

It also tells us what paths we have not chosen and we can only speculate, from educated to wild guesses, on what might have happened if we had chosen those other paths instead. Many historians have declared this “What If-ery” to be a fruitless field – “it didn’t happen and that’s that”, they say. Although indulging in endless “What If-ing” or failing to study what actually did happen may indeed be fruitless, it seems to me that some speculation on what might have happened is actually useful. Because we may be in a similar situation again and on that occasion may wish to try out a different path and having thought about it in advance will certainly be useful. Also, considering alternatives helps us to understand the nature and extent of what actually happened and its causes.

I hadn’t read the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s essay when I wrote the above but he makes a similar point:  he said Carr’s dismissal of the “might-have-beens of history” reflected a fundamental lack of interest in examining historical causation.  Trevor-Roper said examining possible alternative outcomes of history is not a “parlour-game”, but is an essential part of historians’ work and that a historian could properly understand the period under study only by looking at all possible outcomes and all sides; historians who adopted Carr’s perspective of only seeking to understand the winners of history and treating the outcome of a particular set of events as the only possible outcomes, were “bad historians”.

History tells us some mistakes to be avoided but also tells us that doesn’t prevent people from repeating them. Nevertheless, it must surely be better to study those mistakes than to ignore them. In our own history, we saw a part of the Republican movement rely on non-interference by the USA’s ruling circles in 1886, when the Fenians invaded Canada; for their support during the War of Independence, when the movement sought representation at the Paris Peace Conference and at the League of Nations; yet again during the recent 30 Years War in the Six Counties. The notion that the ruling class of the USA, at the behest of a pressure group within, no matter how numerous and organised, would go against its own foreign interests and confront another imperial power to do so, was silly in the extreme. It was silly the first time it was thought of, although at that time the US had a solid gripe against British imperialism, which had helped the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But the second and third times, there was no excuse for thinking that whatsoever. US Imperialism DID confront British imperialism sternly, and French Imperialism too and even its own protege, Israel – it did so when those three, in alliance, invaded Egypt to overthrow Nasser and seize the Suez Canal. When US Imperialism publicly condemned them, however, its rulers did so in their own interests and were telling the other two which power was now Boss of the World.

History tells us about the political biases of historians and the times in which they have written. We need to be aware of this because most of what we are going to learning about history is going to be from historians. Historians’ bias was discussed earlier on but we need to be aware of it in the specific conditions of the historian and the time, in order to understand where their writing is “coming from”. That helps us to judge how much of it to accept, how much to reject and upon how much to keep an open mind for the moment.

History is not only often about battles but is itself a battleground. In our own time we see history written from a nationalist perspective clashing with not only that written from a colonialist perspective, for example in Britain, but also from a neo-colonialist perspective, by Irish historians apologising for colonialism and imperialism. But nationalist-perspective history has also come under attack from social democracy, revolutionary socialism, left-wing republicanism and feminism. And these historical viewpoints criticising nationalist history, also clash against one another.

History hints at the future. This is strange, because the subject of history is the past.

We may view the existence of humanity as a tree, or perhaps as a tightly-knit copse of interwoven trunks: the roots are our past and history, the trunk (or interwoven trunks) our present and the branches spreading overhead, seen dimly, our possible futures.

https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2016/01/21/all-our-history-a-short-poem/

Diarmuid Breatnach

ALL our history is important,

not just 1916,


teaching us what we are


and what we have been.


How we came to reach the now,


of those who fought

or those who bowed,


through bloody pages,

down through the ages;


it relives the struggle to be free


and whispers soft what we might yet be.

January 2016

Diarmuid Breatnach, April 2016

Footnotes:

1  Short review of some studies in this subject at http://psychologicalresources.blogspot.ie/2011/01/real-vs-imagined-memories.html

2 http://www.archaeologyexpert.co.uk/archaeology-myth-excavating-troy.html among other sources

3. Aku Aku – the secret of Easter Island, Thor Heyerdayl (1957, version in English 1958).

4 http://www.irishmusicreview.com/labhrás%20Ó%20Cadhla.htm and other sources; the prayer or hymn was contained in a number of English Protestant publications containing collected hymns or prayers for children.

5 First published by PH Pearse in 1912 and later by Whelan’s (1916)

6. Up until the 1960s, children and teenagers in Irish schools were usually taught about Connolly as one of the Irish patriots who had signed the proclamation, whereas his socialist teachings and organisational actions were concealed. In the Irish Republican Movement, Connolly’s image was similarly employed while his teachings were ignored (apart from some with regard to colonialism) – indeed there was a ban on Communism in the IRA until the 1960s. While it is common today to find Irish Republicans as individuals and organisations openly espousing “Socialism” as part of their Republicanism, there exists a wealth of confusion about what that entails and how it is to be implemented.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carr, E.H, What Is History? (1961) University of Cambridge Press.

E. H. Carr’s Success Story”, Encounter, Volume 84, Issue No 104, 1962 pp. 69– 77.