I was down Dungannon way yesterday at a local history conference. Predictably, their theme was the decade of centenaries and how to respond to them. I enjoyed it considerably. When you’ve informed and skilled speakers like Diarmaid Ferriter and Brian Walker, you can hardly go wrong.
What I felt was lacking, though, was a commentary on the purpose of studying history. You could start, I suppose, by saying that just as someone losing his/her personal memory leads to a dysfunctional present and bodes ill for the future, so too with history - we need the past to inform the present. Yes, but what will it tell us? You get that other old chestnut - those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Sounds like a good reason for studying your history, except if your history was a happy one wouldn’t you be pleased to repeat it? I bet the British empire would be happy to press the replay button, when they ruled a dominion on which the sun never set.
I did a short talk on my book and its interviewees, and how the notion of learning from the past was emphasized by most of them. But there again, what was to be learned remained vague. At the conference Brian Walker, I think, suggested empathy was the great lesson to be learned from the past. Mmm. Yes. That makes sense. Widen your vision, the boundaries of your thinking. But what’s the idea behind that - is it that we then understand where people are coming from? OK, what then? I understand your unionism, you understand my nationalism - what now? Do we go out for a drink? Get into bed together? Forgive each other, never fight again and live happily ever after?
The three centenaries that my interviewees considered were the Signing of the Covenant, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. As I pointed out, all three have one thing in common - they all involved the use or threat of violence to achieve political ends. We, on the other hand, hail the achievement of political goals through strictly peaceful means. In which case, what are we doing commemorating or even celebrating any of these three politically violent centenaries? Isn’t there a contradiction there somewhere - that when Hardy comes to Hardy, human beings talk about achieving political goals through peaceful means, but the way they act is far from peaceful.
Maybe that’s the lesson of history: that we’re a bunch of short-sighted, violent hypocrites.