“History’s a whore. She rides the winners”. That was the blunt assessment of one of Stewart Parker’s characters in Northern Star. Is it a fair judgement? What is history anyway?
When I was interviewing for my book Whose Past Is It Anyway? Davy Adams made the point that he’d be happy to see TV commemoration of, for example, the Easter Rising, but that “each programme should be a historical analysis, a straight historical analysis pointing out benefits, faults, why people made the decisions they made and the rest of it”.
The trouble with that is that analyses differ and history suffers. In Glasgow at present there are moves to establish a monument to the victims of the Irish Famine and the impact they had on Scottish society, when 100,000 Irish people came flooding into that country. Professor Tom Devine, who’s the director of the Scottish Centre of Diaspora Studies in Edinburgh University, has warned that they must deal in truths, not myths. For example, their account should beware highlighting Glasgow’s generosity at the time, since almost 50,000 immigrants were sent back to Ireland.
Ian Paisley Jr, who I also interviewed for my book, sees himself as something of a historian. While he has some regard for James Connolly, he says, Patrick Pearse was “a lunatic”. That’s because, he says, Pearse entered a battle knowing that it was doomed but doing so because he believed Ireland required a blood sacrifice. “In his own words he compares his blood sacrifice to that of Christ’s. Those are the words of a lunatic. I mean, he was going there deliberately to die. You go into battle to win - even if you know you’re going to die [Laughs]”
We really shouldn’t need to think twice about the slipperiness of history and the different faces that are put on it. The same applies to current events. The Assembly at Stormont, by and large, has stopped doing it but the Dail in Dublin continues the whorish practice of selective condemnation. One example: any time a Sinn Féin TD, whether that’s Gerry Adams or Dessie Ellis or Mary Lou McDonald, confronts a member of the government with uncomfortable facts about the savage cuts they’re making, the government will throw up a shield composed of carefully-selected items from the past. Whether it’s Gerry Adams’s membership or non-membership of the IRA, Dessie Ellis’s involvement or non-involvement in “fifty murders” or Mary Lou McDonald’s party and what happened to Jean McConville, carefully-selected facts/opinions/myths are produced so that people can get caught up in the emotion of that instance and forget what the original question was.
Or if the Dail’s too far away, read the Indo on any given day and whether it’s Corporal Kevin Myers or some of his less-well-known scribbling comrades, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire northern conflict of the 1970s and 1980s was the product of a mass onslaught of psychotic mayhem by the IRA on an innocent and peaceful populace. Start and end of story.
Professor Devine may think it’ll be difficult getting the history of the Irish Famine straight in terms of Scotland. He should sit in on a Dail session where Enda has been backed into a welfare-cuts corner. Or read the Indo.