Looking back along the road we’ve travelled, I can see we have come a long way to get where we are today. I’ve traveled a long way. I was very young then, when I started. We all were. In particular, I remember, Carl and Eva and I, we were in secondary school, fifteen years of age.
We discussed the situation often and pretty quickly became revolutionaries. We knew people in the Party – well, we called it the Old Party after awhile, you’ll see why soon. Yes and they wanted to recruit us. If enough of us joined them, voted for them, they would be able to change things, they told us. And they had some credibility because some of them had fought in the old days, when things were even worse. Some had lost relatives killed and some had gone to jail.
But we were not taken in, we weren’t fooled. It wasn’t just that theirs looked a really slow way to change things; we didn’t believe it would ever succeed. And we thought they knew that, deep inside and were just prepared to settle for things much as they were. Make the best of it (which for some of them meant shady deals and lining their pockets).
And we were never going to do that.
We weren’t in the armed group, the three of us but we supported them. The armed group were our heroes, the sharp end of our resistance. Over time they would weaken our oppressors and in the end we’d get the freedom we wanted. And these young men and women, they really fought. They paid for their resistance too; plenty of them were killed and if caught, they were tortured and sent to jail for really long sentences.
We delighted in their successes, marched in their funerals, supported them in their struggles in the jails and, later, honoured them when eventually they were released. We did the best we could ourselves against the oppression and general injustice but without actually taking up the gun: put up posters, painted graffiti slogans on wall, held protest marches and pickets, gave out leaflets, held public meetings. Of course, the oppressors went after us and we were out there, in plain sight, more or less.
Our oppressors had made some laws under which they could declare just about anything we did illegal. Unless we sat at home and did nothing. Or joined the Old Party. They called that group of laws the Anti-Terrorist Legislation.
ARREST AND TORTURE
One night while were out postering in memory of a couple of our martyrs, on the anniversary of their being killed by the police, we got caught. They gave us a bit of a beating and took us to the police station, telling us on the way what they were going to do to us.
Under the ATL they could keep us in a police station for five days without access to any of our friends and relatives or even a lawyer. I’m sorry to say they broke me in the first 24 hours. You might think that was a pretty short period – it didn’t seem like it at the time. Being held in a dark windowless cell, hooded, being threatened with all kinds of horrible things you know they can do, listening to the screams of other people having some of those things done to them, having a plastic bag put over your head until you can’t breathe anymore and you feel sure you’re going to die, your lungs straining ….. It’s amazing how long 24 hours can seem. And even if you lasted that 24 hours, you knew there were another 96 hours to go after that.
Yes, I signed a “confession”, what they told me to say. According to the confession, we were honouring the martyrs because they wanted to overthrow the State, which is why we were putting up posters about them. We wanted more people to join the fighters to help recruitment. Not really about honouring their memory at all. “Glorifying and Supporting Terrorism” was what I was going to be charged with which, if convicted, would get me three years in jail. And the others: my “confession” was not only about me but about Eva and Carl too.
After I signed the “confession” they left me more or less alone but somewhere I could hear shouting and screaming. I thought it might be Eva and Carl, hoped it wasn’t. And I still had to wear a hood whenever any of the guards came in the cell or their doctor examined me. Well, they told me he was a doctor. I told him I felt ok – I knew the guards were listening and I’d get repeat treatment if I said anything against them. And it wouldn’t do any good anyway.
By the third day, or what I thought might the third day, I didn’t hear what sounded like a female screaming any more but could still hear shouting. And sometimes someone crying.
I know it was the fifth day when they brought us to court, put us all in the same cell, waiting for our trial to start. Eva and Carl looked pretty rough and I suppose I did a bit too. Eva burst into tears and told us she had signed a confession against us after the second day. We put our arms around her and held her while she cried. I admitted I had signed too, assuming we all had. I didn’t say I had only held out for about 24 hours, though.
Well, women detainees, they get it especially hard. As well as the rest of it, they are kept naked or semi-naked and, if on their monthly periods, refused tampons or cloths. They are fondled in their private parts, threatened with rape, humiliated and sometimes have something pushed inside them ….. The police don’t do things like that to male detainees ….. well, occasionally, if they know one is gay ….
The shock was that Carl had not signed a confession – he hadn’t broken. So how come they had brought him to trial early on the fifth day with the rest of us? Well, they must have decided he wasn’t going to break; apparently most people break by the fourth day, which is why the limit is set at five. And anyway they had our statements implicating him.
We swore we would retract our statements during the trial, declare they had been obtained under torture. That would invalidate the statements, surely?
We were tried together in a special Anti-Terrorist Legislation court. One judge, no jury. No public. We had lawyers our family and friends had got for us but they were only given five minutes with us before the trial. The Prosecutor produced the statements against us all, those of the police who arrested us and my “confession” and Eva’s. Lied through their teeth that we had made them voluntarily. They produced a statement too for Carl but his lawyer objected it didn’t have his signature, so the police couldn’t show that they hadn’t made it all up.
When we gave our evidence, Carl denied he had made any statement whatsoever and we retracted ours, talked about the torture we had suffered. Eva was magnificent, denouncing them through her tears and shaking. The Prosecutor brought the police back to testify who of course denied not only the torture but any kind of coercion. Some of them even appeared shocked at the allegations. And the doctor – his voice sounded familiar so he probably had been the man who had “examined” me — said I had made no complaint (true) and had seemed calm and rested (not possible).
The courtroom is a funny place. Things the whole world knows are not true appear reasonable while the preposterous can seem logical. Not only had they not tortured us, the police witnesses said, but they had never heard of it being done. So why had we made such detailed statements and then retracted them, accusing them of torture. Well, they were mystified about that. Except …. some had heard that this was a propaganda tactic popular among our group, to smear the police. But why then had we given them a statement at all …. well, at least two of us? Skilled interviewing, was the reply. Trained interrogators, going over the suspect’s stories again and again, exposing every contradiction.
The only thing skilled about them was in making sure they stopped short of killing us and generally left no bruises, especially on our faces. Oh yeah, and the acting in court – that was very skilled.
The case against us, with our repudiation of the statements, should have got us at most a few months or maybe even a fine for postering agitational material on public property. Eva and I got three years each, while Carl got nearly four. I suppose the fact they hadn’t broken him pissed them off and they made out he was our leader so the judge gave him extra.
Prison was bad but it was a relief after the police station. They moved us around jails a few times over the years, we didn’t often see one another and our families and friends had to travel long distances to visit us. When they were permitted to or we hadn’t been moved the day before the visit. We learned later, though no-one told us at the time, that Carl’s aunt had a serious accident on the motorway. Long distances, tiring, unaccustomed to motorway driving, bad luck …. With a couple of operations and time, she was able to walk again but the family had to invent excuses why she couldn’t visit him, especially because they had always been close.
Most of the prison warders were hostile but some were sadists, constantly trying to provoke me, finding ways to frustrate whatever little pleasure or diversion I was permitted. Sometimes it was “too wet” to go in the exercise yard for my permitted two hours daily. Sometimes the library was “closed for stocktaking” or “due to staff shortages.” All prisoner mail is opened before being given to or sent by the prisoner but sometimes I got a letter that looked like it had been spat on. Or it smelled bad. Often, it would be two weeks later than the date stamp. Some letters were returned to the sender, I learned later, marked “UNSUITABLE”. I had one returned to me, although I was always careful what I wrote, this one marked “BREACHING PRISON SECURITY” — I had made some remarks about the prison food.
Some of the social prisoners were ok whenever I was in contact with them, some were hostile, seemed fascist. Sometimes a warder would make comments about me in the hearing of those kinds of prisoners. Anytime out of my cell I felt I had to be alert, with 180 degrees vision.
I did physical exercises in my cell to keep my body healthy and studied for the sake of my mind. Law was the subject I studied most, so I could represent activists in court and file motions and so on but I also studied politics and economics.
When I got out, I enrolled in a law studies course. I wrote to Carl – I hadn’t been allowed to previously. From his letters, he seemed ok but you never know for sure, do you? Not when you know the letters have to pass the prison censor and the prisoner has to keep up a strong front also. I met Eva too, she was released same time as I but a long distance away; she was subdued, a kind of frightened look in her eyes. Not surprising but she still kept in the movement, though we each took a step back from the more illegal street work, where we could be isolated – like postering. I qualified to practice law at a basic level.
THE POLITICAL PARTY
We began to discuss founding a political party and standing in elections. The armed struggle would go on, we thought, but over time we could push the Old Party back, take a lot of their votes. After all, what were they doing (except some of their leaders and contacts lining their pockets)? We could really expose them with our policies.
So we formed a political party, a New Party, for which we had to agree to respect the Constitution. We were doing well but, just before the elections, our party was disqualified by the State. “Connections with terrorism” was the reason given. We were furious and so were our supporters. And we formed another party. The State disqualified that one and, for good measure, banned it. Now one could go to jail for being a member.
This kind of thing went on over years, different versions of the New Party and more people going to jail and we rarely got a chance to stand in elections, much less to build up momentum.
We tried forming a coalition with some more moderate elements, even some we had called “collaborationist” in the old days but the State said we would have to denounce the armed struggle to be a legal constitutional party. We couldn’t do that because we’d be turning our back on not only our martyrs but on hundreds of activists in jail. And our own people wouldn’t stand for it. By this time I had risen to General Secretary of our underground Party.
After long discussions with the leaders of the armed wing, eventually we all agreed to announce an end to the armed struggle and to hope for the legalisation of our Party and early release of prisoners. It was a hard decision but not as hard as one might think because we were all pretty worn down and our military wing hadn’t been doing all that well for some time. The State had penetrated both sides of our movement with agents and people turned informer — hundreds were in jail or awaiting trial.
What was harder was getting our supporters to agree but by managing a few meetings, ensuring we had people with a militant reputation to speak in favour of the plan, ensuring people for the idea got more time to talk than those who didn’t and a few other things, we got it through. Besides, a lot of them believed us when we whispered that it was all a game to fool our oppressors.
Eventually, after we declared our total opposition to any armed struggle and total commitment to the electoral process, we got legalised and now we are chipping away at the Old Party, though it looks like it may take a long time to supplant them.
But some of the young people, and some older ones like Carl, are saying we have compromised too much, that the road we’ve chosen is too long and anyway is never going to get us justice. These people do things we’d rather they didn’t, that we’ve dropped, like illegal postering and spraying slogans, holding illegal commemorations for martyrs, protest marches, getting into trouble with the police ….. Making us look bad.
And what’s more, unbelievable as it might seem, they’re calling us “The Old Party”!!!
I remember my first lesson at school. First lesson from a teacher, that is, because you learn other lessons in school as well, from other kids. That particular lesson has remained with me for the rest of my life.
OK, it couldn’t have been the first lesson – it was my second year at school — but it is the first I remember which, in a way, does make it the first. And it wasn’t from any book or written on the blackboard.
That was in senior infants then, I was five years old and our teacher was Iníon Ní Mhéalóid, Miss Mellet in English. It’s a rare Connemara family name, I know now and that is where she was from. She was handsome, maybe even more than that, I can’t remember now. I never had a crush on any teacher who taught me but if I had, it would not have been on her.
The day of this particular lesson, I must’ve been misbehaving in some way, I suppose. Not paying attention to her and talking or laughing with another kid, probably.
She called me out from my desk, admonished me, told me to stick my hand out and … whacked it with a ruler. Maybe my eyes gave her a message, I’m not sure. They say the eyes are the windows of the soul and right then, at that moment, I guess my soul must’ve been pretty dark.
“What are you thinking?” she asked me in Irish.
Now, my Da had brought me and my brother up to tell the truth – always. Years later, my young sister at school would have teachers tell her that though I had often misbehaved, I had always told the truth. I did too, mostly.
When Iníon Ní Mhéalóid asked me that, my training came to the fore but it was more than that – I wanted to tell her what I was thinking.
“I think you’re horrible,” I replied, in Irish too, of course.
I thought I heard my classmates suck in their collective breath.
“Hold out your hand again!”
I did so, half disbelieving. She’d asked me, hadn’t she?
“What are you thinking now?”
“That …. that …. you’re h-horrible,” I sobbed.
“Hold out your hand again!”
“What are you thinking now?” She had a glint in her eye.
I paused, conflicted, then replied.
“An bhfuil tú cinnte (are you sure)?”
“Tá (I am)”.
“Go back to your seat then.”
So now you’re thinking things like “physical abuse, abuse of power, bully, traumatic experience” and feeling sorry for me. Right?
You have it wrong.
Iníon Ní Mhéalóid had taught me a very valuable lesson, relating to truth and power. It is this:
You can speak truth to power because you feel like it, through pride, to encourage others or for any other reason. But those in power are not like your equals down below. You don’t owe those in power any truth and it is perfectly acceptable to tell them lies, to protect yourself or others.
You can of course speak the truth out of choice but know that they do not respect it, will probably use it against you and ….. you must be prepared to pay the price.
The carpet is a lush deep kind of green – not too deep a green though. We didn’t order it but I’m not complaining – I like it. Much better than that yellow one we had for a while a few months back.
Next to it is another kind of carpet – very different. The same green background but covered in big blobs of yellow, brown, orange and mixtures of all three. Even some reds. The blobs are large and small, some shaped like the spades suit in a deck of cards, others like a cat’s iris, some with many points, like a star … Didn’t order that carpet either but I like it too. It might not sound that great but you’d have to see it.
There was the wallpaper too, great stretches already unrolled, ready to look at. A blue-white background with puffs of white and, in the foreground, thin black shapes, some of them decorated with those blobs of colours, like those on that carpet. Great contrast with the thin black shapes.
The carpets and wallpaper were just delivered – no order was placed by phone or email. And no request for payment by cash or credit card. Not even an invoice. Totally free! Hard to believe, I know.
Then there was the perfume. No, not in bottles, in the air. I swear! (Yes, I know that rhymes but I didn’t plan it). It was heady but not in the way that rose is, or honeysuckle, or privet flower. Those aromas make you kind of want to sit down and drowse …. or even lie down and go to sleep. Then you remember the story of the artist who died inhaling in his sleep the aroma of flowers he had in a vase to paint – and you don’t linger too long. Did that really happen? Not sure – best not take the chance. Didn’t take a chance on the dandelion flowers when you were a kid either. Waking up in a wet bed is not a pleasant experience at any age but definitely gets worse, even if rarer, as one grows older.
No, this perfume does not make you want to sit or lie down; it makes you want to jump, run (or at least stride purposefully). It is invigorating. That too was delivered free.
All of this – well, most of it – was donated by the trees. Not the green, surely? Not directly, no … but indirectly, yes. The grass grows in the earth which is fed by dead leaves and other material, broken down by insects and fungi and especially recycled through the digestive tracts of worms. May those gardeners who poison worms on their lawns be forever damned!
Before Ireland was denuded of her mixed forests, what a site she must have been!
All this visual, olfactory and mood-enhancing stuff was delivered free to us but there is, you are right to suspect it, a hidden cost. The weather is getting colder and sitting nearly naked on a beach is definitely out, to say nothing of plunging into the freezing water (well, with some lunatic exceptions). Outdoor cafe-sitting is becoming more of an endurance test than a pleasure. There are days coming when lots of good arguments (convincing at the time anyway) will be found against getting up to go about once’s business.
But then there will be glittering jeweled grass, constellation of stars in the pavement, artwork fronds on glass, white star patterns in things floating from the sky, white blankets over everything or at least over the hilltops in the distance, the special joy of a hot soup, a warm fire and blankets (if you have them) ….
And not too long away, sprouting buds pushing through bark and soil, misty green branches, a different perfume, quickening the blood in a different way.
Again and again we come across activists, journalists, musicians and other artists who are lauded for “speaking truth to power”. They are often praised for that, even idolised. “Speaking truth to power” seems to be brave thing to do. And an important thing. But is it really?
First of all, let us think of who are those usually thought of as “Power”: governments, big companies, military dictators, church leaders, powerful individuals in the media or in the arts …..
Why is it considered a good thing to speak truth to them? It may well be brave to do so and often is. People who spoke the truth in certain situations throughout history and currently have had their careers destroyed, been the subject of all kinds of horrible allegations, been marginalised, lost their families and friends, been framed on charges, jailed as a result or just automatically, tortured, killed and “disappeared”. Yes, we could hardly deny the courage of many of those who chose to take that step. But whether it’s an important thing to do is another thing completely.
What? A courageous act against power not important? What can I be suggesting!
Let’s look at those in power again, taking for examples a government, a military dictatorship and the CEO of a powerful company. In our example, we set out to “speak truth” to them.
For the government, we send them an email, or a letter because there are too many Ministers and Secretaries to address verbally – unless of course we are in some kind of privileged position. They in turn ignore us or send us a dismissive reply (possibly tailored to be quoted) or they have us subjected to surveillance, just in case we should turn out to be a real problem in future. And any government in the world is capable of putting citizens under surveillance.
We send the military dictator a letter and he has us arrested, detained for torture and questioning. Or we accost him when he is somewhere in public …. and his security guards shoot us dead. Or arrest us for torture and questioning.
With regard to the CEO, we send him an email. He ignores it but may have us put under surveillance – just in case. And he’ll have our employment and tax records, families and friends checked out too. Like governments, the CEOs of big companies can easily put people under surveillance and run background checks on them. And CEOs likely last longer in the power position than most governments. Or he might reply dismissively. Or he might have his legal services people threaten us with legal action which, as well as shutting us up, would cost us a lot of money we don’t have, probably bankrupting us.
In the military dictator’s case, we are out of the picture. In the case of the other two, nothing further may happen if we shut up now. But if not, well …. there’s that list of bad outcomes I listed above. Brave? Certainly – but to what effect? Have we changed anything?
Some people think we can change the essence of the way those in Power think by Speaking the Truth to them. If only we can say it powerfully enough. Nonsense. Those in the Power have already chosen who they want to be, what side they are on and understood the basic dynamics or been taught them along the way. Many choices made have confirmed them in their roles and ideology. Furthermore they know that to break ranks with their own is a dangerous thing to do which can result in bad outcomes for them too and also expose them to painful and even fatal thrusts from their competitors or rivals. Remember the 1983 film Trading Places? Remember how the main hero falls at first, is shunned, loses his privileges, friends and associates? Unlike the film’s ending, there is no coming back from there.
If those CEOs and company owners ever took a progressive step it was because they were shown it would increase their profitability or at very least were shown it wouldn’t hurt it ….. or they were forced to do so by people’s resistance. Not ever by having “Truth Spoken” to them. Unless it was the truth of resistance (and we’ll come back to that).
I don’t see the point of Speaking Truth to Power … except in very exceptional situations. For example, if we are being sentenced in court, even if the public gallery has been cleared or packed with cops (which has happened even in this state on occasion), we might wish to raise a clenched fist and yell “Death to Fascism!” before the guards jump on us and bundle us to the cells, giving us a few punches on the way.
Or being tortured, if we are capable of it (and while we are still capable) we might want to shout something similar or just plain “Fuck you!” Or in front of a firing squad, to shout “Long live the revolution!” before the order comes to “Fire!”
Will it do any good, make any difference? Without an audience apart from those in Power, almost certainly not. It might affect some soldiers or police in the firing squad or some jailers but such results are usually negligible. But in doing so, we assert our humanity, our spirit against them and it is for ourselves alone, at that moment, that we Speak Truth to Power. Otherwise, there is no point, none at all.
I don’t want to Speak Truth to Power and what’s more, question why anyone else would. Is he or she suffering from some kind of liberal illusion that such words make a difference, can convert or subvert Power? Or from an inflated ego that convinces him or her that they have the gift, the eloquence, the importance to make Power change? Or that somehow, by force of their excellent will, they can overcome history and change reality?
Or even worse, are they signaling to the Power that they are articulate, eloquent even with “alternative” credentials and that they are worth recruiting by the Power?
I repeat: I don’t want to Speak Truth to Power. I want to Speak Truth alright … but to the PowerLESS! I want to expose the Powerful to the people. I want to show them the long list of the crimes of the Power and that it is unreformable. But I don’t want to just read the people a horror story; I want to show them how I think the monster can be killed. I want to show the people that THEY CAN DO IT! The people can grasp power with which to overthrow the Power. I want to show the people what their forebears have done in rebellions, uprisings, revolution, creation of resistance organisations, art, discovery of science, production ….. I want to share what I think with them, argue with them, encourage them, criticise them. And the only time I want to Speak Truth to Power is when they, the People, are listening, or reading what I am saying. Because then, it’s not to Power, in reality, that I’ll be Speaking Truth; the important audience is not Power at all.
So, Speaking Truth to the People is the thing to do. And will those who do so be safe from painful outcomes, that list given earlier? Having careers destroyed, being the subject of all kinds of horrible allegations, being marginalised, losing families and friends, being framed on charges, jailed as a result or just automatically, tortured, killed and “disappeared”? Alas, no, each of those is a distinct possibility: all have happened even to the people of our small island and nearly all of them fairly recently. Some very recently and even ongoing.
There is no safe way to Speak Truth. But at least this way, there is a chance that Speaking Truth will have some effect, will make a difference. It might even make a big difference. We hope so.
And the final Truth is that words, for all their power on people’s minds, don’t change the real world. People do that, through action.
I thought back over all that happened and I was afraid, really afraid.
It began when I was walking down a lane leading down to what seemed to be a very big building site, the shell constructed but the doorways without doors and windows without frames or glass. It was my intention to get inside and I strolled down casually in manner, to see how that might be done.
On the way, I passed ground where, beyond a shoulder-high wall, there were women, under an overhang of the building. They seemed to have been sleeping on the ground and were now waking up. One of them stretched and I saw her breasts bare.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she called out to me but without covering herself. Nor did she sound very angry.
I averted my eyes, though in truth I wanted to look; I gave some excuse for my presence but could hardly call out the real reason – people in the building might hear me. Continuing strolling past the women I came to the building entrance and, undetected, managed to find my way in. I got up to the second floor and there was one of the workmen there, tools hanging from his belt and I walked past confidently because that’s the only way to do it.
I forgot now for a little why I wanted entry in the first place and made my way to front of the building, facing back down into the lane. It would be a passage outside the apartments or offices when they installed the internal walls; there would be a glass frontage from waist-high but now there was only the empty opening. I looked out, hoping to see the women below but the overhang hid them from sight.
A little later, I was away from the building, in the open among black youths that were fighting with white ones but not myself part of the battle. The black youths slightly outnumbered the white ones and were giving them a real hiding.
And a little later, one of the black youths was walking through a low-level housing estate when he was challenged by a shout and a white youth was coming towards him. That seemed no great danger to him until other white youths were coming out from different directions, unbuckling their belts as they came, clearly to use them as flails, with the heavy metal buckles to inflict damage. As they gathered together, some much younger girls stood in front of them, trying to stop them attacking the black youth, but it was to no avail.
The fight was fierce and the white youths hurt the black one badly before they left him, bleeding in the road. I went and helped him into the house where I was staying and for safety, even though he was in a really bad way, got him up the stairs to the first floor.
Laying him down on a bed there, I got out my phone to call an ambulance, even though I feared it would do no good. I was stopped by a strange sight. There was a mixed race girl, light-skinned with dark freckles, lying down beside the wounded youth, facing him. She was somewhere around fourteen years old, I’d guess. As if paralysed, I watched.
The girl was smiling and she said: “You know, when they act like they don’t want you, that’s when they want you.” I had no idea what she was talking about and doubted he did.
She repeated it and after the third time, he whispered: “Truly?”
Her smile widened into a beautiful thing to see and she leaned further towards him, saying: “ Oh, yes! That’s when they REALLY want you” and kissed him gently three times on the lips. He closed his eyes and somehow I felt him slide away, life leaving him.
Downstairs, I heard the front door open.
“The youths come back to finish him off,” is what I thought first. Then I thought it might be the paramedics – even though I hadn’t called them yet. Someone else might have.
But it wasn’t – I recognised the voices.
What were they doing here? It was the owners and they were supposed to be abroad on holiday, with me minding the house for them. My mind was in a whirl as the couple came up the stairs, greeting me, the woman then complaining about some features of where they had been. To be honest, I can’t remember now where that was. My mind was in a turmoil. I didn’t want them to know what was in the small bedroom.
My heart beat even faster when their two big dogs bounded up the stairs, one dark brown and the other white. They knew me and gamboled around as I tried to block them from going past the doorway into the room. They were pushing, as if they knew I had something to hide.
Just as I shouted “No” in my most convincing master voice, the white one got past me and into the room. A second later it uttered a howl-bark of challenge inside. I was sunk, went weak and the woman pushed past me easily. A second later she screamed.
When I followed her in I saw that the youth was lying where I had lain him, his blood soaking into the sheets. The girl was nowhere to be seen, although there was nowhere for her to have gone. The dog had relaxed, as if knowing the body presented no threat.
Haltingly, I told the woman how the youth had been attacked and how I had brought him in.
“And you put him ON THE BED?” she shouted unbelievingly. I was somewhat appalled at that but I knew she was not a bad person and put it down to the shock she was feeling.
“Better phone the ambulance,” I muttered then and turned to look for where I had put down my phone. As if activated by my words, I heard it ringing. “Emergency services?” I thought … but wait a minute, I hadn’t called them yet.
“Hello?” I enquired cautiously after I’d picked it up.
Beyond bizarre, was what I thought. My 20-year-old son, phoning from our relatives in Spain. He started talking about his arrival earlier, the relatives, his accommodation … I didn’t want to cut him off for we had been somewhat estranged in the past but … After making some minimal responses I then said: “I’m in the middle of something – can you call me back a little later?”
“Residential work?” he asked. He knew I’d done that kind of work before, in homeless hostels, probation hostels, sheltered accommodation etc.
“Yes,” I lied.
“Ok,” he yawned “but I have no money on the phone.”
“I’ll call you back soon then,” I replied, inanely wondering which way the hour difference between Spain and here was, more or less?
Turning to the woman, I saw that she had a gentle look on her face. “Your son?”
“Yes,” I replied, then sighed. “Better call emergency services now.” She nodded.
And then I woke up and I thought back over all that happened and to be honest, I was afraid, really afraid to back to sleep, in case somehow I slipped back into that. And it was too early to get up.
I wondered what my Ma would make of that dream for she was a pretty good dream-deviner. But she’s gone years now.
So I switched on the light and read some more of Lady Gregory’s arrangement of stories about the Fianna. There’s plenty of killing and dying, and kissing women and strange events in there but somehow a lot less frightening than what I had just experienced.
(Written in London as the death of Bobby Sands was imminent or had just occurred, after the author had attended pickets and demonstrations in solidarity with the hunger strikers in attempt to avert their deaths by pressurising the British Government to accede to their just demands. Bobby Sands died on 5th May 1981, to be followed by nine others in the weeks and months that followed. The struggle was one for the human dignity of Irish Republican political prisoners of Britain in the Six Counties British colony).
They had been preparing for this for some time. The infants were selected, received special care and food and were raised carefully in the Palace chambers inside the Citadel. They were now adolescents, maturing sexually. As the time approached for their great expedition, the tunnels leading to the departure terminal were widened and cleared of all obstructions. Experts tested the weather conditions daily and, when the majority of these were in agreement, the Queen gave the order to launch.
The adolescents took off then, a great host of them, amidst great excitement. Their pheromones, male and female, filled the air around them and those who could, which was most of them, quickly found a partner and coupled. It was a maiden flight from which the adolescent females would land no longer maidens.
Those who would land, that is. For suddenly the air was filled with giant flying monsters with huge eyes and giant whirring wings. Much more accustomed to flight, these monsters flew among them, gobbling them up. Some even held rows of their hapless victims in their huge beaks as they flew off to feed them to their young. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the little flyers perished in minutes.
Those who managed to land safely and didn’t end up drowning in a lake or a river, or snapped by denizens of the deep who sprang up at them as they passed overhead, or caught in sticky webs, or who were not stamped carelessly to death by huge walking giants or flattened by roaring, stinking monsters, still had to contend with smaller predators on the ground. The casualty rate was huge but some made it alive – some always did.
The males who made it down to ground safely would all die within a couple of days. Their wings were only intended for their nuptial flight; on the ground, they were nothing more than a nuisance, impeding their progress over and underground.
The females, sexually sated and no longer interested, had left their male partners behind. They bit off their own wings, ate them and, quickly finding some reasonably soft ground, began to dig. Each one dug down as though her life depended on it, which of course it did; and not only her own life – each one was pregnant. Then she blocked the entrance to her tunnel, went back down it, excavated a chamber and began to lay eggs. It was completely dark down there but she had been reared in darkness – she had one day of daylight only, the day she flew.
The young grubs who hatched were all females. She supplied them with some sparse nutrition from herself and cared for them as they grew, shed skin, grew … until they spun a cocoon from which they emerged as very small worker ants. They were infertile workers and tended to their large mother, their Queen; even when they were fully-grown she was still one-and-a-half times their size, although about half the size she had been when she left her old nest. Her most recent meal had been her own wings the day she had flown and mated. If she got past this crucial stage, she would recover her size and weight and lay more and more eggs.
The workers soon went up the tunnel, unblocked it and spilled out into daylight for the first time in their lives, beginning to forage for food. They found small seeds and, if they were lucky, sweet material such as soft-skinned ripe or rotting fruit. They soon had their surroundings covered with their hive-scent, carried by each and every worker. Sometimes they found insects they could kill but these had to be very small indeed – these workers had been fed on insufficient nutrition and were, compared to the majority of their kind, puny. If they found a food-source worth another visit, they left a specially-scented trail on their way back to their home, to guide theirs sisters back to the prize later. A rich source of food typically would show two streams of traffic between their nest and the food – one empty–jawed heading for the food and the other, with pieces in their jaws, heading away from it and towards the nest. The food gathered by the workers fed them and their Queen, while she continued laying eggs. As time went by, more and more workers were born, who would care for the hundreds of eggs their matriarch laid and raise more and more workers. Extensive tunnel networks were dug.
At some point the workers found aphids and began harvesting their sugary secretions; tending them on the stems of the plants the aphids infested and carrying them down to their citadel but bringing them back up later. The workers would fight to protect the aphids from those who preyed on their ‘herds’.
Successive generations of ant workers grew bigger, until they reached the optimum size of five milimetres (still four millimetres short of the Queen in her prime). A well-established citadel could in time house as many as 40,000 individuals (although between four and seven thousand would be more common) – they, and previous generations, all daughters of the same mother and the product of one mating only. Their Queen, barring unusual disasters, might live to 15 years of age.
Once the citadel is built, it is vulnerable in the ordinary course of things only to parasites, flood, fire and severe surface disturbance. In Ireland, without bears, wild boar and largely without foraging pigs, severe surface disturbance is unlikely away from human construction or ploughing and digging. Fire might not reach underground but the heat generated or the lack of oxygen might kill anyway; flood, of course, would be the biggest threat. If a citadel should be uncovered or invaded by flood waters, some workers will rush to deal with the problem while others rush to save the young, trying to carry eggs, pupae or cocoons away in their jaws to a safe place. Some others will rush to do whatever they can for their Queen. A black ant defends itself by running away if possible and if not, by biting. But intruders to the citadel are swarmed by biting ants. However most human skin is impervious to the bite and this species does not sting.
One day, perhaps three years from the Queen’s maiden flight, she will decide it is time to send her own children into the wider world. She will lay eggs and have these emerging grubs fed special food, which will produce males for the first time in her citadel, as well as other fertile females besides herself. Then, one day in July or in August, she will send them out too, to start new colonies.
Lasius niger, the Black or Garden Ant, is the most common of the 21 species of ant in Ireland. It is the most common also across Europe and a sub-species, L. neoniger, is known in the USA where however, it is not one of the most numerous ant species. Lasius niger is a very active, hardy and adaptable species, living mostly outdoors under rocks and but rarely inside houses (although it may well enter houses repeatedly if it learns of food within, especially sweet food). In cities, its nests are to be found in parks and gardens but also under street paving stones, the workers emerging to forage from tunnels leading to the joints between the stone. When those joints are surrounded by thin lines or small heaps of bright sand in summer, one knows that the workers are clearing the tunnels for the adolescents’ flights. Another indication is an unusual amount of
seemingly erratic ant activity around a nest, though one would need to be aware of what normal activity looked like, for comparison. The ants may delay, awaiting what they judge to be optimum conditions but someday soon, mid to late afternoon, they will take to the air, to fly, to mate, to die or to live, to start a new population.
(NB: This may be read on its own or following CONVERSATION WITH A SPIDER PART 1 https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/conversation-with-a-spider/ to which it is related)
“What do you mean ‘you again’ ?
“I put you out the window the other day.
“Wasn’t me. Nope. Might’ve been my brother – looks a lot like me. Or my sister.
“It was definitely a male.
“You can tell, can you?
“Yes. I’ve done some reading about spiders.
“Well, I had lots of brothers.
“You’re building one of those crazy, haphazard webs all over my bathroom wall again.
“This is a beautiful web. Made of beautiful fine silk – but also very strong. It is a tribute to our ancestral goddess, Arachne.
“Arachne was an accomplished weaver of beautiful rugs.
“This, however, is a haphazard mess.
“To your two human eyes. You have to see it through our eyes – all eight of them. You have to feel its vibrations …. the air currents flowing through it like music …. the vibrations of a trapped fly …. like …. like …
“Like a dinner gong.
“Crude …. but, well, yes.
“You remember catching a fly, do you?
“Recently. Quite recently. You don’t think I’m starving, do you?
“No but I know spiders can live a lonnnnng time without eating.
“And you know this how?
“ Reading. In particular, Compton’s The Life of the Spider.
“ A voyeur.
“ What did you call me?
“Not you – him. And it was John CRompton, not Compton.
“Oh, right. You told me that before.
“Not me – maybe one of my brothers. And it was just The Spider, without The Life of, which was the title of Jean Henri Fabre’s book.
“Ok. But why did you call Crompton a voyeur?
“He watched the mating of spiders …. watched the goings-on for HOURS.
“He was a naturalist – he watched it so he could write about it.
“A voyeur and a pornographer.
“Writing about animals mating isn’t pornography! David Attenborough did a whole series on animal mating.
“He’s another one! And he did it with hidden cameras!
“Pornographic filming or writing is depicting sexual acts with the intention of sexually arousing and titillating the watcher or reader.
“Humans are not going to get sexually aroused watching or reading about animals mating.
“Are you sure? Really? ‘Her heart beat faster … she could smell the stallion …. he looked so strong, his coat so shiny …. she couldn’t help herself, she was firing off pheromones ….. he moved powerfully, muscles rippling …. he was sniffing her right there! …. she could feel his breath there! …. Oh! right where she was aching …. she felt herself melting …. he was going to mount her … yes! Yes! …
“Ok, ok. You’ve made your point. Cough! But going back to the issue of your web …
“My beautiful, complex web.
“Your haphazard, wandering, dust-collecting web.
“My efficient, fly-catching web.
“You’re not catching any flies.
“Not yet … but I will. If you leave my web alone.
“No. You’re going out the window.
“You’re angry and you’re projecting again.
“What did you say?
“Er … I said ‘You’re projecting’. It means …..
“I know what it means, thanks. You said ‘again’.
“Yes, you did. You said ‘You’re projecting again’. As though we had this conversation before.
“You’re building a whole web from a thread.
“I knew it was you again. You’re going back out the window.
“I’ll bite you!
“Ooooh, I’m scared.
“You should be. Our species has the most potent venom of any spider in these islands and many abroad. That’s why we have a skull design on our back.
“Says who? The Web?
“No need to be sarcastic. It is a well-known fact. You can read about it in newspapers if you don’t trust the Internet.
“I have read about it and it says that your fangs are not long enough to penetrate human skin.
“Do you want to take that chance? DO you? MAKE MY DAY!
“I’ve thrown you and lots of your relations out the window and never been bitten. I think that story about powerful venom is one you and yours have been spreading yourselves. Probably on the Web, ha, ha, ha. Not one record of even a hospital admission for poisonous bite by the Short-Bodied Cellar Spider!
“The venom works so fast they don’t make it to hospital. And the deaths are put down to heart attack and other causes.
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.
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.
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 wherehe 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 Ireland, reported 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 apolitical 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 theBibliography, 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.
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 TheWin (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.
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.
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 membershipin the 1930s5 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.
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.
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.
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.