Thursday, March 29, 2012

The end of Irish history

What is our history? Is it what we read about in the history book, about Dev, Collins, Parnell, O'Connell etc.? Or is it a Marxist history of the people, movements, and a striving towards freedom, political or otherwise? Or is there a secret history, on the tip of our tongues, yet hidden, always hidden?

What do we see when we look at ourselves? Do we trace the origins of republicanism back eight hundred years, or do we look to more recent traumas around which these creation myths took root and sprung forth? Do we see the Great Famine as such an event, itself simply something that happened, an event in which the facts speak for themselves in a way that can never truly reveal the trauma incurred in this country during it?

When an event stands as curiously in the history of a people as the Famine does, a trauma which does not speak so much as show, a curious amalgation of facts and figures, of death and emigration, then perhaps this is the seminal event that we are looking for. When every other population throughout the world, on every continent, was experiencing a surge in growth, we went from a population of eight million almost half that.

There is almost an unwillingness to take the Famine into our national mythology in the same way as such events as the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, even 1798. The Famine instead occupies a silent position, a position which is acknowledged in hushed tones. The bronze statues commemorating the Famine barely stand down by the IFSC, raggedy emaciated figures, struggling forward in a sort of desperation, nothing to say, and yet everything to show. They show us much. They say very little.

What was said after the Famine was by those who scraped by, or those who were wealthy enough not to have been greatly effected. And so the story belongs with the dead of the Great Famine, who rotted away with their blighted blackened potatoes. There simply is no story to tell. This is the nature of trauma. If we are to look at this from a semi-Freudian perspective, trauma goes hand-in-hand with the inability to explain something, to fashion a story around an event, to invest it with some sort of moral. The Famine, then, in its facts and figures, in the way it comes down to us, is a trauma.

Perhaps we never hated the English before that in the way in which we did after. They momentarily took away our ability to tell stories.

We have no heroic equivalent for the Famine of Collins and his men taking on the English Commonwealth. Where are the executed martyrs, where is the drive towards Irish freedom? Where is Parnell, even, the Irish politician who had the wit and intelligence to square up to Westminster's finest? None of these things; an emaciated bunch of statues by the IFSC, with nothing but desperation and hunger in their eyes.

The fight for Irish freedom seems to me to have had two stages; pre-Famine, and post-Famine. But of its link to either? All anecdotes and secondary causal links, tenuous at best. And as such it stands as a trauma, not a cause, but as something we cannot mythologise in the way we do other more overtly "nationalistic" events. It haunted everything though, and may even do to this day. Our obsession with land and property, so big a factor in the political corruption of our day; our emulation of opportunism; our mistrust of authority; the list goes on. Ad infinum, in fact. For it is not accurate enough to say that all these things came about because of the Famine. That would be a step towards mythologising the event, of making it into a story, of putting it into a sensible framework, of talking about it in a definite context (the cure for trauma, as Freud saw it, was psychoanalysis, or as it was called in the early days, "the talking cure").

No, we cannot say what it influenced, directly. It is a ghost, a spectre haunting Ireland. And it may be the ghost that we fight to this day, Mahon's nemesis, and Bertie's excuse, or the developers driving force. Who knows? The point is we cannot know for certain. All we have are those facts and figures, those facts and figures. It marks the end of the History of Ireland, its limits, and the beginning of trauma.

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