Irish Historical Mysteries: Introduction


What is history? 'History is bunk', said Henry Ford, the famous motor car manufacturer. 'History is but a fable agreed upon', Napoleon is alleged to have stated. 'History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake', declared Joyce. 'Happy the people whose annals are blank in the history books', wrote Carlyle. Dr Johnson was of the opinion that 'great abilities are not requisite for an historian', nor 'imagination . . . required in any great degree'. In our own time, the Swedish pop group Abba has declared, 'The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself'.

Now whatever about their other accomplishments, Ford, Napoleon and Joyce were not historians, and although Carlyle was, nowadays we would tend to believe that it is those peoples who are most oppressed who tend to be invisible to the historian. Johnson's observation contains perhaps the most wisdom, and indeed it is true that patience and perseverance rather than intellectual smartness are the historian's greatest assets, and unrestrained imagination is a positive liability for the historian. What about the cliché that history repeats itself? It is true that the events of one period of history often display marked similarities to another, for example, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the Belfast Agreement of 1998, or the Balkan conflicts of 1914 and 1999. Yet history never repeats itself exactly, for we can never know precisely what is happening until after the event, and variations and differences can turn out to be even more significant than similarities.

It is also useful to examine the etymology or derivation of the word 'history', which comes via Latin from a Greek word meaning 'narrative', itself derived from histor, meaning 'wise' or 'learned man'. The purely practical, as opposed to the scholarly or cultural, value of history is admittedly limited, and the subject cannot compare with business or computer studies, for example, in terms of preparing a student for a lucrative career. This is borne out by the worrying decline in numbers taking the subject in the Leaving Certificate, which have fallen from 25% of the total cohort in 1995 to about 20% in 2000. Furthermore, there has been a rise in the failure rate, the figure for the Ordinary Level Paper in 2000 being almost 25%, which runs against the general trend of rising grades in most subjects. (1) The perception that a history degree is not much use for getting a job has certainly become entrenched, and the Chief Examiner's Report for 1999 also makes reference to the perception that the higher cognitive and reading skills required to master the subject tend to reduce its popularity. (2) History as an educational subject is clearly in crisis, and it is to be hoped that ongoing reform of the curriculum will respect the integrity of the subject and not merely 'dumb it down'.

Yet we should not overlook areas where history does possess a practical application, and the burgeoning heritage and cultural tourism industries in this country should be providing employment for historians, as they certainly have done for archaeologists. Alas, there is a not uncommon tendency in the heritage industry to bypass serious historical research and rely instead on fabrication or invention, and for examples of this see our accounts of the making of the statue of Molly Malone and the MacCarthy Mór Fraud. To combat such distortions, historians must learn on the one hand to present their subject in a more business-like way, yet on the other hand they must not abandon essential principles of truth and accuracy. In this context, we would urge history teachers at third level in particular to examine their reputation for ivory tower detachment, and to incorporate more practical elements in their courses, such as heritage studies and genealogy .

It is a commonplace that we do not learn from our history, but one would like to believe that a knowledge of history, while of course not guaranteeing absolute virtue, will nevertheless help to make us slightly better people at least. We pride ourselves in this country on our knowledge of and interest in our history, but on closer examination the various traditions will be found to prize myth rather than history proper. Nationalists, Unionists, English, we all approach Irish history with a prefabricated set of values rooted in the prejudices of our communities, which if not overcome, will prevent us from ever reaching accommodation. Our examinations of the Flight of the Earls and the Penal Laws (pending) should therefore be of special interest, as people have tended to adopt a position on these historical events in accord with inherited prejudices. There is a disturbing trend on the part of film-makers dealing with historical themes to disregard historical facts perceived to be inconvenient, which will be mentioned in our account of Michael Collins (pending).

Myths of course have their own interest and cultural value, but it is important that they should be recognised for what they are and not allowed to become a substitute for history. Both the Milesians and Knights Templar provide examples of areas where the debate as to what is myth and what is history still continues. While it is to the professionals that we generally must look for guidance in separating fact from fiction, it is not suggested that they are incapable of error, as we shall see when we look at the obsessions and methods of archaeologists in relation to Newgrange and Knowth. History which remains unwritten or little known will be considered in the case of Edmund Burke and Charles Lucas, and simple curiosity and fascination with mystery may well be our main motives for wishing to detect the location of Emmet's grave or the identities of those responsible for stealing the Irish 'Crown Jewels'.

Of late it has also become fashionable, especially in left-wing circles, to deride the notion of historical truth. It is argued that there are in fact many histories, on the one hand capitalist history, imperialist history, fascist history, nationalist history, all of them of course bad, and on the other hand, socialist history, anti-imperialist history, black history, women's history, all of these of course good. Thus if someone is perceived to be a Nazi, like David Irving, there is no need to read his historical works or listen to his lectures, for he is an evil man who must be silenced. Entrenched ideological positions, whether they be of the right like Irving's, or of the left like those of his critics, do not make for good history, and the widest possible degree of freedom of thought and expression is required if the discipline is to flourish. This of course means according the right of free speech even to Fascists, or for that matter, to Communists. Furthermore, we must strive for the ideal of historical truth, while realising that we can never achieve it absolutely because of our human fallibility. On the other hand, a cynical disregard for historical truth will breed at best carelessness in historical research, at worst deliberate dishonesty. The main theme of our articles is therefore the never-ending search for historical truth and the avoidance of myth, falsehood, or just plain error.

Sean Murphy
Commenced 30 May 1999,
last revised 8 March 2007


(1) Irish Times, 16 and 17 August 2000.

(2) Leaving Certificate History 1999, Chief Examiner's Reports,

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