Over the weekend while visiting my home in Waterford, I spoke at two events. The first was Booze Blaas and Banter as part of the Imagine Arts Festival hosted by the Waterford Council of Trade Unions. The second event, also part of the festival, was the launch of the newest issue of Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society‘s journal, Decies. I spoke alongside Tom Hunt and The Knotted Chords, a Waterford two-piece who provided the music. Here is an edited text of my short talk:
I want to talk briefly tonight to you all about some thoughts I have been mulling over for a while and of which the article on family history in the current issue of Decies is a product.
The article has been a long time in the making. It began its life as a series of blogposts I wrote on my own blog, the sidelines of history, and evolved over time and thanks to Cian’s encouragement into what is in the journal as we have it before us. In the article I make case studies out of several people in my family who I learned about while doing my family tree over the past year or so. I tried to look at their lives and explain them in relation to more well-known themes from Irish history: the history of the revolutionary decade, from the view point of labour and also emigration history. I wanted to do it in part because I wanted to share what I thought were interesting stories from my family that have helped me to learn not just more about myself and my family but have taught me something about those major historical themes.
Among the ordinary people we often find the most extraordinary stories. A long time ago, in an interview I did for a local paper, I said that it was important for me that people should recognise themselves in their history and I still believe that. The world has enough – and will continue to have – the histories of kings, and generals, of the wealthy and the powerful. What marks the era since the middle of the 1900s as unusual is the interest we can take in the history of people like us – ordinary people who lived in and help make their own times extraordinary. We must not lose sight of the fact that this is an unusual and revolutionary turn in the focus of history. We must continue to write and research about the lives of ordinary people who may not have changed the world in the way we normally understand that idea – but who in their own lives and their own experiences of the world have something valuable to teach us about their time and about our own time. It is imperative, especially in the climate of the world at present, that the stories of ordinary people are not swallowed up, simplified, spat back at them and ignored.
As someone who is currently describing himself as a recovering academic, I have begun to think more and more about the function of history outside and beyond the academy. History for most of us is a deeply personal thing. There are often gaps between the personal histories we carry with us from our families and the official version of national or local history as we learn it in school. History is not just written by the winners, it usually written by those who can write. And those who can write, traditionally have been those who have had power. The battle is not always a literal one, but it is always a vital and a real one.
The great bulk of people crop up almost nowhere in the historical record. The powerful have a tendency to write about themselves and as long as history belongs to the powerful then our own, more common histories, will continue to be ignored and forgotten, yet more victims of the condescension of posterity. Of course, as my own article highlights, this is changing slowly but it’s a change we must be careful to to nurture. As anyone who has dipped their toe into the vast world of family history and genealogy can tell you, in our age of recording and tabulating – going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century especially – it is easier to find your relatives than ever before. The vast explosion in websites like ancestry and others like it has aided this process greatly as does the general process of the digitization of records like birth, marriage and death certs.
But if we are serious about genealogical history, about family history, being more than a mere pastime for people – if we want our personal family narratives, the ones which complicate and contradict the official strands of the historical record, to count for something then we need these things to be written about. We need to teach people more than how to simply find the name and birth and death date of their great-great-grandmother. We need to teach people how to think about the lives these people would have lived – to think more about the choices people were forced to make in the course of their lives so that you have ended up in this place and time in your life. Inside all of our family histories lurk the very things that drive “serious” history. If all the world is indeed a stage, and all the men and women in it merely players than we must give greater consideration of the roles they played. For it is the ordinary people of the world, who have and always will outnumber the powerful and the privileged, who have done most to shape the world even as they are told they have done the least.
So, here is my hope for my article – that by reading it, those people who research their own family trees and their own family histories will stop not when they have stretched back to their four-times-great-grandmother, and say the family history is complete. Instead, I hope my article will encourage people to ask questions about why their great-grandmother gave birth to twelve children only six of whom survived or why it was their great-grandfather went to work abroad for a decade or any number of the things which happened to these people as they lived their lives in their own times. Only by answering those questions can we really begin to write our own histories. Only by writing our history can we claim some power over the narrative. Only with the power that comes from knowledge of our own complicated version of the past can we begin to question the version of history which can look so unlike the one we experience.