Examining our past must help illuminate the present

Who said the following? "We should not be concerning ourselves with rewriting Irish history; we should be making history, whether…

Who said the following? "We should not be concerning ourselves with rewriting Irish history; we should be making history, whether it is in education, economic affairs or social matters. We should be concerned with creating a society of which we can be reasonably proud rather than wasting time in the futile exercise of interpreting the past. We should be creating the future."

The speaker, in the Dail in 1973 was, of course, Charles Haughey, and the theme was one of his favourites.

In 1986, for instance, he again told the Fianna Fail Ardfheis that the party was not "prepared to acquiesce in any rewriting of Irish history." It was not that he was dismissive of the past, but he liked his history to be ancient and misty. It was about timeless traditions, venerable ancestors, and glorious precedents.

The archaeological past was one thing, but the span of his own public life, from the late 1950s onwards, was something else altogether.


You do not have to be Sigmund Freud to discern the deeper personal motives behind Haughey's disdain for "the futile exercise of interpreting the past". In his case, of course, the severe amnesia which afflicts him so piteously when it comes to significant incidents in the recent past is such that the exercise of seeking to interpret the recent past is indeed futile.

But the attitude that he expressed so succinctly in that 1973 speech is by no means unique to him. And it raises a legitimate question. What, after all, is the point of rewriting the history of contemporary Ireland as we have been doing in tribunal after tribunal and with revelation after revelation?

Should we not be concentrating on the future rather than the past, on the making rather than the writing of history?

In 10 years' time we will undoubtedly look back on the 1990s as a period of extraordinary obsession with the past. We will say that politics in the Republic has been, in this decade, more than a bit previous, for it has been more obviously about what has happened previously than what is happening at the moment. The great political dramas of the decade have all begun with the return of unfinished business.

The gap between contemporary history and up-to-the-minute journalism has sometimes shrunk to nothing. The body politic has trembled with delayed reactions and unexpected aftershocks. Public life has been haunted by the ghosts of past scandals.

The hare of the new Ireland races away from the tortoise of history, pauses for breath, and is passed on the road by that cold, lumbering creature that plods relentlessly on, carrying on its back the hard carapace of inescapable truths.

Phones are tapped in 1982 and Charles Haughey resigns as Taoiseach 10 years later. A priest abuses children in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and a government falls in 1994. A bishop fathers a child in the 1970s, and the authority of the Church is destroyed in the 1990s.

The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

CHAOS theory has often been more relevant than political science. Like the butterfly beating its wings over Tokyo that causes a hurricane over Miami, small disturbances in one current of Irish life have sent storms crashing over others.

The handling of the Brendan Smyth affair, initially a problem for the Church, became a problem for the State. An internal feud within the Dunne family has had the side-effect of destroying a government minister and disgracing one of the central figures in modern Irish politics. A thread pulled anywhere can unravel the whole garment.

Is all of this frantic rewriting of history a sign that things are getting better or a symptom of some deep pathology? Does it distract us from the task of building a better future by keeping our gaze of entranced horror so firmly fixed on what has already happened?

Or is it a process which we have to go through in order to understand who we are? Are we experiencing growing pains or the self-inflicted agonies of a masochistic fascination with an Ireland that should be consigned to the National Archives?

It is often said that the problem of contemporary western society is that it is all information and no knowledge, that we are deluged with facts but lack the ability to put them together. But the problem of contemporary Ireland has been the reverse: all knowledge and no information.

We knew that there was widespread abuse of children by members of the clergy. We knew that Charles Haughey was on the take. We knew that there were cliques and gangs for whom the point of having power was to abuse it. But we lacked the information - the names, the dates and the amounts. By supplying at least some of those details the process of revelation in the last few years has been giving us something very profound - the ability to activate what we already know and in doing so to make it real.

I think, and hope, that what we are doing is accustoming our eyes to the strong light of reality. We have lived in Plato's cave, watching the shadows of power flit across the walls and taking them for the substance.

Plato thought that if we could see the real figures we would be blinded by their magnificence, but in our case we are reminded that shadows are often bigger than real bodies. Turning to see them in their true light, we find that the great figures of Church and State are, as often as not, small, grubby and contemptible creatures.

The recent past is not a pretty sight, and it might be easier not to look. But if we turn away from it, we will be stuck with it. If we prefer not to know how things came to be as they are we will not be obsessed by history, because it won't be history. It will be, not the past, but the present and future. Ireland will continue to be run by the values of the past, as they are listed by the Irishman in Tom Murphy's The Gigli Concert: "corruption, brutality, backhanding, fronthanding, backstabbing, lump labour and a bit of technology."

In this sense the "exercise of interpreting the past" doesn't have to be futile. As the pace of revelations increases, the past is in hot pursuit of the present. If we can speed the process up just a bit more, it may soon overtake contemporary reality, so that instead of having tribunals to tell us what was happening to us five years ago, we may be able to see what is going on right now. We might be able to see ourselves, not for what we have been, but what we are.