Perhaps I’m being a bit mean, picking on old Herodotus again, but he was in there in the early days, entertaining his readers with fabulous tales while peppering his accounts with phrases (Macaulay’s translation) like, ‘I went myself as an eye-witness as far as the city of Elephantine’ and ‘the Oracle of Ammon bears witness in support of my opinion that Egypt..’. Fortunately, we now know that, in E.H. Gombrich’s phrase, ‘The innocent eye is a myth’ (251). But Partha Mitter’s work has shown the tenacity of false representation, how the ‘myths and legends’ spun by Herodotus and his fellow Greek travellers, and transmitted through Pliny and Solinus, continued to infect the imagination of nineteenth-century travellers such as James Fergusson, who claimed to be an ‘objective historian’ (xv). In fact, these ‘early travellers’, in Mitter’s explanation, ‘preferred to trust what they had been taught to expect instead of trusting their own eyes’ (2). The parallel with regard to Ireland is, of course, the self-contradictory nonsense peddled by Gerald of Wales. Hyped up on his Herodotus, how would he not discover savages and monsters at the far reaches of western Europe?
To do Herodotus justice, he couldn’t draw on the theories of Kahneman and Tversky, who have demonstrated that we are unconscious of our own deep-dyed subjectivity, and Fergusson was the dupe of the so-called Enlightenment, when European folk imagined they were thinking for themselves. And Herodotus could not have predicted the tenacity of his legacy as ‘father of history’. But although it now seems absurd to wheel in a classical author in order to silence the opposition, it’s easy to forget how recently this species of fetishism passed for rational discourse. One of my favourite examples is Ruskin’s fervent and entirely theory-based argument that women are meant to be household angels. He called as witnesses the brain-creatures of Aeschylus, Dante, Homer and Shakespeare: QED. The poor man revised his opinions after a little real-life experience. Nevertheless, if we were to return to the Greek derivation of ‘history’ and define it as an inquiry among conflicting accounts in order to discover the truth, and entirely disembarrass ourselves of centuries of Christianity’s mania for explaining everything in terms of God’s will, we would be getting somewhere useful.
The misrepresentation of events in Irish history, along with the defamation of the ‘Irish character’ is well-documented, and not a little depressing. One of its saddest manifestations is in the attempts to account for the Great Famine of the nineteenth century. The opinions of such as Trevelyan, who believed that it was an ultimately beneficial and divinely-ordained consequence of a lack of industry on the part of the Irish peasant, were influential in public discourse. More poignantly, some of the thoroughly-colonised minds of the surviving populace colluded with the ‘punishment of God’ diagnosis (72-3). Indeed, the Mayor of Dublin, welcoming Queen Victoria to Ireland in 1853, participated in the self-flagellation, announcing that ‘the same All-wise disposer of human events, who but a few years since, visited this island with unprecedented calamity, now designs to smile on the industrial struggles of our people’ (2). Beneath his words lurks the suggestion, flattering to the ears of the royal party, that laziness, rather than a system of disincentives and obstacles to economic development, had been at fault.
One might hope to see a more agile spirit of inquiry in twenty-first-century historiography, but apologists for Britain’s role in the Famine are unashamed to resort to a fudge, albeit it one of post-faith ideology. As recently as 2010, Thomas Bartlett opined that, ‘Irish poverty was not the fault of the British government, and it was poverty that made the Irish people vulnerable to Famine’ (288). Is anyone else silently screaming, ‘Who was in charge, then?’ And is anyone else wondering whether this is yet one more commentator not quite sufficiently objective to realise that poverty is not an endemic feature of being Irish? But how resilient against reason, how unconscious the narratives which govern our thinking. If I ruled the world, Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow would be compulsory reading, at least for those who aspire to influence the thinking of others. Kahneman reminds us of Taleb’s theory that ‘flawed stories of the past shape our views of the world and our expectations for the future’ and that ‘narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempts to make sense of the world’ (199). He warns us that, ‘our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance (201).
And so we find the Freeman’s Journal in 1898 acknowledging ‘a very appreciative article on Irish Laces, written by Miss Mary Gorges’. Her subject was the Irish Textile Exhibition of 1897, which, she believed, would do something ‘to “dispel the myth that the Irishman is constitutionally an idler, and that the Irish can do nothing for themselves”. The Exhibition is truly described as the evidence of Irish aptitude for work, and of eager yet patient industry that had toiled on almost unrecognised for years’ (4). By this time, Irish workers had built much of Britain’s modern infrastructure and had indeed been castigated since early in the century for their willingness to toil at rates that undercut the English labourer (anyone hear twenty-first-century bells ringing?). Irish men and women had, by 1898, worked their way to prosperity in America and other countries relatively removed from the disabling effects of British discriminatory systems and practices. So why had reality done nothing to dislodge the ancient lie? Well, as Kahneman has proven, we like to ‘keep explanatory narrative simple and coherent’ (199) and we are entirely unaware that good, but discredited, stories are clinging like limpets to our submerged minds. Besides, we’re both lazy and frugal: why discard an heirloom stereotype with plenty of wear left in it?
Thomas Barlett. Ireland, A History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.
Gombrich, E.H. Art and Illusion: a study in the psychology of pictorial representation. London: Phaidon P, 2002. Print.
Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. Trans G.C. Macaulay. 2 vols. Kindle.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin, 2012. Print.
Mitter, Partha. Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European reactions to Indian art. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. Print.
Quinlan, Carmel. ‘A Punishment from God’: The Famine in the Centenary Folklore Questionnaire. The Irish Review. 19 (1996): 68-86. Print.
Ruskin, John. ‘Lecture II, Lilies of Queens’ Gardens’. Sesame and Lilies. 1865. Kindle.
Taleb, Nicholas Nassim. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.
‘The Corporation Address’. Wexford Independent. 3 Sept 1853.
‘The Queen of Irish Laces’. Freeman’s Journal. 12 Sept 1898.