Fr Kevin Hegarty
The American novelist Carson McCullers once wrote that to know who you are you must have a place to come from. It is a striking phrase that captures the importance of identity. Not only must you have a place to come from, you must know this place.
That is why the study of history is important for it can give you a sense of place and tradition. You can become, in the memorable adjective William Butler Yeats applied to his friend John Millington Synge, a ‘rooted’ person. It can enable you to enter imaginatively into other cultures and to honour and critique you own. It can acclimatise you to the process of change.
Historians perform a valuable function in society. In the words of the historian Peter N Stearns, the subject “offers only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives … Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or society persist despite change”.
Through the study of history we gain access to the laboratory of human experience. William J Bouwsma, in an introduction to a volume of essays, ‘A Usable Past’ likens history to water and electricity as a ‘public utility’. He argues that “like other professional groups, historians are properly the servants of a public that needs historical perspective to understand itself and its values, and perhaps also to acknowledge its limitations and guilt”.
Irish society has been well served by historians in recent decades. Scholars from different traditions have grappled honestly with the political, religious, social and economic evidence that has shaped our world. We still need more comprehensive histories of local communities, the jigsaw pieces from which the overall picture is composed. It is in such studies that we hear the voices of ordinary people for there is a tendency of academic historians to be biased in favour of the powerful, the wealthy and the articulate. As in life, so it seems in death.
The reflections on the value of history have been inspired by a reading of the latest edition of ‘Cathair na Mart’, the annual journal of the ‘Westport History Society’. This edition is the 37th year of its publication.
Over the years the journal has provided many informative and intriguing jigsaw pieces of the story of Mayo from earliest times. The 37th edition continues this trend. It is a fine read.
Included are articles on early Christian monuments in Aughagower, medieval churches in Kilkeeran, the formation of the parishes in the diocese of Killala and the Presbyterian church in Westport. They testify to the enduring imprint of Christianity on the religious landscape of Mayo. John Staunton recalls the life of Walter McNally, the Westport baritone who had a successful career in Ireland, Italy and the US in the early decades of the 20th century. Dr John O’Callaghan highlight the work of Tim Robinson, who died earlier this month. Tim made an immense contribution to our cultural understanding of the Aran Islands and Connemara in five books whose erudition and elegance are unlikely to be equalled. It is only in recent years that the role of women in Irish society has been given proper recognition. The journal has interesting articles on Eva O’Flaherty one of the founders of Cumann na mBan, who established a knitting industry in Achill, Emily McManus who nursed during the first world war and Meg Connery, the feisty Aughagower woman who campaigned for votes for women. The journal concludes with a wonderful poem by Ger Reidy entitled, ‘Wartime Evening’.