Paul Lynch essay: Freeing ourselves from the yoke of history
Updated: May 10, 2020
Freeing ourselves from the yoke of history
By Paul Lynch
I was born near the end of history. As an adult I have seen history disappear. To come of age after the mid-1990s in Ireland was to experience a burden being lifted. Ireland was that dying old man, a Yeatsean figure that had stood for decades, “a tattered coat upon a stick”. We lived in the shadow of a scarecrow nation. We watched our youth scatter into foreign skies. We wondered, too, if we would have to take wing. And then the seismic social shift of the boom: Ireland’s soul clapped its hands and began to sing; and then, louder sing. As the boom took hold, Ireland shook off its old soul.
I have seen great changes. I have witnessed the crushing weight of near-ceaseless recession fall away like sloughed skin. I have seen the lifting of the dark shadows of the cross. The dank and dim of John McGahern’s Ireland disappear like it never existed. The battles our parents fought — against the theocracy of the Catholic church and its lame lackey, the Irish state — were won. The barriers crashed down. Ireland became a country for the young.
We became a generation unshackled, a generation able to step free of the history that had ensnared us. Real freedom for the first time was tasted. No more the language of historical self-pity. The language of historical blame. The language that oppressed the individual. The language of censorship. The language of sexual guilt. The language that fought against self-belief. The language that reinforced the status quo. We had stepped into the day-bright outside of history and we relished every moment of it.
Caught in that sensual music of the boom, we stopped thinking of the past and its old language. That old determinism had been erased. We had discovered ourselves as individuals, and expressed our free will. It was an astonishing era of prosperity and confidence. We partied in bright colours. We lit up the night. We were the first generation to lay claim to this new country and we knew it. We all had jobs. Few of us emigrated and if we did it was by choice. We were free to think of ourselves as Europeans and world citizens. To see ourselves as part of a new and wider story. We had been gifted the happiness our parents sought. None of us needed to be writers.
I was born near the end of history. As an adult I have seen history disappear. I have also seen the return of history to wing down upon us, taking away in its mouth our young.
My consciousness as a writer was startled awake by the seismic reversal of the crash. An entire generation is blighted again by joblessness. Huge numbers have been forced to leave. We have started to speak again of ourselves as victims. We have spent the past five years apportioning blame. The language of self-pity is again all around us. That newly-won self-confidence has largely disappeared.
Ireland, it seems, is trapped again in old narratives. And yet, this time, the story is different. We cannot look to that old historical language to understand ourselves because today we are irreparably changed. Like the generations of Irish emigrants before us, most of us now have become dislocated from that history. The difference is that dislocation occurred while we were living in Ireland. That psychological displacement happened as a result of our new freedom.
We cannot look to that old language because today, our place in the world is different. The misfortune at hand is largely our own making. We are victims of our own success. Victims of our immaturity as a nation. Our unwillingness to take into account our human nature. And Ireland belongs to a different world now. We sought to become a global country and succeeded without thinking that to become such a nation means to accept being thrown about by high winds. Today we are Europeans, though the dominant force is the soft power of the USA. Its cultural, technological, and Emersonian capitalistic spirits are the powers of the age. If so many of today’s Irish writers write in some way about America, it is because America, too, is our culture.
The weight of all this presses down upon the contemporary writer. In my fiction, I have searched for a new way to write about this. While writing my novel Red Sky In Morning, I realized there are valuable human truths to be found in history if only we can find a way of accessing them again. When writing the novel, I wanted to examine these old Irish myths that explored oppression and powerlessness and emigration, and see what they could say for a generation experiencing such things today. But to do this I realized I would have to un-interpret Irish history. It would have to be decontaminated. We cannot use that old language of history because we no longer speak it. And when we do not speak that language we cannot write in it.
For too long we have viewed ourselves through a false prism. Through the refracted light of history the past is bent out of shape. We have only seen ourselves through the yoke of ideology — of a romantic nationalism; as colonial victims. But the past now is not a different country — the past does not exist.
I believe people do not live caught up in history, neither now nor in the past. They live within the ordinary moments of their lives. The essentialness of what it means to be alive — in all times, and all places — has never changed. It is historians who attach ‘meaning’ to those lives later on. Fiction does not deal with the so-called recorded truth of history. Fiction is by its nature untruthful. Yet we can arrive “at the truth by the road of untruth,” as Salmon Rushdie has said. Fiction can allow us to recognize what it means to be a human being and what meaning we hold for our lives. If we can re-imagine history in the simplicity of the moment, we can connect it in a meaningful way to our lives today.
This is what I set out to do in Red Sky in Morning. To root the reader in the startling moment. I realized this would require a new kind of language — a language about language itself. If I could seize the living moment, I could capture imagined history at the moment before it becomes myth. As a writer I want to remove the reader from what they think they know of the past. I want for them to be as unknowing as my characters who are caught up in the mess of their own lives. When we do that, history becomes experienced. History becomes felt.
What can we learn from doing this? Perhaps, that there are essential human truths that have never changed throughout the ages. That what we think is unique is the general. That perhaps history has more to do with these essential truths than we think. In my book, the hunting of family-man Coll Coyle from his smallholding in Co Donegal and his epic journey to greater tragedy on the new American frontier speaks in some way of the forces that shape our world today.
As a writer I believe we must be able to witness ourselves as we have been moved and shaped by such universal forces. In Red Sky in Morning, I wanted for my language to meet this, and to contain within it an “answerable style”, as Milton called it. I wanted my writing to meet the enormity of the world — a world style. My hope was that such language could allow us to see ourselves better. And if we can recognize ourselves, then such language will contain a greater truth.
I was born near the end of history. As an adult I have seen history disappear. I have also seen the return of history to wing down upon us, taking away in its mouth our young. But today we must speak history differently. Only then, perhaps, can we see that past anew and something of our present selves in it. Now, we need again to be writers.