Ciarán Wallace from the Centre for Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin is one of the educators on the free online course, “Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland’s History 1912 – 1923.” In this post, Ciarán discusses how ordinary life continues in spite of violent events happening all around.
A hundred years ago this month, keen gardeners in Ireland were sending off for their free copy of “A Reliable Guide to Profitable Gardening,” advertised by Mackey’s Seeds. Department stores advertised “New Spring Goods,” including ladies coats and blouses, while Axminster carpet was available from £5 / 17 shillings per yard.
Customers for all these goods could not know the dramatic and violent events that were about to unfold around them; that fruit bushes planted this spring may not seem so important by spring 1916, or that opportunities to wear fancy new clothes might become scarce as the Great War took more and more young men away.
But gardening was always a peaceful escape from the worries of the world and people always manage to have fun regardless of their circumstances. Just because the news from Flanders is grim or Dublin is destroyed by shelling, it doesn’t mean that people in Galway or Cork feel any less house-proud as they show off their new carpet.
Ordinary lives lived during upheaval
“Irish Lives in War and Revolution” is a course dealing with ordinary lives lived during the upheaval of the Great War, the 1916 Rising, the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War. We try to understand how individuals across Ireland – both north and south, young and old, radical and conservative – experienced these years.
A census form from the 1911 Census of Ireland might tell us how many adults, teenagers and children live in a household, but what was it like to be a child when your father was away fighting in France? Or when fighting took place in the hills around your home? Maybe the latest cowboy film was more important than wondering why the grown-ups seemed so worried.
Did a teenager finishing a secretarial course pay more attention to getting a job and leaving home than to elections and national politics? How did anxious parents cope with an idealistic 20 year old, determined to do his bit in the armed struggle, whichever army or volunteer force he chose to join?
It is impossible to arrive at one complete truth for any of these questions, but that does not mean we should not ask them. It is important to wonder why one person chose to fight while another chose to stay home, or to think about the costs, both financial and personal, involved in that decision.
All history is constructed and contested
Hundreds of thousands of documents, images, recordings and newsreels have been digitised in libraries and archives. From your keyboard, you can lose yourself in the details of real people’s lives and see the raw ingredients that “history” is made from.
If it is true that “all history is constructed and contested,” then this course allows you to build a history of this period in Irish life based on what interests you. In the regular discussions, you can put forward your own views and questions, and think about the questions posed by other learners.
So don’t expect to find “the answer” to Irish history on this course – in fact, be prepared to come away with more questions. But you will hopefully have an appreciation of how history can be considered from different points of view and an understanding of some of the sources, whether newspaper advertisements or gardening catalogues, that historians use to construct it.
You can join “Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland’s History 1912 – 1923” now or join the conversation using #FLirishlives.