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The Bunkum of History

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“HISTORY is more or less bunk,” said Henry Ford, the larger-than-life American car-maker who made history with his mass-produced Model-T.

Apart from his take on history – which I will get back to later – Mr Ford confronted the world with a street-wise swagger. Failure, he said, was an opportunity to start over again, but more intelligently. He also declared that anyone who stopped learning was old, whether they were twenty or eighty years-old.

A recent trip to Dublin, Ireland, to attend an Interfaith Roundtable Conference got me thinking about these rough nuggets of wisdom from Henry Ford. History is something of a passion of mine, and yes, it can be bunkum sometimes.

Ireland, of course, is resplendent with myth, legend – and history. A ruggedly beautiful country that enjoys miserable weather, the colourful charm of its oral tradition is characterised by ethereal kingdoms, faeries, leprechauns and wailing banshees.

This is a land that has produced some of the finest romantic tales of Europe, and some of the most celebrated of modern authors – people such as James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.

But back to Henry Ford. Yes, as someone passionate about history, I would agree with him: taken purely from the text books, history is more or less “bunk”. This is because modern textual history so often decrees that civilisation began after the French Revolution, or the European Renaissance.

The assumption is that all civilisation and culture before us didn’t occur on a continuum. Oral history, the richest source of all, is marginalised. The ancient mud and peat cultures (as I call them) are given little due because the archaeologists – who aren’t linguists – can’t find their ruined cities.

Instead, pop-historians wrestle with the stones of Egypt and Herod. They create conspiracy theories whilst telling us that the sun-worship of the Pharaohs was the very pinnacle of archaic thought; and that the Greeks thought of everything and that their successors, the Romans, built everything.

Then there are the historians of the America’s and Australasia who’ve disregarded the aboriginal legacies that their continents are steeped in. And talking about aboriginal or indigenous legacies, how many of us know our own Nguni and San traditions?

There are oral traditions right here in South Africa that express a world view as equally fascinating – and no less intellectually stimulating – as the Egyptian one.

Not enough text-book historians have stopped to consider that the greatest African mud-culture of them all, the Malian Empire, was once more extensive than Western Europe. That its seafarers sailed across the Atlantic centuries before Columbus, and that in the Islamic era, the libraries of Timbuktu rivalled those of Alexandria.

What about the fact, too, that pyramids can be found in Africa, South America and Asia? Or local traditions describing “white men” (probably the Phoenicians) navigating our rivers thousands of years before the birth of Christ? Or that slavery in Central and Southern Africa has a bitter history at least 5, 000 years?

And then there were the Irish – the offspring of Celtic peoples who crossed the land bridge into Ireland from northern Europe over 6, 000 years ago.

Indeed, the first thing I discovered on my brief visit was that the Irish were definitely not English. The Irish were not Norman or Anglo-Saxon. Irish was their ancestral language, a Gaelic tongue still spoken today and still learnt in Irish schools.

Early Irish culture, I learnt, was sophisticated enough to build a burial mound 5, 000 years ago (well before the Egyptians) whose inner chamber aligned with the summer solstice.

Their early communities were described by the Romans – who never conquered Ireland – as being “terrifying in appearance” with deep-sounding voices, and as an intelligent people who always spoke in metaphorical riddles.

Celtic Ireland was divided into about 150 small rural kingdoms and five larger provinces – each one with its own king – and there were no towns. The cow was used as the unit of exchange, but that didn’t mean society lacked cohesion.

The extended family, the clan, was regarded as a primary social unit. Kings were not put on the throne by inheritance, but through election. This was sometimes a painful process, but the real unifying social force was clan, language and culture.

To this effect, religion, law and learning played a vital part. The early Irish faith was Druidism. The laws were written and interpreted by a class of people called “brehons”. The local poet, the “file”, was much respected as a social commentator.

In the Celtic system women enjoyed high standing, and had full property rights, as well as the right to divorce. That’s why in Celtic legend, Queen Maeve of Connacht is seen as a warrior and feared leader of men.

Perhaps the most fascinating Irish personality is St Patrick, a pragmatic Roman Bishop who peacefully converted Ireland to Christianity. There are no Christian martyrs in Irish history. Historians cite his diplomatic skills, and the willingness of the local rulers and the Druid priests to listen to him.

There is, however, one amusing story when an animated St Patrick accidentally pierces his pastoral staff into the foot of a king who, thinking that this is part of an initiation ceremony, converts to Christianity with painful alacrity!

Of course, I’ve painted a somewhat anecdotal picture. 21st century Ireland – like any country in the world today – faces critical socio-economic challenges. But surely the point is that nothing in history is as original as it seems, and that history isn’t always what she appears to be. I know Henry Ford would agree.

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