Happy New Year? As far as I'm concerned, it's not! I strongly believe that the winter period now should not start the year, in horrid January. The weather is cold and miserable, yet energy prices have tripled so you wonder if you can get away with not turning on the central heating and freeze, and when everyone is reluctant to go back to work as they have got used to getting up at nine instead of seven… In my view, the new year should begin in March, at the earliest when we have some indications of spring happening. I seem to remember that it was only in the 18th century that this arrangement changed, and I strongly believe when Scotland is independent we should revert to a March new year.
My five-year-old granddaughter summed up all the misery of the post-Christmas period: she normally enjoys school, but last week my son was about to drop her off there when she announced: 'I don't want to go to school – I've got a tummy ache!' As both parents work, I had to look after the 'invalid', who soon announced 'I'm hungry!' 'I thought you had tummy ache,' I pointed out. 'I didn't want to go to school! I like playing at school, but I don't like all this learning stuff'.
It was surprising that my son thought this unusual, since as a child he had expressed exactly the same sentiments. I once had an urgent phone call from school to collect him as he was feeling very poorly, and when I rushed back he was waiting for me to announce: 'actually, I was just pretending'. And most people might struggle to believe that I, a retired university lecturer, didn't like school either, to the extent that as a horrid precocious child, from an early age I was able to forge my parents' writing on sick notes: 'Mary had a tummy ache yesterday and was not able to come to school'. Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever did like school. Maybe it's just a rite of passage we all have to endure!
My reading matter over the Yuletide break was recommended by a Twitter commentator after I had asked for recommendations for books on Irish history. I was aware that I tend to exhort fellow Nationalists to take an interest in how the southern Irish managed to achieve independence, without actually knowing very much at all about the country and its struggles – in fact to my shame I didn't even know there had been a civil war between factions which were more or less opposed to the original limited freedom achieved by the treaty between Ireland and Britain in 1921.
However, I ordered the book which duly arrived just after Christmas, and although like T E Lawrence, I previously boasted that I could usually 'tear the heart out of a book in an hour', I'm still only on page 408 of a book with nearly 900 pages. The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000
by Diarmaid Ferriter comes with any number of reviewers' extravagant praise, and is a remarkable achievement, as it is divided into chapters, each covering a set historical period, in which the author considers absolutely everything from politics to sociology, religion and even sport.
In my role as an ex-academic and sometime PhD supervisor, I would tend to be a little critical of his efforts, not least because my own original thesis, before it was 'deconstructed' by the examiners, had similar flaws – possibly too long and without an overall convincing argument. But this is perhaps a bit unfair – the book would be excellent for those already familiar with Irish history.
For those of us who aren't, a synopsis of key events at the beginning of each chapter would have been very useful, as well as a list of dramatis personae
of all these fascinating individuals I had never heard of – my knowledge of famous Irish people having been confined to Yeats, Joyce and G B Shaw, although I guess Lawrence and my late husband's hero, Shackleton, would also merit a mention. But I assume the theme of Diarmaid's book could be that recent Irish history is much more nuanced and subtle than may be imagined.
Lessons from the past?
In view of the fact that I'm not even halfway through the book, it's difficult to see what current Scottish independence supporters might learn from it for our own endeavours. There are interesting parallels – by the time Ireland was well on the way to independence, Europe was gripped by a pandemic of 'Spanish' flu, very like Covid except that there were fewer medical treatments available for complications, and there was another useless and inefficient Westminster Government.
What possibly made the Irish independence struggle rather different from what's happening in Scotland is the sheer trigger happy approach of both sides, which resulted in far too many deaths. Trying not to be partisan, it does seem as though the British military were rather worse. But then combatants on both sides had lived through the carnage of the Great War and literally may have become hardened about the idea of shooting one's opponents.
Some of my more hot-headed colleagues in the SNP occasionally talk about taking to the streets in the manner of les événements
of France in the 1960s, but in reality I think – and hope – that we are beyond violent revolutionary tactics. It's one thing to die for your country, but somewhat more committing to kill for it.
But what we might learn, in view of some of the spats between pro-independence groups, is that disagreements do not necessarily mean revolution will not happen. The shouting matches between the SNP and Alba, and the more radical SNP groups with the mainstream, are as nothing compared with the literal civil wars amongst the pro-independence Irish factions, yet ultimately the result was achieved.
I think one of the telling comments came from Robert Lynd in 1920: 'As far as the mass of people are concerned… their policy is not to attack the (Westminster) government but to ignore it and to build a new government by its side'. Forget bloody revolution – let's just be better at administration!
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant