A great capacity for forgetting

Apr 11th, 2010 | By | Category: International

One of those radio phone-in programmes back in the 1980s asked people about stories they had heard from their parents.  A gentle, softly spoken man phoned to say his father had told him stories of the American civil war.  The programme presenter was initially sceptical and, presumably prompted by a producer, became downright dismissive of the man’s story, suggesting it was impossible for his father to have told him any such thing.

It was audibly clear that man was hurt by the response he had received.  He had telephoned in good faith and had been virtually ridiculed.  “My father died at the age of 97 – in 1937.  One could almost hear the cogs turning in the presenter’s brain as he did the mental maths – the caller’s father had been born in 1840; living in the United States, he would not only have remembered the Civil war, he would have been in his mid-twenties.  The presenter attempted an apology, but the programme had been soured.

Visiting a nonagenarian lady in a farmhouse at Ballee in Co Down in the early 1990s, the civil war story came to mind.  “Mr Poulton”, she said, “my grandmother used to talk about there being a terrible fever here and there being food given out to people up at the corner of the road”.  The memories of the grandmother were of the fever during the Great Famine; it would have been 1847. This was a second hand account of times almost 150 years previously.

Oral tradition was the way in which history was passed on and had the capacity for being extraordinarily faithful to the facts.

Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail tells of the visit of Charles Francis Hall to the coast of Baffin Island in 1861,

“ . . . what really intrigued him was an interview with Joe’s grandmother, a woman who must have been a hundred years old and who told him of stories she had heard as a child about ships and white men who had arrived many years before her time and left behind supplies that Hall recognized as coal, brick, and iron.  The first arrivals, she said, had come in two ships. The following year, three ships came. The third year, many ships arrived. Hall was astounded, for he knew that Martin Frobisher had made trips three successive years, first with two ships, then with three, finally with fifteen. There were other details that fitted written his­tory, including the tale of five seamen whom Frobisher had lost one of the voyages. It dawned on. Hall that the folk memory Frobisher’s expedition had been handed down orally for nine generations.

Other clues from Frobisher’s day began to turn up. On one of his sledge journeys to an Eskimo village near Frobisher Bay, Hall upon a piece of red brick. Joe told him that as a child he had played with many such bricks left by the white men years before. Hall was transfixed. He was holding in his hand a relic of an expedition that, just eighty-six years after Columbus’s discovery of America, had visited these shores”.

Frobisher had visited in 1576; Hall arrived in 1861; 275 years later the first visit was still being recalled with accuracy.

Yesterday’s Financial Times carried news of the major telephone companies squaring up for a fight with Google about their networks being filled with Google’s products without them receiving recompense – it’s a fight they are unlikely to win.

Perhaps more serious than commercial disputes is the dominance of the supply of knowledge by a few major players.  No longer are stories passed down the generations; people searching for knowledge now turn to a search engine before asking  someone older.  Information gleaned from the Internet is considered definitive; stories from other people are just opinion.

When it reaches the point where no-one tells stories any longer, which Internet stories can we be certain are true?

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  1. Ian Poulton’s story about the radio programme reminds me of Ted Nealon,former TD and Minister as well as a noted former broadcaster and the founder of Nealon’s guide to Dáil & Séanad elections…he was talking about his grandfather’s description of the French Fleet in Killala..at first I kind of dismissed it but then worked out the ages and realised that indeed ’twas more than possible..and indeed likely..the descriptions were all too real; another time in Kerry I met a very old lady of the family who had owned Ardfert Abbey and she talked about her grandmother meeting King James after the Boyne in Cork..she was 97 at the time and this must have been in the ’70s…and her family had extraordinary longevity..and as it turned out her story was verified in the memoirs of the Duchess of Tyrconnell who met the King in Cork ..when he remarked the Irish raced away and she said “well your Majesty if they did race away ’tis clear Sir that you won the race!”…(she was after all the sister of Sarah Jennings,Duchess of Marlborough..)…so memories can be perfectly accurate..

  2. One of the beauties of an aboriginal nation is that their history is entirely verbal. Told from generation to generation. Just tonight on the news there was comment about Australian aborigines being astronomers by virtue of a dreaming story that told how they found emu eggs by starlight. Thousands of years and these stories persist. Although I’ll probably google the article and see if it’s true.

  3. The lady whose grandmother remembered the famine told me another story that had been passed down to her of William crossing the Boyne the night before the battle, but I have never been able to verify it.

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