Coming from a rugby match at San Sebastian’s Anoeta Stadium in August 2009, traffic was being directed away from the city centre. Thirty thousand rugby fans travelling in thousands of cars would have brought the evening traffic in the city to a complete standstill and the diversions were undoubtedly a wise decision. However, among the lines of vehicles from south-west France, there was a black Citroen from Dublin, the occupants of which had no idea of how to return to Frantzia via the back roads.
In the memory, a road junction is reached from which roads lead to the left and to the right; the road to the left was signposted ‘San Sebastian’ and the road to the right ‘San Sebastian’ and the road behind us had come from San Sebastian.
Of course, the memory is unreliable; a subconscious expression of a sense of being lost and feeling that no progress was being made. (What definitely happened was that at the next roundabout we completed a circuit and returned to the city in order to make a second attempt to find signs for France).
The fact that the memory of the road signs is unreliable, does not make it untrue; perceptions are as much part of history as material facts. Whatever destinations may have been shown by the signs, the belief they all pointed in one direction captured a truth of the moment.
In childhood years, imagination allowed one to create a world that might not have corresponded to physical ‘facts’, but that was truer for us than the ‘true’ stories on the television news. How many children have imaginary ‘friends’ and regard the existence of those friends as ‘real’ as the reality of the world inhabited by adults?
Even a cursory reading of much that is considered to be historical fact shows history as something shaped by interpretation and, sometimes, by prejudice. Imaginative recall of the past, acknowledged as a product of the imagination, may contain a greater element of truth than perpetuating as facts things that were simply not so. Irish history is filled with ‘facts’ that do not correspond with events that happened and attempts to point out the ahistorical nature of some commemorations is liable to meet with hostility and rejection.
Outside of academic study, the importance of history is what it means for people. King Arthur may never have existed, certainly not as depicted in most stories, but that does not mean he is not real. The Arthurian legends still have the power to inspire television series such as ‘Merlin’.
Telling of getting lost in a French city and claiming a place had moved when the back was turned is a piece of silliness; of course, somewhere could not have moved. But the perception was that it had done so, and it was perception that shaped decisions on the way to go.
Perhaps, as Ireland approaches a series of centenaries, honestly declaring what our perceptions are and asking others for a similar honest declaration of their perceptions is a way of reconciling, if not the past, at least the present. There are some crossroads in Irish history where every road seems to lead in the same direction.