I explained last week that when I talk about the advantages of previous eras or criticise our faith in eternal and universal progess, people often grow defensive – a sign that they had a lot of dreams invested in certain images of the future. They often say things like, At least our lives are an improvement over the past. In some ways, I tell them, but not in every way; compare modern Ireland to the traditional one, or the modern America to the America of a century ago, and you’ll find that suicide rates are higher today, crime has risen, and many things we value have declined, despite certain improvements.
Of course the Ireland that my neighbours remember had many problems, like any society before or since. Farms take a lot of physical work, and sometimes long hours, for little money. Their communities included the usual grudges and rivalries, boys who looked for trouble or girls who adored the wrong boys, men who loved their drink too much or their families too little.
The pastoral Ireland of my neighbours’ memories also saw a lot of chaos, although you wouldn’t know it to listen to them. I talked with people born when the British Empire ruled Ireland, and they lived through the First World War, Ireland’s war for independence, an internal civil war, a Great Depression, the Second World War and decades of poverty, punctuated by the occasional terrorist attacks between Catholics and Protestants. I remember how terrified and panicked Americans were after the September 11 attacks; proportional to the size of the country, these must have been like a 9-11 every week or so. Earlier generations remembered worse; my neighbours might have known grandparents who survived the Famine, when half the country died or fled in the greatest genocide in modern Europe until the Holocaust. If you’ve ever listened to Irish folk songs, this is why they sound so sad.
I’m not saying they lived in a watercolour painting free of troubles; I’m arguing that they knew skills that could sustain their bodies, values that sustained their souls, and a social union that allowed them to be part of something larger and more important than themselves. Together, these things gave them a fulfilled and happy life, and a safer, more literate society than we have today – even when frightening things happened around them.
I’m not suggesting that we precisely copy their lives and culture; we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Many modern cubicle workers nurse fantasies of getting away from it all, going “off the grid” and living an all-natural, old-fashioned life, and I sympathise – to some extent, that’s what we did when we moved to rural Ireland. Yet few couch potatoes have developed the sinew and muscle for such a life, the toughness of mind and body, nor have the lifetime of skills to get fuel from a bog, meat from an animal or dinner from a field. On television we often see action heroes start a fire in the woods, hunt an animal or gallop away on a horse, but in reality those things take months or years of training, and most of us don’t need them.
Their lives demanded other, less obvious skills as well, which have also atrophied in recent generations – to play musical instruments and sing songs together, tell stories that will entertain people through the long winter nights. It required neighbours to make easy conversation, settle differences peaceably, and share with neighbours or face the consequences when you need their help later. We can’t join the communities they were part of, for they no longer exist; Ireland is a modern country now, and my neighbours a dying breed.
I am saying that the elderly people I’ve met here in rural Ireland grew up with less money than most modern panhandlers, and a lot less than most inner-city families, and endured hardships most of us can’t imagine – and yet lived as part of a healthy, happy, safe, civilised and highly literate culture. The same is true of older generations in many countries; while not all times and places were alike, many seemed to live better lives than we do, despite all our wealth and technology. I wanted to learn what I could from them, and see what they did right that we do not.