Archives for posts with tag: history

Ten Years Ago (2007)

After years of lax lending and easy credit, BNP Paribas blocks withdrawals from three hedge funds; this is the beginning of the global financial crisis. The following month, there is a bank run on Northern Rock in the UK. Apple announces the first iPhone. Bulgaria and Romania join the European Union. 32 people are shot dead by a single gunman at Virginia Tech. Disappearance of Madeleine McCann from her apartment in Portugal. Al Gore and the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Dublin Port Tunnel is opened to all traffic. Wembley Stadium re-opens in London. Smoking is no longer permitted in enclosed public spaces in the UK.

Twenty Years Ago (1997)

Scientists announce the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. The first divorce takes place in Ireland after its legalisation the previous year. Comet Hale Bopp makes its closest approach to Earth. 39 members of the Heavens Gate cult commit mass suicide in California. IBM’s Deep Blue defeats Gary Kasparov in a man vs. machine chess match. Hong Kong ceases to be a British Dependency. Gianni Versace gunned down in Miami. Steve Jobs re-joins Apple. Princess Diana is killed in a car accident in Paris. The Provisional IRA announce a second and final ceasefire. Publication of JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel. Scotland and Wales vote for devolution and the creation of a separate national parliaments within the UK. “Saving Private Ryan” invasion scenes shot in Curracloe Beach in Ireland. Election of Mary McAleese as President of Ireland.

Thirty Years Ago (1987)

193 people die in the Zeebrugge ferry disaster. West German pilot Matthias Rust evades Soviet security and lands a small plane in Moscow’s Red Square.The Single European Act is ratified. A massive storm hits the UK and France, causing widespread damage and killing 22 people. A Provisional IRA bomb in Enniskillen kills 12 people. A fire in Kings Cross tube station kills 31 people. Construction of the channel tunnel between the England and France is given the green light by UK and French Governments. Irishman Steven Roche wins the Tour De France.

Forty Years Ago (1977)

The “first” Star Wars movie (A New Hope) opens in cinemas. The last naturally occurring case of smallpox is discovered in Somalia. The last execution by guillotine in France takes place while the US recommences judicial executions. Atari debuts its video game system. Two 747 jumbo jets collide in Tenerife airport, killing 583 people. Spain holds its first democratic elections after 41 years of dictatorship. Elvis Presley dies at the age of 42. Reformer Deng Xiaoping becomes leader of the Chinese Communist Party. The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts are launched – they will eventually fly past the outer planers of the solar system and onwards into deep space. “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” is released sparking a major controversy in the UK.

Fifty Years Ago (1967)

The Summer of Love: thousands of hippies converge on San Francisco and other cities around the world. Race riots take place in Detroit and Newark. The first heart transplant is performed by Christiaan Barnard. The United Kingdom applies to join the European Economic Community. The city of Milton Keynes in the UK is founded. The Apollo 1 astronauts are killed in a fire on the Cape Canaveral launch pad. The Six Day War takes place, with Israel dealing a heavy blow to Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Boeing 737 jet enters service. A massive fire in Brussels leaves 323 dead. The Beatles release “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The Venera 4 probe enters the atmosphere of Venus, sending back valuable data about this hostile planet. The UK decriminalises homosexuality. A new astronomical object – a pulsar – is discovered by Jocelyn Bell and Anthony Hewish. A major foot-and-mouth disease outbreak occurs in Britain. Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara is executed in Bolivia. Abortion in limited circumstances passes parliament in the UK.

Sixty Years Ago (1957)

Sputnik 1 is launched: it is the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. The Treaty of Rome is signed, establishing the European Economic Community (EEC). The first episode of astronomy programme “The Sky at Night” is shown on the BBC. Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is published. A fire at the Windscale nuclear reactor in Cumbria spreads radioactive material into the local environment. The Lovell Radio Telescope is installed in Jodrell Bank Observatory. The “Spaghetti Tree” hoax is aired on the BBC. Ghana and Malaysia acquire independence.

Seventy Years Ago (1947)

The Cold War begins between the Soviet Union and western powers. The Marshall Plan is announced, with the US sending unprecedented amounts of aid and support to war-torn Western Europe. Gangster Al Capone dies. The UFO craze begins after a number of anomalous sightings in America. The German state of Prussia is officially abolished. The International Monetary Fund commences operations. The Diary of Anne Frank is published. India and Pakistan acquire independence. New Zealand acquires de-facto independence. Chuck Yeager becomes the first man to break the sound barrier. Princess Elisabeth marries Prince Philip in Westminster Abbey. Tom Blower becomes the first man to swim the North Channel between Britain and Ireland. Shannon Airport becomes the world’s first duty-free airport.

Eighty Years Ago (1937)

Fred Whittle builds the first workable jet engine. The town of Guernica in Spain is bombed. Later that year, Pablo Picasso completes his famous painting depicting the bombing. The Hindenburg airship is engulfed in flame upon arrival in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The Golden Gate bridge is opened to traffic. The Volkswagen motor company is founded. Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” is premiered in Germany. The Irish Constitution comes into force. Amelia Earhart disappears during her attempt to circumnavigate the world. The “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” leads to the Japanese invasion of China. The Nanking Massacre takes place later that year. Stalin orders mass executions of kulaks (land-owners) in the Soviet Union. JRR Tolkein’s book “The Hobbit” is published. The animated movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is released.

Ninety Years Ago (1927)

The first transatlantic telephone call takes place between New York and London. Werner Heisenberg formulates his Uncertainty Principle. The first Volvo car rolls off the production lines in Sweden. Charles Lindbergh flies from New York City to Paris. Teams begin carving the presidential sculptures of Mount Rushmore. After the expulsion of Leon Trotsky, Josef Stalin takes sole leadership of the Soviet Union. The Fianna Fáil party takes their seats in the Dáil (Irish Parliament), establishing themselves as the official opposition party.

One Hundred Years Ago (1917)

Tsar Nicolas II of Russia abdicates, heralding an end to Romanov rule of Russia. Responding to the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the President of the United States declares war on Germany. During the World War I Battle of Messines, a single allied bomb kills over 10,000 German soldiers. Two young women take the  Cottingley Fairies photographs, an ingenious hoax only admitted in the 1980s. Crowds in Fatima, Portugal, claim to see the sun dance in the sky; it’s claimed to be a miracle associated with Virgin Mary. The Battle of Passchendaele takes place in Belgium. Mata Hari is executed for spying for Germany. The Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin take control of Russia in the October Revolution. The Balfour Declaration announces British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Russia exits World War I.

Two Hundred Years Ago (1817)

The states of Alabama and Mississippi are created. The “dandy horse“, an early form of bicycle is invented. Start of a great cholera pandemic in Bombay. Europe is hit by famine. Jane Austin’s novel “Persuasion” is published following her death. The Elgin Marbles are put on display in the British Museum in London; their location has remained a controversy ever since.

Three Hundred Years Ago (1717)

Edward Teach, also known as the pirate Blackbeard, sets out on a rampage through the Caribbean. The Old Pretender James Francis Edward Stewart begins his exile in Avignon after giving up his fight to reclaim the British crown. François-Marie Arouet (soon to be known as Voltaire) is imprisoned in the Bastille in Paris for writing a satirical poem about the Regent of France.

Four Hundred Years Ago (1617)

King of France Louis XIII wrests power from his mother and executes her accomplices to become sole ruler. The Finspång witch trial in Sweden; the seven convicted women are thrown on a bonfire for sorcery. Ferdinand II is elected King of Bohemia; his unpopular rule is soon to end in disaster for all of central Europe. King James VI and I travelled to Scotland in an attempt to unite the Scottish and English churches. The troubled Mustafa I becomes Ottoman Emperor. Sir Walter Raleigh leaves Cork for his last journey to the Americas.

Five Hundred Years Ago (1517)

Martin Luther starts the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenburg Castle Church. The Fifth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church is concluded in Rome. The first European diplomatic trade mission to China takes place. The Mamluk Sultanate ends when Egypt is absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Evil May Day, a violent protest against foreigners, takes place in London. A severe bout of sweating sickness hits England. Aztec ruler Moctezuma II hears of Europeans reaching the eastern borders of his empire. The foundation of the port of Le Havre in France.

Six Hundred Years Ago (1417)

The Avignon Papacy, a rival to the Roman Papacy, comes to an end with the deposition of Pope Benedict XIII. English king Henry V invades Normandy, consolidating his gains from the Battle of Agincourt. English is restored as the official language of England by King Henry V; for centuries the official languages had been French and Latin.

Seven Hundred Years Ago (1317)

The Great Famine, caused by intensely bad weather over Europe, reaches its height and starts to abate. Edward Bruce’s devastating campaign continues in Ireland, reaching as far south as Cashel. Philip V becomes King of France after successfully outmanoeuvring his niece for the crown.

Eight Hundred Years Ago (1217)

The Fifth Crusade arrives in the Holy Land. The forces of French King Louis I are defeated by the forces of William Marshal in the First Baron’s War; Louis relinquishes his title to the English crown later that year. The Mongols under Mukhali invade central China. The Great Charter is issued by Henry III, securing rights for the Anglo-Norman lords in Ireland.

Nine Hundred Years Ago (1117)

Iceland abolishes slavery. Baldwin I, Crusader king of Jerusalem, expands his kingdom into Egypt.

One Thousand Years Ago (1017)

Foundation of the Druze religion. King Cnut divides England into four earldoms: Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. Aziz al Dawla becomes Fatimid Emir of Aleppo.

One Thousand Three Hundred Years Ago (AD 717)

The Siege of Constantinople: Emperor Leo III defeats the huge army of Muslim general Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik, using Greek Fire to repel the besiegers. Charles Martel consolidates his power to become ruler of Francia.

One Thousand Four Hundred Years Ago (AD 617)

The Banu Hashim clan is pressurised to withdraw its protection of Muhammad, founder of Islam.

One Thousand Five Hundred Years Ago (AD 517)

Indian mathematician Aryabhata completes a major treatise on algebra, trigonometry and astronomy – many of his theorems continue to be used in classrooms today. India’s first satellite was named in his honour.

One Thousand Six Hundred Years Ago (AD 417)

The Visigoths are granted the territories of Aquitaine and become allies of the Western Roman Empire.

One Thousand Nine Hundred Years Ago (AD 117)

Hadrian becomes Roman Emperor.

Two Thousand Years Ago (AD 17)

After defeating the German tribes, Roman general Germanicus returns in triumph to Rome; he is appointed governor of the eastern empire. Herod Antipas founds the city of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Two Thousand One Hundred Years Ago (BC 83)

The Dictator Sulla arrives back in Italy and defeats his rival Gaius Norbanus. Birth of Mark Antony.

Two Thousand Two Hundred Years Ago (BC 183)

Death of Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal’s armies.

I’ve just finished reading a history of the Plantagenet kings. Even though I am fascinated by the late Middle Ages, it’s now apparent that I am woefully ignorant about the history of our islands during this time. This book by Dan Jones has given me a better understanding of the politics and personalities involved. These are remarkable stories of power, tyranny, conquest, betrayal and ignominious defeat. A constant theme throughout this period is the struggle by the nobility to exert control over volatile kings, starting with the Magna Carta and leading in due course to a whole body of laws and ordinances designed to place limits on authoritarian rule.

What strikes me most is that the greatest of these kings were often the nastiest. Henry II, Edward I and Edward III visited quite incredible levels of violence on their neighbours: the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. It’s interesting to me why history calls them great, given the extraordinary amount of bloodshed and cruelty involved. Perhaps it’s because people see greatness in those rulers who go to great ends to protect their realms and defeat their enemies. England’s great nemesis was France, so to guarantee peace, the neighboring realms needed to be brought under military control using all means necessary. When people felt fearful and insecure, they didn’t want a ‘good king’. They wanted a tyrant.

To me, this is a lesson for the current times: given the right circumstances, great power is achievable, if you only sow fear. Make people frightened. Find an enemy and tell them how degenerate and evil they are. Paint a picture of woe and downfall lest the enemy win. Tell them they will soon win unless you are put in a position to protect them. Ergo Putin, Orban and Erdogan. Ergo Donald Trump. Tyrannical, hateful, dangerous, megalomaniacal- and wildly popular in their own countries. It’s not really because their supporters are ignorant or racist – though some surely are – it’s because they are fearful. The English Planagenet kings knew this, and so too do the presumptive dictators of today. The right circumstances – a widespread feeling of insecurity and gnawing despair – exists in Russia, Turkey, America and parts of Europe, and so these people are greeted with open arms.  We’re not so far from the people of the Middle Ages as we might think.

Here’s a short story.

Once upon a time people used to get sick a lot. Everything would be fine one day, then bang, the next day you were dying. Young kids mainly. They were lucky to still be alive at age five. Every now and then a big plague would roll through and randomly take lots of people away. A small wound could fester and kill you. Life wasn’t easy.

Doctors weren’t much help. They had this idea that sickness had something to do with too much blood. Often, their treatments were a lot like torture. And no painkillers either. Back then, people rightfully believed that if the sickness didn’t kill you, the doctors most certainly would.

Then, a doctor noticed something odd: something to do with not washing hands. People with dirty hands tended to make other people sick. Another doctor discovered that a small dose of good pox tended to ward away smallpox, that in its day, killed millions. Another man discovered that vitamin C could prevent scurvy. Another man came across a way to reduce pain during surgery. Small, incredible steps, but still lots of kids were dying. Nobody had an answer for it.

Tiny little creatures, smaller than you could imagine. They turned out to be a big part of the problem. Kill them and you could ward off hundreds of diseases. It took a while, but finally doctors found effective remedies. We call them antibiotics. Because of them, we don’t see so much TB or cholera these days. They used to kill lots of people too.

We discovered that our immune system had evolved to find the tiniest of invaders and destroy them. Prime it properly with tiny doses and you could prevent many diseases before they took hold. In this way, vaccines were invented to control deadly diseases such as measles and polio and whooping cough.

Other drugs were found and refined. Drugs that could treat some cancers. Drugs that gave greater pain relief and a better quality of life. And not just drugs, but therapies, health advice, early warning indicators, surgical procedures, and lots more.

And you know what? The number of children dying has been slashed. People don’t often die from simple cuts. Cancer is not the death sentence it once was. We are living longer, healthier lives with fewer bedridden days, choked up in pain.

This progress was achieved, not so much by some great idea, but because of many smaller ones, and something else: the learning that came from lots and lots of mistakes. Too much, too little, saw it too late, hit the wrong thing, gave up too soon. All these hard lessons helped doctors find better ways, to refine their techniques. That’s what medicine is: the sum total of what we know, through experiment, failure and hard experience, about what approaches work best when our health is at risk. Not perfect, but compared to 200 years ago, utterly amazing. It’s possibly the greatest achievement of our species since we started walking on this planet.

So why is it, that so many people want to ignore all this, or pretend it doesn’t matter? Why do they hark back to these earlier times, when so many people died? Perhaps it’s because medicine has been too successful, so it’s taken for granted? Perhaps it’s too technical, too elite, therefore creating suspicion? Perhaps there’s a longing for simplicity and simple solutions: a Donald Trump approach, as it were? Perhaps the complexity and messiness of medicine is too much for some? Perhaps it’s a demand for perfection; we cannot abide not knowing? Or maybe it’s all about show and celebrity and charisma these days, and not so much the pedestrian advice of your family GP?

All this is just conceit: at the core is a celebration of ignorance over hard earned knowledge – that our opinions, no matter how poorly thought out, are just as deserving of respect. It’s a voice of privilege, a voice from the comfort zone, ignorant of a time when knowledge, any knowledge, would have been a blessing. We live in strange times.

If we listen too much to the charlatans and ideologues and the crafted media voices, a time may well come where these wrongheaded beliefs take primacy over empirical knowledge. In which case, life could quickly regress to being nasty, brutal and short. With outbreaks of old diseases from communities that refuse to accept modern healthcare, we’re already seeing it. Hopefully it’s not a signpost to the future.

Ten Years Ago (2006)

Twitter is launched. Saddam Hussein is executed. A terrorist bombing campaign in Mumbai kills 209 people. The New Horizons mission is launched towards Pluto. In the same year, Pluto is no longer classified as a planet. Former Irish Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, dies. Opening of the Dublin Port Tunnel. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin is killed by a stingray in the Great Barrier Reef.

Twenty Years Ago (1996)

The Docklands bombing in London signals an end to the 1994 IRA ceasefire. Chess champion Gary Kasparov is beaten by a computer. The Dunblane massacre takes place in Scotland. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, is arrested in Montana. An IRA gang kills Detective Jerry McCabe in Co. Clare. Journalist Veronica Guerin is killed in Dublin. Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, is born. Prince Charles and Diana are formally divorced. Fox News TV channel is launched in the US. Death of science advocate Carl Sagan. Divorce is legalised in Ireland.

Thirty Years Ago (1986)

Space Shuttle Challenger explodes, 73 seconds after take-off from Cape Canaveral. A fire at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in the Ukraine causes a nuclear meltdown. Spain and Portugal join the European Union. Swedish prime-minister Olof Palme is assassinated. Diego Maradona scores his “Hand of God” goal against England in the Mexico World Cup; then goes on to score the “Goal of the Century“. Thousands are suffocated after a massive release of carbon dioxide from Cameroon’s Lake Nyos. The M25 Motorway is opened in London. Death of Thin Lizzy frontman, Phil Lynott.  Jack Charlton becomes manager of the Ireland football team. A referendum introducing divorce in Ireland is defeated.

Forty Years Ago (1976)

The deadliest earthquake of the 20th Century occurs in Tangshan, China; over 250,000 people perish. The Concorde supersonic jet takes passengers for the first time. The Apple Computer Company is formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The Cultural Revolution in China comes to an end with the death of Chairman Mao. Police clash with thousands of rioting youths in Soweto, South Africa. The Viking I and Viking II landers arrive on the surface of Mars. Israeli forces free 102 hostages from a hijacked plane in Entebbe, Uganda. The Supreme Court of the United States reinstates the death penalty. The first known outbreak of Ebola occurs in Zaire. An advertisement in Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin leads to the formation of the rock band U2. President of Ireland, Cearbhall O’Dalaigh, resigns after being called a “thundering disgrace”.

Fifty Years Ago (1966)

Nelson’s Pillar is blown up by the IRA in Dublin. Soviet spacecraft land on the Moon, crash-land on Venus and go into orbit around the Moon. Ian Brady and Myra Handley are convicted of the Moors Murders. The beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China. The Beach Boys release Pet Sounds. They think it’s all over… England beats West Germany 4-2 in the World Cup Final in Wembley. The Beatles hold their last commercial concert in San Francisco. The first episode of Star Trek airs on US TV. A coal mine landslide in Aberfan, Wales, kills 116 school children. Walt Disney dies. The Vatican formally abolish their list of banned books.

Sixty Years Ago (1956)

Elvis Presley hits the US Charts for the first time. Pakistan, Tunisia and Morocco become independent countries. The first Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Lugano, Switzerland. The Hungarian Revolt takes place and is violently suppressed by Soviet Russia. Brendan Behan becomes the first person in the world to say “fuck” on a television programme. Egypt nationalises the Suez Canal and is attacked by Israel, France and Britain. Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain win the Nobel Physics Prize for their invention of the transistor.

Seventy Years Ago (1946)

The electronics company that would eventually become Sony is formed in Japan. Jordan and the Philippines become independent countries. Italy becomes a republic. Senior Nazis are executed in Nuremberg. William Joyce, a.k.a. “Lord Haw Haw“, is executed in Wandsworth Prison. The United Nations meets for the first time – UNICEF and UNESCO founded the same year. Science fiction novelist H.G. Wells dies.

Eighty Years Ago (1936)

Nazi Germany re-occupies the Rhineland. Josef Stalin begins his Great Purge in Russia – an estimated 680,000 people are executed over the following 2 years. The Spanish Civil War begins after an attempt to oust the elected government of Manuel Azana.  Edward VIII abdicates after proposing to marry Wallace Simpson. Construction of the Hoover Dam is completed. Aer Lingus is founded as the Irish national airline. Alan Turing lays down the basis of machine based computing with his paper “On Computable Numbers“. Margaret Mitchell’s novel, “Gone With The Wind” is published in America. The first Olympic Games to be televised live takes place in Berlin. At the games,  Jesse Owens wins the 100m sprint, much to the chagrin of Adolf Hitler. The thylacine goes extinct in Tasmania.

Ninety Years Ago (1926)

Ireland’s first radio service (later RTE) began broadcasting. John Logie Baird demonstrates his mechanical television system. Fianna Fáil political party founded by Éamon DeValera. AA Milne publishes Winnie the Pooh. Magician Harry Houdini dies after a ruptured appendix. The NBC radio network starts operation in the US. Violet Gibson shoots Benito Mussolini three times while he was sitting in his car. The main Chicago to Los Angeles route is named Route 66. Birth of David Attenborough.

One Hundred Years Ago (1916)

The Battle of Verdun, the Battle of Jutland and the Battle of the Somme in World War I – over 1 million men are killed or injured in the Battle of the Somme alone.  The Easter Rising breaks out in Dublin and is suppressed by British forces within 5 days. Many of the ringleaders are executed. Ernest Shackleton and 5 companions complete a hazardous boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia. BMW motor company is founded in Germany. Murder of Grigori Rasputin in Russia.

Two Hundred Years Ago (1816)

This is The Year Without A Summer across the Northern Hemisphere as a result of the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Argentina declares independence from Spain. Humphrey Davy introduces the safety lamp into coal mines. The stethoscope is invented by René Laennec. Mary Shelley starts writing Frankenstein. Indiana becomes the 19th US State.

Three Hundred Years Ago (1716)

The old monarchies of Spain are dissolved and Spain becomes a single unified country. The leaders of the Jacobite Rising of 1715 in Britain are executed. The first lighthouse is built in America.

Four Hundred Years Ago (1616)

Willem Schouten rounds the tip of South America and names it Cape Horn. Death of shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu in Japan. Catholic theologians declare that Copernicus’s idea of the Earth orbiting the Sun is “foolish and absurd“; Copernicus’s book is banned. Deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel De Cervantes. Pocahontas arrives in England. Construction of the Blue Mosque is completed in Istanbul.

Five Hundred Years Ago (1516)

The disparate kingdoms of Spain are united under the Habsburg monarch Charles V.  The Beer Purity Laws are instituted in Germany, limiting the ingredients to water, hops and barley. Thomas More publishes Utopia. Spanish explorers reach the Rio La Plata. A Dominican monk travels to Germany to sell indulgences for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. This turns out to be a very bad idea.

Six Hundred Years Ago (1416)

Execution of Jerome of Prague at the Council of Constance. Jerome was a follower of Jan Hus who had been executed for heresy the previous year. Ma Huan writes his account of the Chinese age of exploration.

Seven Hundred Years Ago (1316)

Great Famine rages across Europe. The Bruce Campaign devastates Ireland. Death of Alauddin Khilji of India – one of the few rulers who defeated the Mongols during his reign.

Eight Hundred Years Ago (1216)

Death of King John of England of Magna Carta fame. Foundation of the Dominican Order.

One Thousand Years Ago (1016)

Death of Æthelred the Unready. King Cnut of the Danes assumes the Kingship of England.

Two Thousand Years Ago (AD 16)

Roman general Germanicus defeats the Germanic army of Armenius in retaliation for the massacre of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9.

Two Thousand Four Hundred Years Ago (BC 384)

Aristotle is born.

 

Hey mum. It’s me, Marty. I’m back from 2015.

Yeah, it’s nice. Not at all what I expected though. No flying skateboards. No hover cars. Not even a new version of the space shuttle. Lots of people still wearing jeans and t-shirts. I mean, they had 30 years, but no polyester jump suits to be seen except, hmm, hold on – cyclists. You have regular people and then you have cyclists. Now *they* look like proper future people. They wear tights and on top of their head is a replica of that face-sucker thing in Alien. These people thought (think, will think, may think – time travel tenses really need to get sorted out) that this is a fashion statement:

Tinkoff Saxo cycling team

Tinkoff Saxo by Morebyless cc licensed.

It’s not even fashionable here in 1985. And that’s saying something.

Also, their phones. Ye gods. There’s not a phone box to be seen anywhere. Instead they all have these portable phones that fit in their pockets. Well, to call them “phones” is being generous, because I rarely saw (will see, may see) them being used to call anyone. A better name for them would be “tickle devices”. People spend their days pawing them, jabbing them, swiping the them and thumbing them for goodness knows what reason. I think it might be a sexual thing. And possibly something to do with cats.

Tickle, tickle.

Swipe, by Jeremy Keith. cc licensed.

They use these tickle devices to “google” things. You see, in the future, whole armies of people will be employed to answer questions. You type in a question and someone reads it, opens up an encyclopaedia and gives them a list of possible answers to the question. The researchers at the other end are a bit thick though, because most of the answers they give are wrong. I don’t think they are getting paid enough. My heart goes out to all those people whose job it is to give directions to drivers. I mean, it must be a hell of a boring job just calling people up to tell them they need to turn right at the next roundabout.

Can't you see we're eating?

And it’s all about coffee these days (those days, those will be the days). Maxwell House or Nescafe instant granules is not good enough for these people. You can’t even ask for a coffee at these places. You say to them “can I have a coffee” and they just look at you as if you’re stupid. There’s a whole vocabulary now. It has to be an Americano (black coffee) or a Latte (coffee with milk) or a Frappuccino (yep, people in 2015 will pay to drink cold coffee). The same goes for chocolate and tea and milk and bread and breakfast cereals. And it’s low fat and gluten free and l. casei immunitas. To go shopping in the future, you need a masters degree in nutrition, otherwise you’ll probably starve to death.

So I’m glad to say the world hasn’t (isn’t going to have, may not have) ended in nuclear holocaust and that most people seem pretty normal, if it’s all a bit West Coast and healthy and sporty and image conscious. The future is to be welcomed, even if we’ll all need to take the scenic route to get there. But the cycling outfits. Man, that’s going to take some getting used to.

cc licensed Burns College, Boston College.

cc licensed Burns College, Boston College.

Often enough, both in real life and social media, I come across people who lament the past. “Ah, we were much more free back then, we could do as we wanted, and weren’t we all so happy”. This kinds of “och ochon” sentiment makes me want to puke. I’m not doubting that they had mostly happy childhoods, but implicit in their writing is that current kids cannot possibly be as happy as they were back then. To which I call bullshit. The only thing they are demonstrating are the massive defects in their memories. So here are just a few things that are much better now in Ireland than back then.

The Litter

It might be hard to believe, but Ireland was a much filthier place in the 70’s and 80’s. The plastic bag levy had not yet been imposed, so we used to hang them on any available tree. It was a long time before businesspeople took action to name and shame town councils and villages into making even half an effort. There was no such thing as separating rubbish – everything went to landfill. I remember finding a dead calf in the ditch on the way home from school once. We are still a filthy nation, as David Norris recently said, but relative to decades past, there are signs of hope.

The Corporal Punishment

Until 1981, teachers could belt kids with fists, sticks and leather straps if they got out of line. The only psychological diagnosis for kids who stepped out of line was that they were “bold” and the only remedy on offer by the teachers was 6 of the best in front of the class. Slapping kids was a great way for teachers to release their endorphins, but fuck-all use besides this. It didn’t make classes more disciplined (they weren’t) and it didn’t stop us being extraordinarily cruel toward classmates when the teacher’s eyes were looking elsewhere – leading by example and all that.

The Roads

Road journeys were a nightmare when I was a kid. Apart from the Naas Dual Carriage Way, no roads in Ireland even came close to being adequate. Hardly any town had a bypass, so the road trips were a continuous succession of bottlenecks and queues, exacerbated by the atrocious parking in every small town you passed through. And Ireland was pothole central – full of gaping voids into which cars might disappear forever. We think nothing of a 2 and a half hour trip from Cork to Dublin. Not long ago that would have been the stuff of science fiction.

Sunburn

The day after a sunny day in Ireland, intense pain would grip the nation. The whole country was filled with people with tomato red faces, necks, arms and that soft bit behind your knees. A few days later and we were all peeling like snakes. Misguided by the notion that a sunburn would “set the foundations of a good tan”, we would strip off and let the UV go to work on our skin cells. It’s not that sunscreen didn’t exist. It did, but nobody really saw the point of it. Better to dab on that useless aftersun lotion later on, in a vain attempt to ease the agony.

The Cars

Ireland only introduced a National Car Test in the 1990’s. Before that, our roads were full of the most ancient, crapped out bangers you could possibly imagine, all contributing to those nightmare road trips. Seat belts were either absent or optional, and most kids spent their journeys lying on the flat area beneath the back window of the car, or sitting on their mammy’s lap in the front passenger seat. And it’s not like people didn’t pay badly for this fecklessness. 600 people used to die on Irish roads each year during the 1970’s – over 3 times as many as now. Those who lament the freedom were not the victims of this carnage. They were just lucky.

The Radio and The Telly

When I was a kid, we had just one radio station – Radio Eireann. It was talk radio with a good daubing of religion, sport and traditional Irish music. The full Catholic Mass was a mainline program on the radio every Sunday morning. TV was not much better. Radio Luxembourg and pirate radio stations were wild, lawless and frowned upon. Younger people only got their first music radio station in 1979, a full two decades after rock and roll kicked off in America and Britain.

The Racism

We all looked the same too. Everywhere you looked, it was the same pasty faced (and occasionally sunburned) people in every town, in every locality. If you looked different, it’s likely you would have been stared as you walked down any street in Ireland. Casual racism tripped off the tongue and people wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Sure they were all grand, but you wouldn’t want one living next to you. Of course we were all into the black babies god love them, but it was far from an egalitarian view – underlying it was a sense that they weren’t able to cope as well as the rest of us.

The Troubles

Like a constant drumbeat, the news from “The North” used to keep us in an almost permanent state of depression. Every day there was some interjection of hatred, some killing and bombing, some fucking godawful atrocity, to remind us that we Irish were a screwed up lot. True, “The South” was a quieter place, but there was a sense that this was a particularly Irish problem, with our religious differences and our 17th Century animosities, still boiling away like a volcanic rupture that could never be healed. And you dare not say anything about the IRA, lest the word got around. Of all the shit things about growing up in Ireland, this was among the worst.

The Clergy and the clericalism

What more needs to be said? Princes and privilege and power and that total arrogance that enabled every single thing to be swept under the carpet until it all came vomiting out in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Awful, awful, awful. And what’s worse, is they still haven’t yet grasped the lessons to be learned from it. Some of them still think they are kings of the hill.

The Inferiority

Though Ireland was technically part of the First World, there was a sense where we knew this couldn’t possibly be true. While many European countries had got their shit together, we were still rummaging around, looking for it like it was gold bullion. There was no money for anything, we had a particular breed of clientelist politician, the weather was awful and anyone with a bit of get-up-and-go had got-up-and-gone. Gay Byrne once famously said that we should contact the Queen of England to ask her to take the country back, while apologising for the state we had left it in. A lot of people would have nodded their heads about this.

So, you know, it’s better now. Not at all perfect, but better. Kids have more choices and more opportunities to engage with people who are different to them. They are safer. They don’t have to live through that atmosphere of barely comprehendible hatred that we all just took for granted. They don’t need to feel they are lesser beings than anyone else. Despite all it’s faults, I prefer the Ireland of today. I really do.

2015 Anniversaries

Ten Years Ago (2005): Hurricane Katrina slams into New Orleans, prompting unprecedented chaos and mass evacuation. The Cassini-Huygens probe landed on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Death of Pope John Paul II. Death of Rosa Parks. The A380 “superjumbo” makes its first flight. London awarded the 2012 Olympic games. The following day, a terrorist attack in the London Underground kills 52 people. Further terrorist bombings take place in Iraq, Bali, New Delhi, the Lebanon and Jordan. The Ferns Report into clerical child abuse, is released. The Kitzmiller vs Dover lawsuit deals a huge blow to Intelligent Design proponents in the US.

Twenty Five Years Ago (1990): West Germany and East Germany are reunified into a single state. Nelson Mandela is released from imprisonment in South Africa. The “Pale Blue Dot” photo is taken by Voyager 1. The Hubble Space Telescope is launched. The Republic of Ireland reaches the quarter finals of the Italia ’90 World Cup. Death of Jim Henson. Iraq invades Kuwait, triggering the first Gulf War. Mary Robinson becomes President of Ireland. Margaret Thatcher steps down as UK Prime Minister. The Channel Tunnel connects Britain to mainland Europe.

Fifty Years Ago (1965): Death of Winston Churchill. Assassination of Malcolm X. American combat troops arrive in South Vietnam. Civil Rights activists, lead by Martin Luther King, march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Mariner 4 takes close-up photos of Mars for the first time. Singapore becomes a sovereign country. Death of Stan Laurel. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley arrested for the Moors Murders.

Seventy Five Years Ago (1940): Nazi Germany invades Denmark and Norway, then Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. British forces abandon mainland France through Dunkirk. British cities and towns suffer through the Blitz. Thousands of people are killed by the Soviets in Katyn, Poland. The Soviet Union annexes the Baltic States. Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker make their screen debuts. First ever MacDonald’s restaurant established in California. Leon Trotsky is killed. The Lascaux cave paintings are discovered. John Charles McQuaid is consecrated Archbishop of Dublin.

One Hundred Years Ago (1915): The RMS Lusitania is sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Cork, killing 1,198 passengers and crew. The Second Battle of Ypres is fought. Poison gas deployed on the front for the first time. The Allies engage Turkey in the Gallipoli Campaign. Albert Einstein formulates his General Theory of Relativity. The Stop Sign makes its debut in Detroit. Death of Joseph O’Donovan Rossa, founder of the Fenians.

Two Hundred Years Ago (1815): Napoleon Bonaparte escapes Elba and quickly re-takes France. He is defeated in the Battle of Waterloo and exiled to St. Helena. His exile ends 30 years of hostilities between Britain and France. Mount Tambora erupts in Indonesia: it is the greatest volcanic eruption in modern times. Foundation of the National History Museum in Dublin.

Three Hundred Years Ago (1715): The Sun King, Louis XIV of France, dies of gangrene in Versailles, after a reign of 72 years. A solar eclipse passes over London; the last to do so for 700 years. Beginning of the first major Jacobite rebellion in Scotland.

Four Hundred Years Ago (1615): The Tokugawa Shogunate successfully besieges Osaka Castle in Japan, commencing a period of unopposed rule that would last almost 250 years.

Five Hundred Years Ago (1515): The city of Havana in Cuba is founded by Conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar.

Six Hundred Years Ago (1415): The English defeat the French in the Battle of Agincourt. Pope Gregory XII resigns – the last pope to do so until Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. A brutal precursor to the Protestant Reformation when Bohemian reformer Jan Hus is tried and burned at the stake in Konstanz.

Seven Hundred Years Ago (1315): The Great Famine of 1315 begins, killing up to 25% of the population across Western Europe. The Scottish, under Edward Bruce, invade Ireland. Large parts of Ireland are devastated in the subsequent campaign.

Eight Hundred Years Ago (1215): King John of England agrees to the Magna Carta, establishing common rights and placing subsequent monarchs under the rule of law. Genghis Khan’s Mongols capture and destroy the city of Beijing.

One Thousand Years Ago (1015): King Canute of Denmark invades England. The following year, he became King of England.

One Thousand Six Hundred Years Ago (415): A Christian mob murders Hypatia of Alexandria, a famous mathematician and philosopher.

Two Thousand Years Ago (15 AD): Strabo completed the draft edition of “Geography“: a 17 volume description of the known world at the time.

Blackrock_CastleWhen we look back in history, it can seem self-evident that previous generations were poorer in almost every way imaginable. To us, they had fewer material resources, a benighted mindset, poorer social structures, rudimentary health systems and a throwaway attitude towards human life. Yet, such a way of looking at the past may be deeply biased.

It may well be an illusion to think of our times as objectively “better” than in the past. Instead, we might only be considering how the past complies with the current zeitgeist. The further back in time we go, the less familiar things become. If we were to apply a percentage to how things comply with the present, then starting at 100% (now), we see this percentage reducing the further back in time we went.

No matter what period people are born into, it’s likely that they would apply the same bias. Whether they lived in the 1920’s, or the Middle Ages, or during the Roman Empire, they would always start at 100%. Their sense of the past would be framed completely by their present, possibly making them believe they were living in the most perfect of ages, irrespective of how bad these same ages might seem to us now.

Such an outlook means we must look at history not as objectively imperfect, but rather relatively different compared to the world we live in today. In the values we measure highly today, the past is unlikely to match up well. However, other measures, of lesser importance to us today, might have been deeply prized in another time. Where a time in the past is 100 – X percent like this world, this missing X becomes hugely interesting. It defines something that we would struggle to appreciate now, but nevertheless would have been crucial to the lives of people of those times, and vitally important if we wish to properly understand historical contexts.

Examples of that missing X could be music, folklore, poetry, humour or religious practice, all now lost to the sands of time. It could be skills and handiwork, no longer practised. It could be the toys and games played, the foods and the sports, of which we know little. All of this possibly lead to lives worth living for those times. When we hear older people bemoaning how older times were better, perhaps we hear echoes of this missing X.

The missing X applies not just to time, but to space too. Foreign cultures may not be poorer to our minds, as they are different. To understand it properly would require living there. To make a spot assumption that our culture is somehow better (or for them to assume it for themselves) is dangerous territory indeed.

All this is not to say that the values of our time are worthless and immaterial. Issues such as feminism, LGBT rights, racism, slavery, child-cruelty, empiricism, medicine and science have made this world a better place and, I would argue, objectively so. However we still need to be mindful of a creeping bias that turns the past into a caricature of itself. Making this mistake blinds us to what might really have been going on. At best, it leads to an imperfect view of our past. At worst, it deepens prejudice and intolerance.

2014

Ten Years Ago (2004): Ireland bans smoking in pubs; the Beslan massacre happened; a huge tsunami hits the Indian Ocean coasts of South-east Asia, claiming 230,000 lives. New website called “Facebook” launched.

Twenty Years Ago (1994): The Rwandan genocide; an IRA ceasefire announced after 25 years of violence; Fred West is arrested, bodies discovered underneath his house on 25 Cromwell St; Nelson Mandela becomes president of South Africa.

Thirty Years Ago (1984): Announcement that HIV virus is responsible for AIDS; Ronald Reagan visits Ireland; Ethiopian famine prompts huge international reaction; Bhopal chemical disaster in India.

Forty Years Ago (1974): Dublin and Monaghan bombings; Birmingham pub bombings; Richard Nixon resigns as US President; worst tornado outbreak in US history; Rubik’s Cube invented.

Fifty Years Ago (1964): The Beatles take America by storm, Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment; Martin Luther King wins Nobel Peace Prize; Mary Poppins is released.

Sixty Years Ago (1954): First polio mass vaccinations; first kidney transplant from a live donor; Rock and Roll begins with “Rock Around The Clock”; Alan Turing commits suicide.

Seventy Years Ago (1944): Most recent eruption of Mount Vesuvius; Normandy D-Day invasions; Warsaw Uprising; Battle of the Bulge; “Doodlebug” bombs hit London; attempted assassination of Hitler; Asperger’s Syndrome first described.

Eighty Years Ago (1934): US Dust Bowl; Bonnie and Clyde killed; Night of the Long Knives; Hitler becomes “Führer” of Germany.

Ninety Years Ago (1924): Irish language made compulsory in schools; Hitler arrested for Munich Beer Hall Putsch; Vladimir Lenin dies; last vestiges of Ottoman Empire abolished.

One Hundred Years Ago (1914): Beginning of World War I; first successful blood transfusion; Irish Home Rule bill passed; electric traffic lights first introduced.

Two Hundred Years Ago (1814): Napoleon abdicates, is exiled to Elba; British forces burn down White House in Washington; end of the War of 1812.

Three Hundred Years Ago (1714): Longitude Prize announced; End of War of the Spanish Succession; King George I of Hanover takes UK throne after Queen Anne dies.

Four Hundred Years Ago (1614): Logarithms invented by John Napier; Moriscos – Muslim descendants – expelled from Spain; Juan Rodriguez becomes first European settler in what would later become New York City.

Five Hundred Years Ago (1514): Copernicus first outlines his theory of Heliocentrism.

Six Hundred Years Ago (1414): Council of Constance begins, ending the Western Schism, where rival popes contended for supreme authority of the Catholic Church.

Seven Hundred Years Ago (1314): The Scots defeat the English in the Battle of Bannockburn; Last of the Knights Templar burned at the stake.

Eight Hundred Years Ago (1214): The Mongol Army, under Ghengis Khan, lays siege to Beijing.

Nine Hundred Years Ago (1114): A crusade is launched on the Muslim held Balearic Islands.

One Thousand Years Ago (1014): Brian Boru defeats his enemies in the Battle of Clontarf. Brian is killed in during the subsequent rout.

One Thousand One Hundred Years Ago (914): Foundation of Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city.

One Thousand Two Hundred Years Ago (814): Death of Charlemagne, first Emperor of Europe since the collapse of the Roman Empire.

One Thousand Four Hundred Years Ago (614): Persians capture Jerusalem, carry off the True Cross, the Holy Lance and the Holy Sponge. Birth of Aisha, wife of Muhammad.

Two Thousand Years Ago (14): First Roman Emperor, Augustus, dies.

Two Thousand Three Hundred Years Ago (287 BC): Archimedes of Syracuse, mathematician, engineer and possible inventor of the Antikythera Mechanism, is born.

I noticed a thread on Reddit last night that discussed the great mistake ever in history. Everything from NASA accidentally taping over some of the original moon-landing tapes and Russia selling Alaska was mentioned. It makes fascinating reading.

For me, Hitler’s invasion of Russia stands out as the greatest mistake ever made.

It’s not as if he had to do it. By early 1941, Germany had achieved a stranglehold over Western Europe. Apart from the UK,  most of the major threats had been eliminated. With most of Central Europe under Nazi control, there was now a large buffer zone between Germany and any potential invaders from the East. To the West, only the UK stood in defiance of Nazi rule. With America not yet at war, it was isolated; still reeling from Dunkirk. German bombers were wreaking havoc across the UK from London, to Belfast, to Plymouth. Money, stolen valuables and great quantities of food were flowing into Germany from France and its neighbours, all now solidly under the German jackboot.

It wasn’t enough for Hitler. Instead he eyed the great country to the east with avarice, imagining a vast living space for the German population. Here was a region awash with copious quantities of food, oil, slaves and other key mineral resources. Given how quickly Germany had conquered most of Western Europe, the pervasive view was that Russia was merely a rotten door, just begging to be kicked in.

And for a time, this seemed to be the case. Between June and October 1941, the Wehrmacht inflicted over a million Red Army casualties, snatched the Baltic states, surrounded Leningrad, conquered Kiev, and was coming within firing range of Moscow itself. 

Then nature took over. The German advance slowed to a halt as the Rasputisa – the season of mud – heralded the beginning of the Russian winter. With Moscow and the key oilfields of the south still under Soviet control, the Germans found themselves inadequately prepared for the freezing temperatures and relentless blizzards. The slowing advance gave the Russians time to call in massive reinforcements and by early December they inflicted their first major defeat of German forces. 

1942 marked a turning point in German fortunes. While they gained more ground in the summer months, they failed to take the southern oilfields, nor any other key strategic targets. German supply lines were stretched, progress was slower and casualties kept on building by the thousands. With America now in the war and Russia developing huge stockpiles of weaponry further east, it was only a matter of time before their advance would be halted completely.

The reversal began in 1943, with the meat-grinder that was the Battle of Stalingrad. Using the bitter weather and a seemingly endless supply of manpower and armaments, Russian generals overpowered General Paulus’s 6th Army. From then on, Russia had the upper hand, despite losing more soldiers in almost every encounter with German forces. Even the great tank battle of Kursk failed to stop Red Army advances.

Ultimately, Russia reclaimed every inch of territory seized by the Germans, and more. They seized large areas of Germany itself exacting a terrible price from its civilian population. The “total war” in the East made their Western front vulnerable, and in 1944, Allied forces, under US leadership, invaded France. Deprived of air support, the cities of Germany were smashed to smithereens by Allied bombers. By the time peace was declared in 1945, this once-great nation, along with many countries around it, was on its knees.

Hitler’s decision to invade Russia ultimately destroyed everything he envisioned for his country. It was a decision made from a position of hubris, a belief that war was a boon to the young men of Germany, a belief in racial superiority above all the peoples of the Earth. Overconfidently, he believed he could demolish the Red Army in a matter of weeks, long before the Russian Winter arrived. Despite the formidable strengths of the Wehrmacht, he got it badly wrong. In the following years, relentless Russian aggression whittled his army down to size, making it a manageable target for all its enemies. 

We look at Germany today, and once again it is a great nation. As a modern, liberal, democratic republic, it’s a country very different to that envisioned by the Nazis. None of its success can be attributed to Hitler and his cohorts. The rebuilding fell to the surviving children and grandchildren, along with great help from the outside. Everywhere in Germany, as in Russia, as all across Europe, are the family memories; the lost uncles and aunts, fathers and mothers, friends and loved ones. Destruction and death on a vast scale were the only legacies of Operation Barbarossa. It was one heck of a mistake.

We could ask, what if Hitler had not invaded Russia? What then? It’s certainly possible that Nazi Germany would have lasted longer. Long enough, perhaps, to develop missile-borne nuclear weapons; thus making it almost impossible to attack from any angle without enormous reciprocal casualties. The UK, even with America on its side, would have been hugely vulnerable. Wave upon wave of German bombardment, along with a robust blockade of British and Irish ports, would have made everyday life very difficult indeed. The Nazis would possibly have had time to complete, then cover up, their policy of genocide on the Jews and all unfortunate people they perceived to be less than human. A hopeless detente between America, Russia and Germany, somewhat akin to the Cold War, might have transpired; with proxy wars in Africa, the Middle East, India, South America and anywhere mischief could be made.

Decades hence, perhaps, it might have been a different story. The viciousness, violence and corruption of the Nazi regime would surely have given way to saner minds once Hitler was out of the way. Maybe a collapse, akin to the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, would have been on the cards, given enough time.

It’s purely speculation, of course. Hitler’s great mistake resulted in the deaths of millions. Had he not made it, perhaps even more would have died through the cruelty of his policies, just stretched over a longer period of time.

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