Where the History Comes From

There’s a great quote by Irish columnist Earle Hitchner that I think of all the time when I’m travelling in Europe: “The difference between England and America is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way.” It’s true for Ireland too, except with 161 km. When I was in Co. Meath a few weeks ago for a wedding the hotel staff thought I was nuts for driving 30 WHOLE MINUTES just to see a castle. (Totally worth it.)

Even in Europe a centenary is a big deal. 2014 marks the centenary of the start of WWI, and the whole continent is holding all sorts of commemorative events. A few months ago Taoiseach Enda Kenny and UK Prime Minister David Cameron made a joint visit to Irish and UK WWI sites, which was also a big deal given the long history of prickly relations between the two countries.

But then I happened to see a banner the other day that really made the first half of that quote ring true: in 2014 Ireland is also quietly celebrating the millenary of the Battle of Clontarf, when Irish High King Brian Boru (temporarily) united the tribes of Ireland to break Viking power in Dublin. I’ll say it again: the MILLENARY. One THOUSAND years. What was going on 1000 years ago in the territory that would later become the United States? We have no idea. Stuff, probably. But no one wrote it down, so we don’t know. The Battle of Clontarf got written down, so we do. We even know what day it was: April 23.

By the Battle of Clontarf Ireland had had written records for 700 years. Though that’s no great shakes compared to other ancient civilizations, it still seems like a long time to me. And for even older history there’s the buildings: Newgrange, which I saw and was amazed by, is approximately 5200 years old – older than the Pyramids. And there’s a place called Listoghil in Co. Sligo that’s even older than that, one of the oldest buildings in the world.  Clontarf is peanuts compared to that.