There is an old Chinese curse that says ‘May you live in interesting times’. Few of us would dispute that we are living in ‘interesting times’ today. In Ireland, as elsewhere in the world, the last few years have seen time speed up, bringing with it rapid social economic and political changes. Understanding and making sense of these changes has become a national pastime, not to mention a major focus of academic research – witness the vast outpourings on the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. Just yesterday I spotted that UCD library has begun to build up a special Celtic Tiger collection, something that will be of immense value to researchers, both now and in the future. My hope would be that they are inclusive as possible in gathering material. The Ross O’Carroll-Kelly novels are for instance at least as important in understanding the boom and bust years as dry economic reports. As satires of the boom they compare, if not in literary merit, with the eighteenth century plays and novels of Fielding, Gay, Swift and Pope, and offer important insights into where it went wrong, and how. Literature and other material culture sources can after all tell us much about human behaviour, and economic activities, even if for some social scientists the jury remains out on this. For suggestions for how to use such material, we need to turn to historians who have long been fascinated with the puzzle of why certain periods see dramatic changes that can be witnessed across the layers of a society or economy.
These are issues that inform my own ongoing research on the impact of the fabled South Sea Bubble of 1720, one of the earliest and most significant stock-market crashes, as well as my co-editor’s research on the Italian economic miracle. Grappling with the social, economic and cultural impact of one past bubble has helped me to understand better our present one, while this process has also worked in reverse. (It should be stressed however my research began before the current economic crisis, and no I am not taking the blame!) Recently, while reviewing Padhraig Higgins’s excellent new book A Nation of Politicians for Puesoccurences , I have come across a valuable way to conceptualise these periods when time speeds up. He uses the idea of political density to explore why certain periods, in his case the era of the Irish Volunteers in the late 1770s-early 1780s, see greater politicisation and societal changes. This ‘density’ can be seen in increasing amounts of political information appearing in the press, increased associational culture, ‘patriotic’ or ‘political’ consumption practices, as well as in increased levels of urbanisation and literacy. At heart of his study is an exploration of how politics moved beyond the parliament buildings in College Green to embrace groups traditionally excluded from the political sphere such as women and Catholics, through amongst other things associational culture and consumption practices. For Higgins, like some historians of the American Revolution, an expanding consumer culture precipitated dramatic political changes. Shopping matters and ‘patriotic’ shopping even more. Similarly the expansion of civic society, something as relevant now as then, was crucial to the spread of new ideas and modes of living. Understanding the growth of civic society has become a hot topic amongst historians, and this research has much to offer analysts of contemporary society, even if we leave aside the more politicized calls for research into the ‘Big society’.
But how this all fit into attempts to understand our own ‘interesting times’? While not wishing to revisit that old canard about learning from the past, I think it is worth considering the approaches that historians have used to understand past periods of political and social density. The sources that Higgins, or indeed myself use – contemporary correspondence, newspapers, novels, and other more physical sources of material culture – offer a window into the operations of a society, giving us insights into the reasons why things change at the speed they do, and why it seems that sometimes time is accelerating.