Terry Prone: We forget pivotal chapters in our history, and fail to learn from them

15th Feb 2021
Share this blog post:

Originally published in the Irish Examiner

Day 129

The new door for the wood-burning stove is going well until a retaining screw falls out of the handle and the new vacuum cleaner — demonstrating its efficiency — eats up the tiny screw before I notice. This means closing the door on the flames becomes a challenge somewhere between juggling and brain surgery with the ever-present threat of the smoke alarm losing its reason.

I hate the smoke alarm with a passion and if I wasn’t scared of the insurance company I would climb right up there and take out its battery. No rhyme or reason to its reactions.

Some days, lighting a candle will set it off. It’s part of a mad Gregorian chant of alarms constantly going off at me. Microwave yelling that something is done and if I don’t take it out right then, bad things will happen. Dishwasher demanding I put away the clean dishes. Freezer telling me to close the bloody door. And then the cats, announcing their latest kill. It is often assumed that lockdown life, absent humans, is quiet and peaceful. Not so you’d notice, around here.

Day 130

I’ve taken a sudden scunner to books with cutesy pie titles like The Beekeeper of Aleppo. The Net-maker of Naples. The Cobbler of Copenhagen. The Dressmaker of Dresden. Plus those geographical ones like The Hotel on the Corner of Sunshine and Sweetness.

Day 131

I miss my next-door neighbour, Mary Linders, more than I can say. This is the most interesting woman around. (Star of the Dermot Bannon show about her two daughters doing up the family home.) Well-read and opinionated. When she rang about a fortnight ago, I got distracted by the postman arriving at the same time. I dealt with him and returned to the call to find Mrs Linders demanding my take. “On who?” I asked, confused. “That whoring Bolsonaro,” came the quick response. Now you have to admit, not many neighbourly conversations go in that direction.

Today, she rang and demanded to know if I had a hammer. What did she need a hammer for, I asked, kicking for touch. She herself has no hammer needs. It turns out she wanted me to go and hit the ice on the top of the fishpond tomorrow, if the big freeze Met Éireann are threatening us with manifests.

I said I had a hammer (not that I know where it is) and she could trust me not to leave the fish to suffocate. Of course, when the conversation finishes, I cannot locate the hammer. I do, however, locate a brick to serve as an ice-breaking substitute. Which leaves the swimmers out in the sea convinced that the woman who lives up in the Martello is crazy, walking around her garden carrying a brick.

Day 132

Ida Milne’s history of the Spanish flu in Ireland, Stacking the coffins: Influenza, war and revolution in Ireland, 1918–19 (Manchester University Press) has tidied up something that has puzzled me for years.

My beloved grandmother was admitted to St James’s Hospital in the last weeks of her life, and that admission added immeasurably to her distress. She kept saying we were putting her in the union. My mother whispered to me that she thought she was going to the workhouse. With good reason.

According to Milne, in 1667, Dublin Corporation spent £300 to lay the foundations for a workhouse on the site, and it served as a workhouse for long enough to carry the pejorative implications that shamed poor Nana when she had to go into it.

Milne’s book records a class distinction during that earlier pandemic which saw the middle class hiring nurses to care for them at home, and the poor going into workhouse hospitals which were — despite considerable efforts to contain infection — lethal spreaders of the illness.

But what’s most fascinating about Milne’s book is its recurring emphasis on national and international amnesia about a plague that killed 50m people. Irish citizens who lived through it don’t seem to have talked about it, so, while the 1916 rebellion and other events lived on in popular memory, the Spanish flu (or blue flu, due to the colour of the sufferers’ extremities, consequent upon lack of oxygen) just ended up as a phrase, although the suffering was intense, the social disruption enormous (families that lost their earner and home were often scattered to the four winds) and the destruction greater than the war that had preceded it.

A contributory reason for this amnesia might be the fact that the history of medicine isn’t obligatory even for medical students, never mind the rest of us. Despite the axiom that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, taking future doctors through the history of medicine might remind them of how frequently their predecessors got it wrong and what contemptuous certitude they demonstrated while getting it wrong.

Day 133

I wrap up like Nanook of the North to investigate the fish pond, bombarded, as I go, by snowball sized lumps of sea foam whipped off the massive waves by the gale force wind. My brick sits waiting to serve. No ice.

However, the lily pads are almost hidden under sea foam, which must be adding salt to the fresh water and doing the goldfish no good. I consider putting extra unsalted water into the pond but decide I lack the muscle power to fight with a hose in a full gale. Mary Linders will think the worse of me. If I tell her.

Day 134

It will make her another fortune while possibly improving the diet of children whose diets need improving. A win/win, then, for Michelle Obama, who’s going to present a cookery show for kids on Netflix with puppets. It would be begrudging to wonder about her legal studies, which brought her to a level where she could mentor a bright young lawyer named Barack Obama. Just as it would have been grudging to query her bestselling autobiography, with its emphasis on couples counselling. Isn’t it strange, though, that the next generation will see one of the brightest brains of her day as a warm mom measuring oats in the kitchen?

Day 135

The acquittal of Donald Trump defines his second impeachment as what my son, as a child, used to call a damp squid. But it does more than that. It, first of all, brings impeachment into some disrepute. It used to be something to be filed under “what’s rare is wonderful”, whereas the Democrats, through over-use, have turned it into the equivalent of a bad review on TripAdvisor. They also renewed interest in a man who, without access to Twitter, had fallen down a rabbit hole of anonymity. More to the point, they have inadvertently emphasised how clever Trump was. It’s a bit of a reach for even the most committed Trump hater to interpret his random drivel in advance of the riot as a direct instruction to the rioters.