'Irish Roots' archive



Irish Roots


July 13th

There's a lot of good sense to be had in reggae lyrics, but not in Junior Murvin's Solomon : "I am wiser than Solomon, 'cause he didn't know the secrets that I know now'. Every time I listen to it, and that's quite frequently, I can't resist quibbling. Yes, Junior, we now know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, that Beijing is in China and that potatoes taste good with butter and salt, and poor old Solomon didn't know any of those things. But that doesn't mean we're any wiser than he was.

It's all too easy to condescend to your ancestors, even if you're a good Rastafarian. Time and distance naturally simplify things, and there is no doubt that our lives are very different to lives lived even 100 years ago. It is hard not think of people who lived in previous centuries as somehow less complicated than us.

Genealogy is a good cure for thinking like that. The more you find out about your ancestors, the more complicated, uncertain and individual they become. You can't think of them as quaint, fixed to the one spot, sepia-toned. They moved and worried and loved, and were as doubtful about their futures as we are about ours.

The biggest contrast between their lives and ours is comfort: we have central heating and anaesthetics. That doesn't make us more complex, or smarter, or wiser. The most substantial thing that they didn't know, and that we know now, is what was going to happen to them. There is poignancy in this, and some irony, but no basis for disrespect.

The only real difference between us and our ancestors is that they're dead and we're not. And that won't last.

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