I’m a great believer in serendipity, using it as a perfectly adequate substitution for hard work. The word means happy accident or fortunate mistake.
It was apparently coined by the 18th century Horace Walpole after he heard of the Persian fairytale The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes had a happy knack of making discoveries without meaning to. The princes were from Sri Lanka which was once called Serendip. So there. Put that in your pipe and smoke it at the next table quiz.
Unfortunately like table quizzes, serendipity is under threat – we are told. As usual it’s the Internet that is to blame. Having accounted for privacy, grammar manners, television sets, books, newspapers, social skills and vandalism; ‘The Web’ is now shrivelling our ability to stumble upon information and people. The theory is that, before we would read paper newspapers and exclaim “By Jove” as an interesting article tucked away at the bottom of page 16 caught our eye. Or we would bump into someone on the street. Now the perceived wisdom is we are chained to our desks or staring at smartphones. Google and Facebook know so much about our past that based on our past choices, they feed us only the information that they think we would be interested in.
This is probably overstated. It presupposes that we were always reading newspapers all the way through or bumping into Persian princes. Go to any local pub and it’s not full of random chance encounters. It’s generally the same cast of people staring at Winning Streak.
If it is to blame for a narrowing of horizons, I hope that the Internet never replaces one source of serendipity – museums. Because you learn things by accident there that you would never find if you were looking for them.
In the Munich History museum a couple of weeks ago, during a rather dry paragraph about the 19th century revolutions in Germany, the museum casually let slip that one of the causes of civil unrest was that people didn’t like King Ludwig’s mistress – a Spanish dancer called Lola Montez who was then unveiled to be an Irish imposter that was once the daughter of the Sheriff of Cork! Didn’t she do well for herself?
Or in Birr Castle at the weekend I first heard about Nicholas Callan, the inventor of the electric induction coil. A Catholic priest and lecturer, he was a bit of a ‘character’ who tested his experimental gizmos on his students. This came to an end when he accidentally electrocuted one of them and knocked the student – who later became archbishop of Dublin – unconscious. A template followed by Christian Brothers in the years that followed.
But if museums fall out of favour, we can console ourselves that the Internet too has its serendipitous moments. While browsing the Irish census website a few years ago, I came across an eccentric landed gent who claimed to be the one of only two Muslim in Ireland in 1901. After I wrote about it at the time, a grand nephew emailed me to tell me more. Among other nuggets, he revealed that his great-uncle had once shot and grazed a relative in the vegetable garden when he mistook their arse for a rabbit.
Not a happy accident; but in its own way, serendipitous.
First published in the Irish Examiner on October 21st