Friday, 22 May 2015

"My Irish life..."


That is how C.S "patrimony" Lewis described his fondness for the Emerald Isle. In the last few days, inspired by Prince Charles' visit to Ireland, I've been re-watching old documentaries on "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland and re-reading chapters from some books in my collection on the Partition of Ulster, Lord Carson, the Solemn League and Covenant (1912), Orangeism, some Yeats (I have the Everyman's edition), and so on. My Irish family are from the troubled North, on both sides of the conflict. I have family in Inishowen (in the Republic), Londonderry, Eglinton, Strabane, Coleraine and further south in Naas and Dublin. We have had our "fair share," if you like, of the Troubles. In the days before most people owned televisions or telephones, my great grandmother was terrified of using the phone box in case it was bombed. My mother and her brother Russell were both arrested in Tyrone in 1983 on the way to her funeral on suspicion of being involved in some sectarian murder. They missed her funeral as a result of the false charge. I myself was in Limavady on the day of the Omagh bombing and remember the shock and fear, confusion and incomprehension. I have been through Antrim and Lisburn and seen the painted curbs, the tricolour flags from one lamppost and the Union Jack on the next. Now, I beg indulgence for what follows which is the train of my thought committed immediately to writing for want of consistency and narrative.

No Surrender! Ulster says NO!!!

Irish history is a depressingly sad story because Ireland is a used country. From the ignorant past to the ignoble present it is a continuous narrative of national failure, subjection and the quaint cultural forms like Donegal tweed, Irish dance and folk songs which are the usual tokens of a subject people. Compare the Welsh choirs or that pedestrian poet Burns. Irish distinction and contribution has been almost entirely the province of the aforetime Anglican Church Established and the Pale. Jonathan Swift, James Ussher, Arthur Wellesley, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (I had to mention him!), Oscar Wilde, Dame Ninette de Valois and C.S Lewis are some of the names whose contribution to art, science, music, literature, theology and the worldwide renown of Great Britain has been invaluable. But for Ireland? I agree entirely with Iris Murdoch when she said, "I feel unsentimental about Ireland to the point of hatred." People who are not Hibernians don't always appreciate this. They sometimes make the comparison with the self-hating Jew. Now, I was a champion Irish dancer. I consider my victory in Ennis in 1998 (the year David Trimble sold out) to be one of the chief events of my life to date. My father, usually unsympathetic to my having been a dancer, said he was so proud his heart could have burst. It was a victory. According to the adjudicators I was the best male Irish dancer in the world under eleven at the end of the 20th century. But how significant is that? Is my distinction to be embellished because I excelled in a quaint cultural form, the token of a subject people? I heartily detest Michael Flatley!

And now we come to the Six troubled Counties, to "Northern Ireland." There was a woman called Kathleen who made the tea at the Irish Centre in Catford when I was a student at the dance academy there, circa 1996. She was from Wicklow (a pretty county), and I remember at a garden party she remarked that people from Ulster weren't really Irish but nasty Scottish protestants, and in token of this she spat upon the floor. My mother then said, "I'm from Ulster." To which Kathleen said: "well, you know I'm only joking, don't you." I don't know how endemic this attitude is throughout the Republic but in Buncrana and Letterkenny, towns in Donegal with which I am very familiar, the Catholics and Protestants get along just fine. Just drive twenty miles past the border and it's quite different. But Kathleen's attitude is indicative of the many inconsistencies and the profound ignorance in the competing ideologies of religion, politics and culture in Ireland and the somewhat delusional conviction with which the people defend them.

This is a demographic map of Northern Ireland. Red areas, such as Carrickfergus (where Dutch Billy landed in 1690 on his way to Drogheda), are mostly Protestant; blue areas have a Catholic majority.

Why? No one religio-political position in Ireland is 100% valid. The demographics are known to all. Most Northern Ireland Protestants are Unionist/Loyalist; there is a greater spectrum within Irish Anglicanism, ranging from moderate unionism to moderate nationalism. The Presbyterians are nearly all hard line Loyalists and tend to vote DUP. On the other side, most Roman Catholics in Ulster are Nationalist/Republican and tend to vote for Sinn Féin (albeit some in Antrim, though I doubt they'd own up to this, would vote for the late Dr Ian Paisley in the European elections). Prods and Taigs together. Let's start with Sinn Féin. My paternal great grandfather was a founding member of Sinn Féin. My father told me there was some incident in Strabane at his funeral in 1971. Martin McGuinness turned up uninvited and my great grandmother, a Pioneer of quiet modesty, turned pale and ordered "that troublemaker" off before she beat him off herself. (I was in two minds about whether or not to include that story. I should disclaim that my father's side of the family has absolutely no connexion to Mr McGuinness or to the Provisional IRA). Now, the name sinn féin is surprisingly apposite for a movement bethought of a number of unpleasant ideologies by idealistic peasants. It means "we ourselves" in Irish and enshrines Irish separatism and self-determination, with some cultural and religious layers. It's apposite because the Irish people have been historically maligned, used, segregated and systematically suppressed by the Protestant establishment, and not only in Ulster. Now, I am one of those people that thinks that the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland was good for the Irish. All they needed to do was abandon Romanism, the price of their poverty and ignorance, and they would be free. But no. Even through the Potato Famine they stupidly clung to a church that was ashamed of them (Mgr Rinuccini, papal nuncio to Ireland during the Irish Confederate Wars, sneeringly but truthfully called the natives "less than civilised"). The Papacy has never endorsed Irish nationalism or culture, in part because its 18th century proponents were liberal Protestants and partly because, being mercenary and considering the Irish people as fodder, the Roman church has always supported the established Pale; benefactors of places like Maynooth and University College Dublin. It was the Church of Ireland that first translated the Scriptures into Irish. It was Henry Grattan, an Anglican parliamentarian, who pushed for Irish self-determination after the Act of Union of 1801. The simple Irish, "as a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly" (Proverbs 26:11), have instead remained largely Roman Catholic. And to demonstrate the abiding love of the Roman communion for the Irish, Mother Teresa herself, that charlatan rightly exposed by Christopher Hitchens, flew all the way from Calcutta to Dublin in 1996 to campaign for a "no" vote in the Irish referendum on divorce while simultaneously telling an interviewer that her "friend" Lady Diana Spencer (what trash she was) really ought to get out of an obviously loveless marriage. One rule for the elite, is it? And John Paul II, now a "saint" in a botched ceremony that trumps even Rome's accustomed arbitrariness, exploited the Irish fidelity to Rome to get a few cheers at Phoenix Park in 1979. Like I said, "so a fool returneth to his folly."

This is a photograph (of a photograph) of a family trip to the Giant's Causeway in heavily Protestant Antrim when I was about 13 (I started wearing glasses when I was 13 and they seem to be my first pair). From left to right are my brother, sister and me.

And I have said nothing about the hearty endorsement of the Papacy for the Norman Invasion of Ireland in 1170. This reminds me of that scene from Angela's Ashes. Do you remember the classroom in which the teacher said the English deserved shabby treatment "after what they did to the Irish for eight hundred years." The same teacher would have trundled off to a lovely Latin Mass on Sundays without much thought. But to come back to Sinn Féin, they are more right, in the historic balance, than their loyalist foes. The Partition of Ireland was arguably the worst crime committed against the Irish people in the 20th century. The sectarian, gerrymandered border that covers most of Ulster but for the three counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan was bound to erupt in violence at some point. Lord Carson himself foresaw this, but Protestant bigots like James Craig, who boasted of a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people and actually asked Mr Churchill to invade Eire during the Second World War, took no notice and triumphantly treated the Catholic minority like so many rats, denying them voting and housing rights; a system of discrimination upheld by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. My father had his bicycle stolen in Strabane when he was little. He said of the time, "you didn't go to the RUC with your problems because they wouldn't help; you went instead to the Sinn Féin office." And he did. He got his bicycle back but what became of the thief remains a mystery. As a result of this (not my father's bicycle but the means whereby he got it back), the civil rights movement was launched. It was a legitimate movement but it was portrayed (probably rightly) by the Loyalists as a front for the IRA and a united Ireland by the back door. I suppose to summarise the Sinn Féin position, their view is to be acknowledged. Desire for a united Ireland is a praiseworthy desire. But it's also a load of rubbish. As Lord Brookeborough said, the fundamental question posed by Irish nationalism, "who owns Ireland," is an invalid one, akin to asking who owns India (the Persians, the Moguls, &c). A united Ireland was never an historic reality, even before the Normans. The idea is an 18th century invention latterly smothered with Enlightenment revolutionary and sectarian identity politics. The fact that republicans are mostly Papists is an historic curiosity. But I really do think that if a united Ireland is to work then the people should abandon their Roman religion. Drive out the bloody priests! I mean the Roman church has never been a force for good in Ireland; the Magdalene laundries, the child sex abuse scandal and the brutality of the Christian Brothers are evidence enough of that! And they've never been on the side of the Irish anyway! Why bother maintaining that false religion?

The pope blessing William III's landing in Ulster. The irony...

Now we come to the Loyalists; "spongers," as Harold Wilson rightly called them when their collective actions brought the cross-border Irish council to the ground. I find it risible that anyone would sincerely advocate the complete separation of the sectarian North from the republican South; that Dublin can have absolutely no say or influence in even the smallest matter past the border. In the words of Dr Paisley, godfather of the Loyalist resistance: "we are opposed to a united Ireland and we will not have a united Ireland." Those were his words when Mrs Thatcher and the Irish Taoiseach signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. Now, Dr Paisley (or Lord Bannside), often thought of himself as a successor to Lord Carson, founder of the Ulster Volunteers, and often flirted with loyalist paramilitaries, always careful to keep a safe distance from their atrocities. He was present at Bill Craig's infamous speech at Stormont when he called for the "liquidation of the enemy," by which he meant Irish Catholics who favoured the Sunningdale Agreement. But the collective behaviour of the Loyalists, from the Shankill Butchers in Belfast to Billy Wright's demagogic threats, has been totally disgraceful and their own atrocities go largely unnoticed because their paramilitaries never bombed that hotel in Brighton. Instead they opposed all efforts to negotiate peace from the 1970's onward and continued marching through Catholic areas on the "glorious" 12th, taunting the locals along the "traditional route" with insults and abuse. Did they not realise, or were they too proud to admit, that their own sectarianism would foster a counter sectarianism? But it was all to preserve the Union and the Protestant parliament for a Protestant people. Their position is just as ridiculous as Sinn Féin, the result only of Partition. It is only more praiseworthy in that they have kept a semblance of loyalty to the Crown. But, as Presbyterians with painted murals of Oliver Cromwell (may he rot in Hell) on the Shankill Road, why profess loyalty to a Sovereign? Surely Kings and Queens are relics of the Romish past? But then we come to the Orange Order, established to preserve the memory of the so-called "Glorious Revolution," and the triumph of Whiggery. Do these people not realise that William III was funded by pope Innocent XI for his conquest in Ireland? Do the Catholics realise that? Do they realise that, upon hearing the outcome of the Battle of the Boyne, the pope ordered Te Deums all over the Papal State? A Williamite victory served the interests of the Papacy far more than a Jacobite one. So much for the principled, Calvinist Billy, and for that matter, so much for the pope's concern for Irish Catholics. And the Orange marches are now thoroughly sectarian in character; expressions of triumphalism over the Irish and an occasion for rioting. My mother said that when she was little, my grandmother took her and her brothers to the 12th July parade in Londonderry because it was "a grand day out;" I suppose it was before all the stoning and police intervention, and certainly long before the Drumcree incident. I've never been to an Orange parade because they became so dangerous. But never mind the republican murals in "free Derry," have you seen the Protestant stuff? In some respects, it's more frightening; littered with cultish, masonic symbolism. I do not share the Protestant disdain for the Irish language. I asked my maternal grandmother (she of the 12th July marches) whether she knew any Irish once, and she said "No!" In such a way that to press the point would be a bad idea. Rhonda Paisley is said to have described the Irish tongue as "dripping with the saliva of their bloodthirsty thoughts." I wouldn't go that far, even if Mr Adams makes a fuss about speaking to cameras in Irish first and then in English; but I do share Tolkien's disdain for it. Would you be surprised to learn that the Irish word for "ring" is nasc?

My RE teacher at school, in a moment of temporary clarity, said that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were the last remnant of the 17th century Wars of Religion. That's a bit romantic for me. I would have said that they illustrate rather the incompetence and apathy of the British government, the danger of ideologies/identity politics and that Irish nationalism is too fraught with Enlightenment ideals to be a worthy cause. In other words, I pray for a United Ireland and say with absolute sincerity God save The Queen. What other way can there be? As for the future, a 32-county Irish Republic is a political inevitability. The Good Friday Agreement sealed that, but it would have come about by some other means anyway; pressure from Europe, the disintegration of the Union by Scotland, changing demographics with increasing numbers of Roman Catholics (and immigration), and increasing secularisation. Nobody can predict the future or correct the mistakes of the past but I hope that whatever is good in Ulster can be preserved for the future and that the Irish people can find some alternative to both Roman Catholicism and secularism.

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