Monday, 3 November 2008

Ghosts that haunt us yet

It’s impossible to generalise about nations. Every country has its Obamas and its Kennedys, but it also has its Quayles or its Palins, and you take the rough with the smooth. Even so, I have to admit to a particular tenderness for the Irish. I don’t remember ever really disliking an Irishman and most have amazed me with their wit and their warmth.

This is odd. Mutual goodwill is not common between the English and the Irish. An Irish friend, surprised at my supporting Ireland in a rugby match, told me ‘No Irishman would ever support England, you know. If England were playing Zimbabwe he’d support Zimbabwe.’ Seen from Ireland, the gulf between the countries is much wider than the Irish Sea, and it runs with blood not water.

What’s true in general isn’t always true in particular. A few years ago, my mother came across a woman with a soft Irish brogue who seemed familiar. ‘Don’t we know each other?’ she asked, ‘Surely we’ve met before.’ They were close friends from the war years who hadn’t seen each other for half a century. They’ve renewed a friendship that’s been close and cordial ever since.

Soon after the war, the friend took my mother to a meeting addressed by James Larkin, Junior. He was a recently elected member of the Daíl, the Irish parliament, and the son of ‘Big Jim’ Larkin, the trade unionist who had been an ally of James Connolly. Connolly was the outstanding figure among Irish Patriots and was shot after the 1916 Easter Uprising by the British, though he was in a wheelchair as a result of the injuries he’d received during the fighting. Perhaps I should say ‘shot by the English’ rather than ‘by the British’. The Irish don’t have an argument with the Welsh, or even really with the Scots: although it was Scots Presbyterians who expropriated Catholic lands in Ulster to form the ‘plantation’ with consequences that still reverberate today, every Irishman knows that the dastardly hand responsible was actually English.

As the two young women arrived at the younger Larkin’s meeting, my mother's friend whispered ‘now you just watch him: he won’t make it to ten minutes without mentioning Cromwell.’

It’s said that the tragedy of the Irish is that their memories are too long, and the tragedy of the English is that their memories are too short. To most Englishmen, Cromwell is a vague memory from schooldays, of the man who sent Charles I to the scaffold. Most Irish people, on the other hand, feel that without their sustained resistance Cromwell would still be rampaging through their land today, at the head of a British – sorry, English – army. I always tell Irish friends that Cromwell was the man who brought Ireland the gift of peace, but usually only get a mirthless laugh in response.

My mother timed Larkin. He mentioned Cromwell within the first five minutes.

It was a great pleasure to make some new Irish friends eighteen months ago. We met on neutral ground, in the home of a Hungarian in Strasbourg, surely ideal conditions for setting aside historical rivalries. They were charming, warm and witty. Each time we’ve met them since has been as enjoyable as the first. One of my regrets at moving away from Strasbourg is that it makes it more difficult to see them.

But for all that – they’d mentioned Cromwell within ten minutes of our being introduced.

Deep, and wide, that Irish Sea. And it still flows red.


Wondering said...

Too true... but I hope we'll soon learn to define ourselves as human and all of mixed race, even while acknowledging the influence our place and ancestry brings to our way of being. Personally, I'm Irish, British, Scottish, Northern Irish and French. There's probably some Jewishness, some Welsh and even a bit of something more Asian in there too. How we hold our identity and relate to others is a challenge for every difference we encounter. History and personal experience give us the illusion that we can know something about people, whereas the truth is, every encounter is as fresh as gazing into the face of God - and as dangerous!

David Beeson said...

History is full of divisions between peoples. The great danger arises when they degenerate into hatred between people.