Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Persecuting the Irish: icon of our times

Noble, that’s the word for the Colegio de los Irlandeses, now part of the prestigious university of Alcalà de Henares near Madrid. 

Quiet, understated but self-assured, it is a fitting tribute to the offer of Spain to the persecuted Catholics of Ireland, to a refuge where they could safely study within the tenets of their faith.

Colegio de los Irlandeses, Alcalà de Henares
Makes you wonder what the ancestors of today’s Brits were up to, oppressing Irish Catholics. What good did it do them? Today Ireland is still Catholic and, what’s more, it’s independent of Britain. All that pain and suffering Britain imposed, and it gave neither nation anything benefit at all. You’d think we might learn.

The truth, of course, is that some people did very well out of the arrangement. A tiny number of people, but they were powerful. The holders of great fortunes in Ireland, particularly in the form of land, were doing just fine and saw no reason to loosen the reins. On the contrary, they felt they were absolutely entitled to see the army doing whatever it took to put down anyone uppity enough to question their right to enjoy what they, and their ancestors, had always enjoyed.

Meanwhile, in Spain the founding of the College had nothing to with preserving liberty from persecution. Far from it. Spain itself was more than happy to do its full share of persecution. Protestants: burn them. Moors, Jews: drive them out. And if they don’t go: burn them. Just like the Mayflower pilgrims, Spanish Catholics weren’t out to obtain religious freedom, just the freedom of their own religion to persecute anyone who belonged to a different one.

And in just the same way, a handful of people did very well out of the arrangement: the owners of the great fortunes, in Spain, Latin America or anywhere else controlled by force of Spanish arms, were convinced that this was right and proper and the preservation of their way of life was a divinely ordained duty.

That’s what makes the College in Alcalà so eloquent a monument. So eloquent today, I mean.

When a couple of crazed, misfit Muslims, who can’t distinguish between an act of political courage and a simple piece of barbarism, hack to pieces a British soldier in Woolwich they are perpetuating the attitudes that drove Britain to impose its will by force on the Irish. Or Spanish Catholics to force the conversion of Spanish Jews. Or Pakistani Sunnis to murder Pakistani Shiites. Or orthodox Jews to deny the right of Jewish women to pray like their male counterparts at the Wailing Wall.

What they are perpetuating is the mindset of anyone who is so sure of being right that it justifies inflicting suffering or even death on those who disagree.

That goes just as much for those, in the English Defence League and outside, who’ve reacted to the Woolwich murders with violence against Muslims and their institutions. Less obviously, it also applies to organisations that don’t themselves promote violence, like the United Kingdom Independence Party. They may not actively condone persecution, but by their attacks on immigration, they sustain the belief that a nation is better for being homogeneous.

Homogeneity was what all those persecuting powers, driving out Muslims, Jews, Catholics or Protestants were trying to do, too. Looking back on their attempts in the past, as I did when I saw the Colegio de los Irlandeses, I had to ask myself ‘why did they bother?’

Though, seeing how many people seem to be rallying to the banner of intolerance again today, perhaps the question ought to be, ‘why do they still bother now?’

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