Opinion Analysis

Thursday 1 September 2016

What's in a name . . . especially when you are Gaelic and free?

Kevin Myers

Published 01/02/2007 | 00:11

ENDA Kenny no doubt thought he was being daring when he referred to the Celtic and Christian nature of Irish life. Well, I for one vehemently dislike the ease with which the concepts of race and tribe are introduced into political discussion in this country. Behind such notions can too often lurk men with guns, banners and callipers for measuring racial purity.

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One of the most fearsome catch-cries of Sinn Fein-IRA during the Troubles was Gaeilge agus saor, saor agus Gaeilge. Change that into Anglo-Saxon and free, free and Anglo-Saxon, or Deutsche und frei, frie und Deutsche, and soon you have torchlight processions, glinting eyes, and smashed windows at midnight.

As it happens, Enda Kenny does not come from the mainstream "Celtic" strand of Irish life. It is Fianna Fail which represents those people who see themselves as the descendents of the aboriginal peoples of Ireland before Henry II and his Norman-Welsh platoons arrived. For despite its utterly fanciful name, Fine Gael is no more "Gaelic" than the Macaris who own the fish shops. Its demographic base was the Anglo-Normans who remained true to the old church through the Reformation and the Penal laws, who allied with the Gaelic chiefs at Kilkenny, and who were probably, in the longer term, sorry that they did. For it was Anglo-Normans - both Catholic and Protestant - who perished in Cromwell's massacres at Drogheda and Limerick, not Irish-speaking Gaels.

Admittedly, some people of Gaelic origin were drawn into the Anglo-Norman caste of upper-class, business-owning, strong-farming Catholics, and vice versa. But 18th century grandee Catholic families, such as Edmund Burke's, and Nano Nagle's, were deeply aware of their Norman origins. And still today, there are some people whom one cannot imagine within Fianna Fail: Garret FitzGerald, Mary Robinson (nee Bourke), John Bruton, Peter Sutherland. Two have Norman names, two British: the sense of caste, of difference, lingers on.

To be sure, names only tell us so much. The most evil loyalist killer of the troubles had an Irish name, Murphy; the most ruthless Sinn Fein-IRA leader has a Scottish one, Adams. But, nonetheless, names can be a useful guide - though "Enda Kenny" is not, being a highly unusual name for a Fine Gaeler, because it is all-Irish. Generally speaking, Fine Gael families tend not to give their children Gaelic forenames, and the Gaelic personal names they do use, such as "Desmond" (man of south Munster) and "Brian", (strong, dignified) have been so completely house-trained into Anglo-Norman respectability that they are even used by Northern unionists.

In other words, covert, even unconscious tribalism is a powerful feature of mainstream political life in Ireland, only becoming explicit and unapologetic on the paramilitary fringes. And the historic inspiration for those cheery souls who wrapped the green flag around them before embarking on their cross-Border forays to murder headmasters in their schools, and to massacre Protestant workmen, were themselves the very Protestants Michael McDowell enlisted in his criticism of Enda Kenny for referring to "Celtic Ireland": Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy and the Sheares brothers.

But these men were in no way representative of mainstream Protestants, though they are in the mainstream of the Irish republican mythology. To single out what your mythology already acclaims is surely no great measure of your broad-mindedness.

As it happens, the virtue of these republican "heroes" is entirely mythic; in reality, they were deadly enemies of the Irish people, for they were enthusiastic supporters of the French revolution, and all the horrors which followed. The Sheares brothers were actually in France in 1792 when, as the historian Simon Schama relates, a revolutionary police-state was established in Paris, and the guillotine set up in La Place Du Carousel. In just over a fortnight, 1,400 prisoners - including hundreds of priests - were murdered there, and in makeshift prisons across Paris. At Becetre, 43 of the 162 murder-victims were under the age of eighteen, two were thirteen and one was twelve. At Salpetriere, forty prostitutes were sexually abused, and hacked to death. At La Force, the Princess de Lamballe, was stripped naked, cut to pieces, and her head and genitals then publicly displayed.

These massacres were approved of by the revolutionary authorities, and publicly celebrated. Irish revolutionaries - the Sheares in particular - would have been fully aware of them.

And it was this revolutionary police-state that a handful of delinquent, homicidal Irish Protestant "republicans" wanted to introduce into Ireland. If they had been successful, they would probably have their guillotine in College Green, to which royalists, unionists, priests and maybe even Nano Nagle's Presentation nuns would sooner or later have been led.

IT is 2007. Enough please, of singling out unrepresentative Protestant participants in the entirely mythical golden thread of Irish republican history. It would have been braver and better for the Minister for Justice - of all people - not to have singled out participants in murderous conspiracies as exemplars for his non-racial arguments about Irishness.

Instead, he could have identified the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Guinness, Thomas Barnardo, Hugh Lane and WB Yeats as being truly representative of non-Celtic, non-racial Irish, to which category I emphatically belong.

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