News Eoghan Harris

Thursday 28 August 2014

Heart must speak to heart and take risks for peace

Published 23/06/2013 | 05:00

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LAST week, I watched the world go by on a television screen in the Whitfield Clinic in Waterford, while recovering from a hip operation carried out by the literally cutting-edge Mr Patrick Carton, who probably fitted me in between a Munster forward and a Kilkenny hurler, he and his colleague, Mr Tadhg O'Sullivan, being magnets for sportsmen with shot knees.

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Three things helped take my mind off fine weather going to waste outside the window. First, the cheerful coverage of the Obama visit. Clare Daly can carp, but I was grateful for Valerie Cox and Miriam Lord's hilarious reportage on the battle between Michelle and the "midgets" of Glendalough.

Second, I was bucked up by Obama's speech in Belfast. Good to get a generous acknowledgment of the crucial Ulster-Scots contribution to the greening of America. And an antidote to Catholic-nationalist mythology – which will get worse with the abolition of history as a compulsory subject at Junior Cert level – that America was built by the Catholic Famine Irish.

America's national character, including its interventionist tradition, is firmly rooted in the Ulster-Scots immigration, which inspired the American Revolution. The more we give Northern Protestants their proper place in history, the readier they will be to reciprocate.

But Obama's most important insight was that peace is not just about politics. "It's about attitudes; about a sense of empathy," he said. In short, it's about good authority, about people running personal risks to reach out to former foes, so that "heart speaks to heart".

* * *

The phrase comes from the Latin motto "Cor ad cor loquiter" on the cardinal's crest of Blessed John Newman. And the final bonus of my sojourn in the Deise was a chance encounter with the elegant and exacting sermons of this extraordinary man.

If ever someone deserved the title 'saint', it is surely Newman. Why? Because he, the supreme spiritual thinker of his time, told his followers that no tract, sermon or argument was as important as the power of personal influence.

Like Obama, Newman believed personal influence must be matched by personal empathy. "The first duty of charity is to try and enter the mind and feelings of others," he said. His full thinking on the subject can be found in his Fifth Oxford University Sermon, titled Personal Influence, The Means Of Propagating The Truth.

* * *

That is why I feel that some of the Irish literary lions who stalk our summer schools, pontificating about academic abstractions in the writings of John McGahern, too often pass over the power of his personal witness in helping to dispel the tribal tensions with which my generation grew up in 1950s Ireland.

McGahern took particular care, both in his essays and in his Memoir, to tell us about the crucial part played by two Protestant neighbours in forming his literary mind as a boy of 11. As his testimony is too often glossed over by academics anxious to get on to fashionable gender issues, here he is himself.

"I was given the run of a library. I believe it changed my life and without it I would never have become a writer. The library belonged to the Moroneys. They were Protestants. Old Willie Moroney lived with his son Andy in their two-storied stone house, which was surrounded by a huge orchard and handsome stone outhouses."

McGahern goes on to meditate on the complex relations between Catholics and Protestants in rural Ireland. Despite some of the IRA's dark deeds during the War of Independence and Civil War, most Roman Catholics retained a complex affection for their Protestant neighbours.

Recalling how nobody restrained his eclectic readings, he writes: "I can only put it down to a prejudice in favour of the gentle, eccentric Moroneys, and Protestants in general.

"At the time, Protestants were pitied because they were bound for hell in the next world and they were considered to be abstemious, honest and morally more correct than the general run of our fellow Catholics."

McGahern was criticised for expressing his empathy in such emphatic terms, for being too benign in his portrayal of Protestants, for not helping to keep the heads down on both sides, for bringing up the issue at all. But not bringing up religion and history is not republicanism but merely a retreat into our comfort zones.

Let's have our common history out in the open. Let's admit both the atrocities and affections that fuelled the flames of the past. Let's embrace in the embers, so that heart can truly speak to heart.

* * *

Last Tuesday brought welcome proof of new willingness among southern Protestants to speak their minds – and a welcome reminder of the lasting power of personal example. Rev Janet M Catterall, Rector of Ballinalee, Co Longford, in a letter to the Irish Times, criticised the behaviour of a group of 200 pro-life protestors who heckled the Taoiseach during a ceremony to honour General Sean MacEoin.

Acknowledging their right to protest, she called for a a bit of balance. "But the people of Ballinalee had the right to celebrate in a dignified manner their most famous son, General Sean MacEoin, a local and national hero." And with good reason.

General Sean MacEoin, the Blacksmith of Ballinalee, who commanded the Longford Flying Column, was one of the few IRA commanders who fought so chivalrously that his compassion will leave as lasting a mark as his courage, which was considerable.

The Clonfin Ambush, between Granard and Ballinalee on February 1, 1920, was a fair fight in which the Flying Column of 21 volunteers ambushed two Crossley Tenders of Auxiliaries carrying 20 Auxiliaries, all experienced ex-officers and veterans of the First World War.

During the two-hour gun battle, four Auxiliaries were killed including their commanding officer. The surviving 16 auxiliaries, comprising wounded and unwounded, finally surrendered. But one of the Auxiliaries escaped to raise the alarm and the Army sent 14 lorries with a company of troops towards the site of the attack.

Despite being on borrowed time, MacEoin tended to the eight wounded and sent for water to a nearby house, only narrowly escaping capture. But later, when he was finally taken and sentenced to death, three Auxiliaries came to court and testified to his kindness.

Although their testimony did not soften General Macready's hard heart – Michael Collins made MacEoin's release a condition of the Treaty – I believe MacEoin's acts of mercy will exercise a more enduring influence for good than the atrocities of the gory generals who never took a prisoner.

My friend, Tom Carew, tells me there is even something to be said for Macready. In his memoirs, the General remarks that the only IRA volunteers he met with a sense of humour were Sean MacEoin and Michael Collins.

Tom notes that both were pragmatic pro-treaty men and not dour puritanical fanatics, "pre-echoing the later division between the pluralist Dubliner Cathal Goulding and the sectarian cockney blow-in, RAF Leading Aircraftsman John Stephenson, aka 'Sean MacStiofain'."

So true. Stephenson, the Provo IRA's callous chief of staff, also called off his hunger strike. Tell your Junior Level kids in case they think he was some kind of hero.

Irish Independent

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