The next six years could set us back a century
Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30
Last Friday, Micheal Cottrell took us from Baltimore, back up the estuary of the winding Ilen River to the stone bridge at Skibbereen.
Micheal, like his brother Cathal, helps crew the Baltimore lifeboat. Seawater runs through his veins. But he is also versed in local history, wildlife, as well as the etiquette of encounters with scullers on the river.
Because of course this is the same river where Paul and Gary O'Donovan hone their skills. So Micheal sometimes slows the rib to spare the scullers being bothered by his wash.
Along the way, Micheal gives us a colourful commentary on the history of houses and settlements on both banks of the river.
His account of the Famine does not spare the local landlords, but there is no bilious-green propaganda about genocide.
He also told us how Catholics and Protestants are buried side by side in the same cemetery at Aughadown Church.
Micheal's talk was a model of how we might cope with the challenge of the forthcoming six years of commemorations of the period from 1916-1922.
Because this could end up as not just "Bloody Sunday every bloody Sunday" but as every bloody day of the week for six years.
Frankly, the next six years fill me with foreboding. And no, I am not trying to make your flesh creep so as to score petty points against Sinn Fein.
That's because Sinn Fein will suffer most if my fears come to pass. Any revival of militant nationalism will see raw recruits flowing into the ranks of the Continuity and Real IRAs rather than into Sinn Fein.
As I am not a Trot, I am always willing to welcome the Provo prodigal sons to the constitutional fold - provided they show remorse and make restitution.
Accordingly, let me warn Sinn Fein that the next six years will make or break it as a political party in the Republic.
Because this is its best chance to become a bulwark against noxious nationalism should it choose to put its money where their republican mouth is.
My main concern is not Sinn Fein, however, but how endlessly harping on ambush and atrocity might twist the minds of the emerging generation.
Let us not fool ourselves. The 1916 celebrations have already raised the political temperature.
Hence the rise in support for a united Ireland and the increasing green bile on political websites.
But at least we succeeded in turning down the green temperature during the 1916 centenary. Three things helped us do so.
First, as I suggested as far back as January 2015, our Defence Forces dominated the celebrations.
Second, the nobility of the leaders of the Rising, as well as Pearse's early surrender to save civilian life, spared us any bloody message of revenge.
Finally, the State made sure commemorations were put in context. RTE played a primary role in providing balanced programmes and public lectures.
But none of these three factors will apply as we trudge through the next five years; from Soloheadbeg, to the Squad, from Kilmichael to Kevin Barry, repeatedly hanged in pub after pub.
Here's a firm prediction. If we keep raising the green temperature by non-stop nationalist necrophilia over the next six years, we will produce a monster.
Because if we keep pumping anti-Brit propaganda into the body politic we should not be surprised when a balaclaved Boris Karloff sits up from the table to wreak terror.
Most Irish people are patriotic and pluralist. But they are well aware that their teenage children are vulnerable to the vultures of nationalism.
The vultures give us green propaganda in the guise of historical "facts".
Facts, like statistics, can be used to prove anything. Historical facts are even harder to handle.
Far from being value- free, even presenting the data at all can pose a problem. The German state rightly refused to allow Mein Kampf to be published until 70 years had passed.
Likewise, our Bureau of Military History held back the witness statements of the IRA for nearly a century. Again rightly so, given the hurt that might be caused to living relatives.
But the biggest problem with IRA witness statements is that they suffer from the natural desire of participants to depict the IRA as noble figures fighting a just war.
Accordingly, they gloss over the sometimes-sectarian reasons for shooting a Protestant or offer spurious reasons for shooting an alleged spy.
Hence my scepticism about the use of IRA witness statements to challenge the findings of the late Peter Hart, author of The IRA and its Enemies.
The problem of putting historical facts in context were pointed up by two recent speeches by Michael D Higgins at Glasnevin and Beal na Blath.
Both speeches were informed by the best of modern scholarship. Both speeches sought balance, but did not always fully succeed in being fair.
The President was tough on British laissez-faire policies during the Famine. But I was somewhat surprised that, as a socialist, he did not point out that the Famine was in many ways a class war.
Logically, the landlord class could not plant, sow, reap, transport and export food out of the country. They were helped by tens of thousands of Irish farmers and middlemen. Gombeens lived, spalpeens died.
Again, while the President acknowledged the British administrators may have had good intentions, he proceeded to list their failings as follows.
"They did not accurately assess the capacity or the attitude of the Irish landlord class; they did not take regard of the absence of a commercial infrastructure in Ireland, of an adequate distribution system..."
Let me stop him here on his point about an adequate distribution. Even in modern times there are perpetual problems with distributing aid.
We found that out during the fodder crisis of 2013. Cattle starved to death while the Irish Government dithered and delayed.
I remember staring out the window of the Galway train at the harrowing spectacle of emaciated cattle standing on headlands, surrounded by water.
We couldn't cope with a fodder crisis in 2013. Shouldn't we be a bit slower to wag the finger at those charged with distributing relief in 1845-50?
In his Beal na Blath speech, the President put his finger on two problems that will cause controversy over the coming six years.
First, the shooting of alleged informers. "We will be required to face, too, the ruthlessness of many executions performed by the IRA, the mistakes that inevitably happened in killings of purported informers."
Second, aspects of the IRA's campaign that seem to me sectarian - although the President probably prefers another term.
Like the late Brian Lenihan, he condemned "the outrages perpetrated during both wars against Protestant people, some of whom were attacked regardless of their actual attitude towards the struggles under way".
At least he let us know that a hard road lies ahead over the next six years.