Talking has slowly made us better as a people
Ruth Dudley Edwards finds that narrow-minded nationalism is being exchanged for civilised discourse and debate
Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30
Writing of the death of Jo Cox, the sixth sitting MP to be murdered during the last 100 years (and the only one not killed by the IRA), the London Times columnist Danny Finkelstein tried to be positive. He reminded us of the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812 (by, as it happens, an obsessive loner), which caused widespread rejoicing because he was a politician. "It is often said that our political culture is debased and has never been as rude or threatening," he wrote. "The truth is quite different. We have spent the past 200 years slowly evolving a more civilised discourse."
I can testify that the same is true of Ireland, not least in relation to the sensitive area of physical force nationalism. In the late 1970s, when my biography of Patrick Pearse was published, I had some testing times with public appearances.
I was okay with giving talks, for I wrote down everything I had to say from "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen" to "Thank you for listening", but I was terrified of the discussion stage lest I be asked questions I couldn't answer.
The most memorable came from a priest who gestured to a group of school children and asked me something along the lines of "Now that you've taken away from these young people the figure they most admire, what can you give them instead?"
I did my best to explain that even thought he was a flawed human being rather than a saint, the real Pearse had many fine qualities, but I didn't get through. In the Ireland of 40 years ago, anyone challenging myths caused pain and aroused anger. In Irish-America, I was told by an IRA supporter who had never even been to Ireland that I didn't have a drop of Irish blood in my veins.
The questioners I used to find most challenging were less those who were abusive than those who blocked their ears to what I said and awaited their opportunity to recite an unadulterated old old story.
Having had recounted to me the fairy tale about the fiancee who drowned trying to save a child and thus broke Pearse's heart, all I could do was annoy her further by saying politely that, as my book showed, Pearse was never in love with a woman.
It was becoming a crime novelist in the 1980s that took the fear out of talking in public, for the audiences were attentive rather than hostile, crime writers are a jolly lot and we had conversations rather than set pieces. On non-fiction topics, I learned through practice to speak from notes and stop worrying about being caught out. I rarely encountered an audience from whom I didn't learn something.
In the recent past, I've been talking about my book on the seven signatories of the Proclamation to gatherings in our two islands that ran the political gamut from republican dissidents to Orangemen, but the event I was most apprehensive about was the Sean Mac Diarmada Summer School in Kiltyclogher, County Leitrim, where the main street is dominated by a statue of their most famous son.
This was not helped by the incredulous reaction of some of my friends when I told them where I was going. "They'll eat you alive," was a common warning. Having survived such happenings as being denounced some years back at a West Belfast gathering of 800 ardent Shinners by Gerry Adams - who with his customary inaccuracy described me (a loyal northsider now resident in London) as a member of an anti-republican Dublin 4 clique - I don't fear bullies, but I was uneasy about upsetting Mac Diarmada relatives. Descendants of those widely regarded as our founding fathers can be pretty thin-skinned when listening to those who think there was no moral or even practical justification for the 1916 rising. [And the Mac Diarmadas were notoriously hardline. In 1966 the only rellies to turn down honorary degrees were Sean Mac Diarmada's sisters, who boycotted the celebrations because Ireland was not united.]
I was booked to address the school last weekend on the topic: "What was the ideology of the 1916 leaders?": my thesis was that they didn't have one, not least because they agreed on so little and had such contrasting motives for becoming revolutionaries.
I didn't expect a standing ovation, but having been encouraged by the sophistication and open-mindedness I've been encountering in the last few years in discussing previously taboo topics, I didn't expect a lynch mob either.
After a long day and a tiring journey immediately followed by listening to an evening talk, I was looking despairingly at the giant teapot when a man asked me if I'd like to accompany him, his wife and sister to the pub. He had liked my book and the three of them were well-acquainted from YouTube with my political opinions, it emerged, and in the course of the next three hours of mutually rewarding conversation and a lot of laughter, Padraig Pearse Mac Diarmada (grandnephew of Sean) and his family became my friends.
Apart from an articulate Sinn Fein TD who delivered the traditional republican narrative, the discussion showed once again that these days Irish audiences no longer cling to familiar myths and instead are truly curious about their past. They talk about ancestors in the British army and their only shame is that such people were ignored for so long.
Narrow-minded nationalism is being left behind. We have slowly evolved "a more civilised discourse" and we are much better people for it. [The Seven: the Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic is published by Oneworld Publications]