Friday 28 October 2016

Observe the Rising - but by getting real about what the leaders stood for

Connolly and Casement's view of the world was based on the notion that we are all connected so let's do more for refugees, writes Joseph O'Connor

Joseph O'Connor

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

A refugee screams for help after she and her daughter fell into the water after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos
A refugee screams for help after she and her daughter fell into the water after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos

Yesterday evening, I was driving on the north quays of the Liffey, in Dublin city centre, when traffic happened to stop us alongside Rowan Gillespie's cluster of sculptures of Famine-era emigrants, with their pleading hands, tattered clothes and emaciated bodies. Gulls hovered nearby. Shoppers scurried home. "Dad," asked my 10-year-old, "are those statues of the refugees we saw on the news last night?"

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As it turns out, yes and no.

One of the things that strikes anyone who has ever studied the Irish Famine is how often the language of silence was used to describe it at the time. "Pen cannot put down what is happening in this country at the moment," one man wrote.

There is only one novel about the catastrophe that was written contemporaneously with the event, William Carleton's The Black Prophet. Yeats never mentions the Famine, Joyce only does so in passing.

Even that great man, Dickens, who so loved the poor, reacted to the starvation of a million people in Ireland, the Ground Zero of Victorian Europe, by never writing one word about it. It's as though the entire culture and everyone in it was traumatised into looking away. We've seen similar phenomena since, about child abuse in particular. What a tragedy if Ireland were to do that about the refugee crisis. Not only for the refugees. For ourselves.

As was the case with the Marriage Equality movement, public opinion in Ireland has been far ahead of the politicians. The fundamental decency and the human empathy most Irish people feel for the refugees is real. Forced into a rethink by assertive public opinion, our leaders should be congratulated for going further than they had originally planned. Now, they need to do more.

There's a context, and it has to do with our sense of ourselves as a people, the journey we've been on, the directions we want to go.

I mean no disrespect to anyone when I say that I am personally not one of those who feels the need to celebrate the anniversary of 1916 to quite the exhaustive extent that is envisaged. I can't help but feel that we shouldn't be so relentlessly focused on the past when the future is tapping on our windows. I don't think it's mentally healthy to spend a whole year reverting to national babyhood while there are homeless people sleeping in doorways. And it makes me uncomfortable to see the revolution already being monetised, with T-shirts on sale, and posters and beermats, and, no doubt, Patrick Pearse dollies before long. But if we're going to commemorate the Rising, let's haul our arses out of museumland and get real about what some of the leaders stood for.

James Connolly was no narrow Little Irelander but a passionate internationalist. Roger Casement had been knighted by the British monarchy for his human rights work in the Congo and Peru. These men stood for a view of the world that is based on the notion that we are all of us connected, whether we like or not, so we may as well get to like it. They didn't waste their lives endlessly emphasising the differences between Ireland and other places, but sought, and often found, the similarities. Decades before globalisation, they understood what it meant. But by the time next Easter comes, and they and their comrades are being eulogised into invisibility by Ireland's politicians, the refugees will be taking to the seas once again, desperate, terrified, friendless and cold.

The question must be asked: does this history of ours mean anything, or is 2016 just a pantomime, a moral Lilliput dressing itself up out of granny's old wardrobe and admiring its poses in the mirror?

The brave men and women of the Irish Navy, who saved thousands of lives this summer, deserve a response of commensurate generosity and humanity from the rest of us. The Republic to which they have sworn a solemn oath has values and meanings, and everyday decencies abound here. In the work of carers and teachers, in the compassion of a neighbour calling in on an elderly person. But there has been too much equivocation in high places about the refugee crisis and not enough clear-voiced leadership.

Historically, Ireland's record on accepting refugees is neither perfect nor the worst. As an island people, we know very well that travellers have been coming here from over the seas since long before 'Ireland' had a name. Take the quickest of glances through the telephone directory of any Irish city and you'll see the evidence. Dumoulin, Devereux, French, Spain, Shouldice, Switzer, English, Guerin, Millet, Trench, Deverell. We are already far more various than we think. The eurocrat who lectured us recently that there are more Murphys in the USA than in Ireland was making the wrong point. It would have been more valuable to remind us that modern Ireland would not exist in the vibrant and resilient way that it does without the fact of historical immigration. Again and again, throughout our story as a people, hardworking people have come here from other lands, often in flight from persecution. Whole towns in Ireland - Portarlington, Co Laois is one of them - were regenerated by Huguenot or Palatine settlers. The Liberties of Dublin, from where my father hails, were originally made prosperous by Dutch merchants. Anyone familiar with Dublin city life will have seen how newer recent migrants, Africans and Chinese people among them, are opening shops and businesses. What are we afraid of? The loss of our jobs? These immigrants want to be customers, consumers, employers, taxpayers. Many of them already are.

And when other categories of frightened people come here, they must be treated with greater dignity. The system of so-called 'Direct Provision for Asylum Seekers' is wrong and must be dismantled. It is horrifying to know that vulnerable people in Ireland are treated as they are, in the early years of the 21st century, when we should know better. Given an allowance of a few euros on which to survive for a week. Refused permission to work. Belittled and disrespected by officialdom. Kept long-term in inadequate accommodation never designed for the purpose. Whole families sharing a room. Parents forbidden to parent. Human beings who came here in the desperate search for freedom, told when to eat and to wash.

Some of the testimonies of those vulnerable people, among the poorest in the whole world, would break a heart. We've heard them. I wonder will any of them be quoted among the fine-spun speeches that will accompany the 2016 commemorations? Every classroom in Ireland is to be given a copy of the Proclamation, we are told, with its commitment to cherishing all the children equally. (Terms and conditions apply. Not the Syrian or African children, apparently.)

This isn't a matter of political correctness or happy-clappy unreality. Of course there is a limit to the numbers we can take, and there must always be such a limit. But Ireland can do a lot more than we are doing at the moment. Not only for them. But for us.

Brian Friel's beautiful play Faith Healer has a magnificent moment during which Francis Hardy, the eponymous healer, ponders aloud about his gift. He's a weak man, flawed, painfully human, and he knows that most evenings when he turns up before the tiny paying audience of sick people who have come to him in desperate hope, he's going to let them down. "But," he says, "occasionally it worked - oh yes, occasionally it did work. Oh, yes. And when it did, when I stood before a man and placed my hands on him and watched him become whole in my presence, those were nights of exultation, of consummation - no, not that I was doing good, giving relief, spreading joy - good God, no, nothing at all to do with that; but because the questions that undermined my life then became meaningless and because I knew that for those few hours I had become whole in myself, and perfect in myself, and in a manner of speaking, an aristocrat."

We can be aristocrats on this, and shine a light to the whole world. All the violence and terrible sorrow at the heart of our story - it can never be forgotten, but it could be part of our moral reconciliation with ourselves to hold out the hand of welcome to the stranger. To act with empathy and authority would be redemptive for us as a people, a deeply healing act, a refusal to go on reversing into the future. I say, take the opportunity and let's grow up. The world is changing. Don't let it pass us by.

Joseph O'Connor is a novelist and McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick

Sunday Independent

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