Bloody Sunday, every bloody Sunday
LAST Sunday afternoon, I came back to my house in Baltimore, hoping to catch some of the Cork-Tipperary game on television, to find a man in dark glasses sitting in a big space-wagon parked outside my house, a tricolour poking out the window, the car adorned with a large poster of Gerry Adams, and festooned with handmade posters.
The posters proclaimed that the picketers were not pleased with what I write in this paper. One said 'Eoghan Harris is pro-unionist, pro-British, pro-Iraq war and anti-peace process'. The slogan beside the Adams poster said 'Harris, Just Let This Man Get on With His Good Work' and 'End Your Campaign of Hate Against Gerry Adams and the Peace process'.
In the course of the afternoon I found the picket, by turns, intimidating, inconvenient and interesting. Intimidating because picketing a journalist at his private home imports the sinister side of Northern politics into a peaceful West Cork village. Inconvenient because it cut into the Cork-Tipperary game; interesting as soon as I could see the face behind the dark glasses.
At first, the protester failed to identify himself. Accordingly, I called the local Garda, Pat Flaherty, who promptly identified him as Councillor Donncha O Seaghdha, a member of Skibbereen Urban District Council.
Although I had not met the councillor before I know his sister, Rose, for almost 20 years. Apart from being fond of her, I admire her famous fish restaurant Ty-Ar-Mor in the main street. Like her brother, she comes from what is called a strong republican family.
So do I.
* * *
IN the course of the afternoon, in between chores to the village, I had a couple of emphatic exchanges with Donncha O Seaghdha about republican politics and history. When I say emphatic I am not using it as a euphemism for empty abuse. After some early awkward sparring, Councillor O Seaghdha and myself settled for civility - he seemed a naturally courteous man.
Although I did not ask him in, or put down an egg for his tea, I rather enjoyed these edgy exchanges. Councillor O Seaghdha is a teacher by profession, is well read in history as distinct from hagiography, and unlike some narrow nationalists admires the work of the historian Peter Harte, author of that modern classic. The IRA and its Enemies.
In many ways, he and I have much in common. He comes from the same kind of hardline republican home, has read much the same political literature, shares the same narratives. But in spite of that we had come to totally different different conclusions.
But I still found last Sunday's picket pretty depressing. Apart from the implicit intimidation involved in protesting at a private house, it brought back bad memories of a 1950s boyhood. My grandfather was a 1916-22 veteran. My father had a huge head scar from fighting the Blueshirts at Marsh's Yard in the 1930s. They lived for battles long ago.
Republicanism was their secular religion. But it was a religion cold as Calvinism. It brought them no personal happiness.
* * *
LAST Sunday's picket was also depressing because of the day itself. In my boyhood, Sunday was like a Groundhog Day. For want of any purchase on the repressive present, my father would endlessly return to his father's republican past. In a recent essay written for a book called Britain and Ireland, Lives Entwined, I recalled these republican pilgrimages of the 1950s:
Sunday morning my father would buy the Sunday Press, which each week carried a colourful episode in the War of Independence against the English enemy - earning itself the epithet, 'Bloody Sunday, every bloody Sunday'. Sunday afternoon we went for a spin to the battle sites of the West Cork Flying Column: Rosscarbery, Kilmichael, Crossbarry. Sunday evening, helped by a few bottles of stout, he would recall how as a boy he saw the British coffins coming down the Western Road after the ambush at Kilmichael, always ending with the bloody mantra: "The Boers put them into khaki, but Tom Barry put them into coffins."
My father was a republican because he needed to believe something bigger than himself, something that was better than the present. Religion did not console him, socialism did not convince him, and the poverty-stricken country gave him no higher culture. So he fell back on republicanism, an ideology of victimhood, which naturally enough produces victims.
Like his father before him, he passed on the poisoned chalice of republican politics. I loved my father so I drank deep for a while. But finally I had to spit it out. It tasted like pure poison.
* * *
THE reason I repudiated my family's politics was less political than philosophical. An authentic life is a search for what is real. Republicanism is a retreat from reality. Look at the lack of any real link between republican language and real life revealed in SF charges that people like me, are pro-British or pro-Unionist, or anti-peace process. First, far from being pro-British, I totally oppose the policy of the British Government and British intelligence services towards Ireland. Anxious to avoid bombs on the mainland, these two bodies have been doing deals with republicans for the past decade - even if this means dropping Irish democracy down the drain.
Second, far from being pro-Unionist, I do not want Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom. But, as a Wolfe Tone republican, I feel I have a firm duty to defend the rights of Protestants and Dissenters to do their own thing until such time as we can persuade them their future is in a federal Ireland.
Finally, far from being against the peace process, I called the Belfast Agreement an "amazing grace", and advised David Trimble to trust Sinn Fein-IRA. But the Provos betrayed that trust. And I am not alone in looking for an alternative.
Last Thursday, the excellent Irish Examiner columnist Noel Whelan, a former Fianna Fail organiser, raised the possibility that IRA intransigence would force us to think again. "They should
'Republicanism was their secular religion. But it was a religion cold as Calvinism.'
get on with it, and if they don't we should get onto some Plan B."
To sum up. If the IRA does not deliver, most commentators will start looking for a Plan B, that is they will objectively become "anti-peace process" as Sinn Fein defines it.
Is Sinn Fein going to picket all their homes?
* * *
A FINAL word about another tradition in our family: telling it like we see it.
My father's cousin, Dick Forbes, a 16-year-old officer of Na Fianna, who had passed himself off as older, when marched before a court-martial at Victoria Barracks after 1916, took a thick, typed speech from his tunic and started to read it. The tired British officer in charge, who had figured out his age, blandly told Forbes that if he stopped reading he would discharge him, but that if he said one more word he would shoot him. Forbes elected to go on reading - until he was booted out the gate of Victoria Barracks. As he would say in later years, "Better dead than not read".
My sentiments, too.