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Thursday 18 January 2018

Polarising caricatures of Irishness must be consigned to history

Paul Colton, Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, gives a Protestant perspective on what it means to be Irish and suggests that the 1916 anniversary should be broadened to include other notable events

Perhaps it was the advent of middle age, or even a deep-seated existential quest for the answer to one of life's great questions -- 'who am I?' -- or perhaps it was to honour a wish of my late grandmother, but I set off last October with my family, to find the grave, in France, of her first husband. It has been a process of meeting someone across almost a century.

His name was Daniel Griffith. The 1901 Census shows him living in a cottage on Ushers Quay in Dublin, the eldest son in a family of seven -- father (from Co Cavan), mother (from England), four boys and one girl. The parents are recorded as Protestant Church in Ireland; the children simply as Irish Church. Daniel is 10 and his father is a stable man and labourer at Guinness brewery further up river.

Ten years later, by 1911, there are nine in the family, two more sons. Daniel is 20 and is now also a labourer at the Guinness brewery. Not far away, living as a caretaker in a building on Westland Row, is a widow from Co Wicklow with her son and 15-year-old daughter: my grandmother -- all three members of the Church of Ireland.

My grandmother's second husband to be -- also a 15-year-old -- is living not far away either. The 1911 Census shows a family of four: mother and father, son and daughter. In fact there is another: a girl suffering from scarlatina, in hospital for an extended period including census night. All four in that family -- the Coltons -- record themselves as Church of England; mother and children were born in Dublin and father leaves place of birth blank. A curious omission! No -- I suspect, tactical foresight in vulnerable times. For he was English, from the east end of London (Bethnal Green), and a groom, a private, in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and all of them were living in Ship Street Barracks adjoining Dublin Castle.

Four years after that census my own grandfather was enlisting, like his father, in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Daniel Griffith had enlisted in the 9th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (the Tyrones), part of the famous 36th Ulster Division.

Last October, guided by Teddy Colligan, Guardian of the Ulster Tower, we retraced Daniel Griffith's steps: to the Somme and the corner of the wood at Thiepval from where he emerged on July 1 and was later awarded a certificate of gallantry. As well as the Somme, war took him to the horrors of Passchendaele; Langemarck; Messines; and finally to Cambrai, where during the night of November 19, 1917, they approached the Canal du Nord, then being built and without water, towards this lock, where on November 20 he was killed in action.

We located and visited his grave, planting a cross of remembrance on it on which I had written: 'A visit 93 years later on behalf of your dear wife Ciss Marsh -- my grandmother.'

This personal excursion had a profound impact on me. But it is also emblematic of many similar Irish stories. By a similar experiential methodology, many Irish families might today tell their own story from similar or indeed very different historical perspectives. This draws our attention to the diversity and complexity of the historic fabric and mosaic that is Irish society today.

More important, all those stories from many perspectives give the lie to the heresy that was conveniently and deliberately cultivated for generations, and which many of us grew up with: that there was only one way in which you could meaningfully be said to be an Irish person -- mythical Celtic, oppressed and Roman Catholic.

It was, I have to admit, moving, therefore, in recent weeks to see the ceremony at Islandbridge when wreaths were laid by Queen Elizabeth and our President, Mary McAleese. This, for me, was a public acknowledgment and validation of my ancestors, and, more deep than that, how a family such as mine came to be in Ireland. I have no doubt the wreath-laying ceremony at the Garden of Remembrance the previous day was an equally potent symbol for many others in our country.

The visit and the work of people such as Myles Dungan, Kevin Myers, and Eoghan Harris have empowered people like me to tell my story: to recount unashamedly how we came to be in Ireland; of how we are Irish today, and also to tell a story that is rarely told and even less frequently acknowledged -- the story of Protestants in Ireland who were not well off; not in power, but by a convenient manipulation of history were blotted out because they did not slot into a suitable stereotype and spin.

It was from this experience and for this reason that in the past year I raised the matter of the forthcoming centenary of the Easter Rising 1916 at a meeting of the House of Bishops. In our discussions it became clear that we needed to broaden our perspective from the centenary of Easter 1916 to include our preparedness for the other upcoming centenaries -- the signing of the Ulster Covenant 1912, the outbreak of the First World War, the sinking of the Lusitania, the War of Independence, the Treaty, the Civil War. We referred the matter to Dr Kenneth Milne, Church of Ireland historiographer, as a starting point.

In the light of the inferences I've drawn about the story, by no means unique, of my own family, and the great diversity of other people's stories, I believe it important, that, as we come to this Decade of Centenaries (as the Archbishop of Dublin referred to it in his recent Easter sermon), that the complexity of the demographic and socio-historic genetic make-up of the Irish population is endorsed, understood and empathised with. It is crucial that we are not meted out the polarising caricatures from the history books of my Irish childhood. It is vital that small communities such as ours -- small in number, but rich in diversity and pluralism -- engage with the preparations for the observance of these centenaries. Many of these have a particular resonance in this part of the country and we do well to ask ourselves how we are to engage with and contribute to these events in the coming years.

What might so easily be squandered is the momentum gestated by the words of president and monarch alike in recent weeks; words which were potently reconciling, healing and bridge-building.

Sunday Independent

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