Sunday 19 January 2020

Here's to triumph of decency over dogma

A series of TG4 documentaries on our past reminds us that humanity can break though the hardest of shells, writes John-Paul McCarthy

TG4 continues to stimulate and inspire as the station bids to become our national historical conscience. Mac Dara Curraidhn's thoughtful documentary on JM Synge, Synge agus an Domhan Thiar, takes its place alongside the riveting social history of the Seventies, Siar sna Seachtoidi, which reassesses everything from that fateful decade's myriad campaigns for sex equality to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

And in Ceart agus Coir, TG4 has been focusing for the last fortnight on the Protestant IRA hit-man George Plant who was executed by military firing squad under legislation passed by de Valera's government in 1942. Plant was hardly a monster, but he proved himself a pitiless enforcer of IRA discipline when asked to abduct and then murder a suspected informer.

One is struck watching this programme by the waste of human potential which stalks almost all revolutionary projects. Plant spent his last night lecturing fellow prisoners on the need for a massive afforestation programme in the new republic, this being the last gasp of what Kavanagh would later call "life as it is broken-backed over the Book of Death".

One can read this as a spontaneous protest against the paranoia and hysteria which suffused the organisation that demanded Plant's last full measure of devotion, poised as they were even then to make common Anglophobic cause with the Luftwaffe. Trees, after all, have a happy tendency to outlive even the most fanatical of ideologies.

The squalid events detailed in this sad programme reminds us that even though the Irish are often accused of being obsessed with politics, there have been many similar moments to Plant's plaintive protest, moments in our common history when the ideological cudgels have flayed right down to our bare bones.

Faced with a bitter sectarian impasse over the Ne temere decree on mixed marriages in the Fifties, most Irish Catholics closed ideological and doctrinal ranks during the Fethard-on-Sea boycott of Protestant businesses.

The then Bishop of Galway brazenly defended the boycott as a peaceful and moderate protest. A relative of the Protestant mother at the heart of the storm was actually fired at near his home.

Taoiseach Eamon de Valera set his face against this intimidation, and chose decency over doctrine during an extraordinary intervention in the Dail where he denounced the boycott as unjust and cruel, while begging all who have regard for the fair name, good repute and well-being of our nation to use their influence to bring this deplorable affair to a speedy end.

Hubert Butler also consistently defended decency against the humourlessness of rampant ideology. He invoked all of his meagre arts in the late Thirties to save as many Viennese Jews as possible. Butler explained the malevolent turn of events in Vienna to two Irish diplomats in 1939, describing how Jewish shops on Vienna's once proud Prater Strasse now bore signs stating 'Verholung nach Dachau', 'Gone for a rest-cure in Dachau'. His plea for common human solidarity sank in the sands of Irish historical self-pity when the diplomats asked him, "didn't we suffer like this in the penal days and nobody came to our help?"

Butler fled back to work without reminding the diplomats that for all the indignities heaped on King Dan before 1829, Robert Peel never sent him to a concentration camp.

Conor Cruise O'Brien's State of Ireland also totted up the human potential that was being squandered in the name of the Fenian ideal in 1972, telling his readers that year that Irish nationalism was in real danger of commemorating itself to death.

(He knew something about lives gone to seed, of course, since his mother was the model for the shrill character, Miss Ivors, in Joyce's devastating short story, The Dead.)

His colleague in the 1973-77 coalition government, Garret FitzGerald, surpassed even this profound warning in the aftermath of the murder of the British ambassador in Dublin in 1976. The visibly stricken chief diplomat asked the mourners in St Patrick's Cathedral at Christopher Ewart-Biggs's memorial service to ponder the human toll of ideological battle that day, promising a re-animation of our joint and unequivocal determination to destroy this conspiracy against freedom and life which in Northern Ireland had already wrought such universal tragedy.

FitzGerald was an economist by training, of course, and was not much given to overly emotional outbursts. These sentiments in 1976 brought him back, though, to the spirit of his childhood, since his birth helped to heal the ideological divisions not just between his mother and father, but between his parents and his Republican god-parents, the MacEntees, who hailed little Garret as a peace child in 1926.

Tom Garvin's powerful book, Judging Lemass (Royal Irish Academy, 2009) also reminds us that Lemass, too, was possessed of an unusual sensitivity to the corrupting effects of ideological rancour. Lemass spoke respectfully of WT Cosgrave and Ernest Blythe during his premiership, even though their special branch had tortured and murdered his brother, and he played the sombre sentry alongside Liam Cosgrave at the joint Masses for the Civil War dead in the Sixties.

TG4 reminds us that humanity can break through the most iron-clad carapace.

John-Paul McCarthy is researching Gladstone's Irish policies at Exeter College, Oxford

Sunday Independent

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