Friday 21 June 2019

Eoghan Harris: Bearing witness: Ballyvourney to Belfast and all points between

Harris cartoon
Harris cartoon
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last Sunday, factor 50 sun burning a hole in my head, I drove from Skibbereen to the Abbey Hotel in the Ballyvourney gaeltacht, Co Cork, to attend a long afternoon meeting in the Irish language.

That meant missing both the Galway-Clare return game and the hockey final.

No, I didn't miss that much, as it turned out, but then I couldn't know that, could I, when I sacrificed a precious summer's afternoon?

Most of my readers know I love the Irish language. But did I really need to drive for an hour and 20 minutes in hot sunshine to sit at a meeting where people were talking in Irish about passages in the Bible?

Yes, I did. Because this was the first aggregate meeting of Irish-speaking Jehovah's Witnesses drawn from all over Ireland with a sprinkling of native speakers from the Connemara and Cuil Aodha gaeltachts.

And, no, it was not some small gathering of Gaelic League greybeards huddled in a small room, but a meeting of more than 100 people in a big room with superb sound facilities.

Most people were under 40, with many women of all ages, relishing the chance to put on their best clothes, make a splash of the discreet sort, but above all to talk about the Bible.

As you know I am no stranger to Bible meetings, being a fairly regular summer attender at the Skibbereen Gospel Hall. But, apart from Jim Levis, there are not enough Irish speakers to hold a lengthy Bible class in the Irish language as the Jehovah's Witnesses did.

But in spite of my long familiarity with the further shores of Irish evangelicals, I knew nothing about the Jehovah's Witnesses - apart from them calling politely but persistently at the door to drop in The Watchtower and accept the blatant lie that you were very busy.

But here I was in a hall with more than 100 cheerful people, most of them from rural Ireland, with a fair sprinkling of black, Asian and assorted British blow-ins from the north of England, all speaking Irish.

A minority had fluent Irish, most had reasonable Irish, but a few who had no Irish had diligently prepared for the Bible class by getting internet translations of selected passages into Irish and then learning to speak their brief little comments phonetically.

Somehow the stream of Connemara and Cuil Aodha Irish ran smoothly over the rocks of those reciting phonetically with barely a ripple. As a veteran of a thousand cold halls, I found it deeply moving.

Because this was how I had spent many years of my teenage and young adult life, sitting in sepia rooms, first in the Legion of Mary, then in the Gaelic League and assorted activist groups, and finally in the Workers' Party.

For me, devoting some of your day to a distant goal, be it religious, cultural or political, is still the mark of a healthy, civilised society.

Some of you will cynically say that the Jehovah's Witnesses are only speaking Irish to spread the Gospel, But what's your point?

Not being a Platonist, I don't really care what their subjective reasons might be as long as the objective results are 100 people filling a hall, speaking Irish confidently to each other.

Some Jehovah's Witness beliefs pose problems. My old friend Mike Garde of Dialogue Ireland detects a cult-like dimension. But Mike also detects - and rightly so - the same cultish characteristics in Sinn Fein.

Fanatic hearts frighten us in peacetime. But the fanatic hearts of the Jehovah's Witnesses made them the bravest opponents of the Nazis in the concentration camps, only Communists coming close.

Jehovah's Witnesses were beheaded for refusing to recognise the Nazi state, serve in the army or give the Hitler salute. But even prolonged torture broke very few of them. As Ali G says: Respect.


Bearing witness to your internal truth is not yet punished by beheading in Ireland but the lavish praise heaped on the equally lavish film, John Hume In America, makes me choose my words carefully.

It was a gooey, soft-centred, self-congratulatory gush-fest by those who followed Hume as far as the Belfast Agreement but have now moved into retirement leaving the Republic to pick up the pieces.

Niamh O'Connor, the executive producer for RTE, must have nodded off when Maurice Fitzpatrick was pitching it to her. Did she not think it needed at least one, just one, critical voice?

Now of course I know it could not have been mine as I only wrote critical columns about what Hume was doing for the past 25 years and helped write David Trimble's Nobel speech which carried implicit warnings about the dangers of accepting the Provos at face value.

More to the point, I also authored a 1996 Channel 4 documentary in which I robustly interviewed Hume and asked him whether he had any doubts about giving a reference to a murder gang to join in the politics of the Irish Republic.

On the film, Seamus Mallon says Hume didn't take criticism well. Albert Reynolds would agree with him. Sean Duignan's diary shows that Reynolds sometimes had to tell Hume to butt out of the internal business of the Republic.

But when I asked Hume to talk to me in Derry in 1996 for Channel 4, he knew I was one of his fiercest critics, and he could easily have evaded the interview.

But he sat stoically, seriously answered my probing questions, sweat beading on his forehead with the intensity of his desire to make me see things as he saw them. No wonder this great man was so formidable in Washington.

But contrary to the film's claim that he persuaded the Provos to come in from the cold, they had already decided to do so and used Hume as a respectable conduit. At first sight there was nothing wrong with that. But take a second look and you see the abyss.

Last year, Seamus Mallon gave a less reverential but more revealing interview to William Crawley in which he remarked the Provos had played Hume like a three-pound trout. Asked if Hume wasn't worried about giving Provos respectability, Mallon replied loyally.

"I think he was so immersed in the whole business of getting peace that he didn't - or couldn't - come to grips with the fact that his presence with them [the IRA] gave them, especially in the United States and in Ireland, status that almost bordered on validating their actions over the past 30 years."


Bearing witness can also be done by your body alone. Last Wednesday coming out of SuperValu in Deansgrange, I barely recognised my old Pres schoolmate, George Hook.

Two years ago, Hook looked like a ham before the pig had been killed. The new Hook has lost four stone - or something huge - over two years and is flat of stomach and slim of face.

Concerned about my own abdomen I asked him for the secret. "Draw near," he said. I did so. "As you know I have a scientific cast of mind so I consulted every scientific body from the Smithsonian Institute to the Mayo Clinic to the Birmingham Institute of Physical Culture, and from their combined wisdom I found the formula."

He paused. I nodded him on. "Draw nearer." I did so and he bellowed in my face: "Eat f**king less."

Sunday Independent

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