Sunday 19 January 2020

Kevin Myers: Healthy societies don't dwell on identity, which is why the annual examination of true Irishness makes me yearn for winter

Kevin Myers

A single hour's television on Monday night gave us two clear insights into the long-term consequences of political violence.

Only a week before, an Army officer had read out the Easter Proclamation, the foundation document of almost all Irish political classes: that is, say one thing, and do another. For even as Pearse was promising to cherish all the people of Ireland equally, men under his command were slaying any civilians and police officers who got in their way. First up: a Protestant boy, Thomas Playfair, aged 14, butchered while cowering in a doorway outside Phoenix Park, by Volunteer Gary Holohan.

RTE's contribution on Monday was Eoghan Harris's and Gerry Gregg's 'An Tost Fada', a searing insight into some of the consequences of militarising politics in a divided society.

Six years after the Rising, in 1922, an IRA-orchestrated pogrom in Cork, in which over a dozen men were murdered, triggered the mass exodus of thousands of Protestants from the county. (Other acts of cherishing equally that year involved the IRA evicting all the children from a Protestant orphanage in Connemara and burning it down. In South Armagh, Frank Aiken's IRA column wiped out the menfolk of half- a-dozen Protestant families.)

The survivors of the Protestant community in west Cork have hitherto been largely silent about the events of 1922, which is why the appearance on 'An Tost Fada' of the enchanting George Salter, aged 86, was so riveting. His family had fled in 1922, but returned in 1924. You will search in vain through most Irish history books for any reference to the Cork pogrom, which was a real pogrom, with real murders, unlike what happened to the Jews in Limerick two decades earlier. When I first wrote about the massacres in 1989, a Christian Brother in Cork angrily replied that "no one was punished (by the IRA) solely on the grounds of religion. . . in a glorious chapter of our history".

He was merely reflecting the lazy, afactual consensus that had been allowed to develop around this time. Indeed, most Irish historians -- never mind English ones, prostrate in a grovelling state of near-permanent post-imperial apology -- still write about this period with an unquestioning acceptance of the golden republican narrative. What work has UCC ever done about the murderous events done under its very nose?

Yet all this wouldn't matter if we could simply consign history to the history books, as others do, but we simply can't. This republic, uniquely in Europe, this year once again officially and enthusiastically hailed the onset of fratricidal violence, in the middle of a world war. Yet AMAZINGLY enough, 25 years of Provo terrorism, far from winning over Northern unionists, has caused them to confect an "Ulster-Scottish" identity -- no doubt an attempted mirror-image of the state-backed Gaeltacht in west Belfast.

Now, if this pseudo-Caledonianism consisted just of a few kilt-wearing anoraks babbling in Lallans and bawling Rabbie Burns at one another, I really couldn't care less. But it's not: this Ulster-Scots identity is now being endorsed by UTV, and the chef Paul Rankin, in a series on -- God help us -- Ulster-Scots cuisine, which, apparently, is more than a deep-fried Mars Bar through the kneecap. They even invited some local "Ulster-Scots" to an "Ulster-Scots" banquet. Hmmm. Is "Ulster-Scots" now a politically-correct euphemism for Prods? Good: but what about the English settlers in Tyrone and Armagh? Do they not deserve to have their own Ulster-English identity? And what about those settlers in south Armagh called Jennings and Morgan? Are they not Ulster-Welsh? And then there are the Cork loyalists who fled North. Wherefore the Ulster-Munster culture?

There's no end to this nonsense of subdividing society, defining and redefining "identity", or even worse, "culture", like a coke-dealer fine-cutting a stash on a mirror. The outcome is a multiply-divided community, sects in the city, with almost everyone having their own mini-culture. Healthy societies don't dwell on identity -- which is why the annual examination of the true meaning of "Irishness" in all those smugly insecure summer schools make one yearn for the return of winter, frostbite, rickets and, best of all, utter silence about who we really are.

Moreover, such talk of "identity" usually belongs to busybody elites. Plain people in Cork and in Antrim alike simply want to get on with their lives, and not worry about where their ancestors lived a quarter of a millennium ago. And 1916 was one of the worst years in human history; it takes a really demented and diminished sense of self to select a few acts of violence in a continent awash with bloodshed, and anoint them justified. And where else would a cookery programme become a forum for a tribal identity, in this case, that human haggis of the drumlins, the "Ulster-Scot"?

Such historical phantasmagoria might be mere japes, were not violence a virtually permanent feature of Irish life since 1916, with the 1966 half-centenary effectively starting The Troubles. We know from bitter experience that such celebrations of group identities are like an alcoholic uncorking the gin, while promising only to sniff it: so why do the organisers of these competing brands of tribalism insist on unbottling such potentially lethal passions?

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