Friday 19 July 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'If Robert Emmet could see us now...'

A country at last open to other colours and creeds can take its place among the nations of the Earth, writes Gene Kerrigan

Imagine Robert Emmet, standing in the dock in 1803, about to be sentenced to death, after he'd made the famous speech in which he justified his failed rising.

And imagine that he, in some magic way, travelled forward in time by 150 years and arrived in the Ireland of 1953.

Emmet's rising was foolish and inept, but he was no Little Irelander motivated by a dour grudge against the Brits. Though he died at just 25, he had travelled abroad, he had opinions on France and on the revolutionaries in the American colonies. He had a concept of human freedom. In the epic speech, he insisted that his epitaph must not be written until "my country takes her place among the nations of the Earth".

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That notion, of an independent Ireland, free of the shackles of empire, standing as an equal with the other nations of the Earth, inspired generations, including the one that fought the war of independence.

So, imagine Emmet checks out the Ireland of 1953.

By then, the 26 independent counties had had 30 years to develop. Within the limitations of the time, it was what it wanted to be.

The Ireland that emerged into independence, though, had little interest in taking its place among the nations of the Earth. We repelled cultural differences. We didn't aspire to be equals - we, in our ignorance, believed we were morally superior to the "pagan" countries.

By 1953, Ireland was a shambles, but we clung to our alleged moral superiority.

I suspect that as soon as he returned to 1803 Robert Emmet would have sought out his fellow revolutionaries and said: "Ah, here, you know what, lads - on second thoughts..."

Our surly little country gloried in its parochial isolation, in its petty notions of holiness, and it remained unashamedly savage in its harsh, mean punishment of transgressors - be they troubled young men, "loose" women or "illegitimate" children.

Meanwhile, barely out of sight, the obscene abuse of the vulnerable continued.

How did Ireland become such a bitter place?

Well, maybe it was affected by the utter pointlessness of the Civil War, the hatred and the resentment and the misshapen politics it bred.

Or maybe the country being cut into two parts left both of them dysfunctional.

Some of the most imaginative and courageous leaders died in the fight for independence, and the leadership passed to lesser figures, conservative to the bone.

The new country did some great things. The Shannon Scheme, rural electrification, repeated achievements in housing its people. And in other circumstances such work could stand as a monument to the new free State.

But the realities of the new State were the rivers of tears that surged from the likes of the Artane Industrial School in the east, to the Tuam mother and baby home in the west, via the Magdalene laundries all over the damn place.

The young girls imprisoned, the young boys cast into a lifetime of guilt, the babies officially designated to be without legitimacy.

Great efforts were applied by church and State to suppressing natural feelings, and to outlawing unapproved thoughts. Deceit and cover-up, censorship and shame were baked into every layer of society.

Given by history the task of saving a unique language, with a literature linked to ages past, the grim new State stocked up on bamboo canes and leather straps.

In its schools it used them unsparingly on children, often for minor failings in struggling with a language they ordered us to love.

Every blow from cane or leather made more adamant our rejection of the language and all it stood for.

Even as it gloried in its own piety, the new State rejected Christianity.

The priests and nuns who abused the children knew this was a foul business. The bishops who protected the abusers knew these were acts of facilitation. But this was an acceptable price to pay to maintain the pure reputation and the political power the Catholic Church enjoyed.

The rejection of Christianity went further, though.

At the heart of most of the world's ancient religions is hospitality towards strangers. The light in the window, the welcome to the traveller, a duty of succour to the refugee.

Even without the religious element, these were among the widespread, liberating beliefs that laid the basis for civilisation.

Christianity put a revolutionary human relationship at the heart of its beliefs - do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The great test for this country came mid-century, when the Jews fled the Nazis executioners.

We turned the Jews away.

When a TD praised Hitler and slagged the Jews he got an increased vote. Fine Gael later put him in the Cabinet.

That pinched-faced, self-praising, pious and unchristian State limped on, leaving behind a widening stain of sin.

But the 1950s was the last decade in which that version of Ireland reigned unchallenged. The following decade saw seeds sown by feminists and Travellers and gays and others with radical politics.

Gradually at first, much of the abuse, violence and injustice was drained away.

New generations saw that the realities of their lives and their nature were not reflected in the laws of the country, and they moved to change them.

The dominant political parties still carry within them ideas held dear in the old Ireland.

An attitude to immigrants, for instance, that mirrors a previous generation's attitude to Jews.

International obligations mean today that they can't send them back to their executioners, but they imprison them in Direct Provision for years.

Some claim the support for Peter Casey's attack on Travellers came from people weary of being treated with contempt by the political establishment. I don't buy that.

There were other candidates, more intelligent, who could have articulated such a protest. They got no spike in support.

Casey hadn't the ability to make coherent proposals about Travellers - for good or for ill. He merely slagged them off in the hackneyed language of the pub bore.

And, instantly, 342,727 aggressive fists punched the air, 342,727 surly voices, familiar from countless "comments" sections, roared: "Me too, Mr Casey, sir!"

A week ago, Michael D Higgins made a Christmas speech in which he asked that we ensure there is "room at the inn" for "our fellow citizens across the world who live in the dark shadows of conflict, persecution, violence, injustice and poverty".

We live on a rock around which winds of fortune and pain randomly blow, and we all move where we must, to survive or to prosper.

The Irish have moved around that rock as much as anyone.

Higgins never hid his views. He made a similar speech a month before the election - explicitly linking support for both Travellers and migrants.

He won the election by a landslide.

There's enough remaining of the old Ireland to guarantee a role for a Casey type. But Higgins's message of respect and support got a massive 822,566 votes.

If Emmet could see us now.

Outside on the streets, the people are no longer all white; the languages are varied. We're still getting used to it all, but that's what a country looks like and sounds like when it's taking its place among the nations of the Earth.

Sunday Independent

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