Monday, October 07, 2019

When "fight the power" becomes "shoot the neighbours"

[This post isn't a balanced or authoritative history, it's just a mop-up of things I have happened upon over the last while.]

I try to keep things positive and constructive here. But of late I've been stumbling into some very dark stuff, but it is material which needs to be owned up to and acknowledged. Over recent months, in the Brexit context, and a potential 'border poll' in the years ahead, there has been much talk of a 'new Ireland'. So, almost exactly 100 years on from 'partition' - when the border was created - it is instructive to look back and see what happened then. But I've been pretty shocked at what has unexpectedly landed into my awareness over the past while. It is a period I previously knew little or nothing about.

Back in December 1912, the minister of St Enoch's Presbyterian Church in Belfast (which was Ireland's largest Presbyterian congregation) Glasgow-born Rev John Pollock, visited Canada. He addressed a large audience in an Orange Hall in North James Street in Hamilton in Ontario. He confessed that he had changed his mind twice on the 'Home Rule' for Ireland issue. He said he was a

'Home Ruler on principle ... I have no objection to a free Parliament on College Green, but I do object to Italian rule ... Home Rule would be the end of liberalism and progress. I have nothing against the religion of St Peter, but I protest against the politics of the Vatican ... if Home Rule becomes law, persecution in its most insidious form could not be prevented'.

He was not wrong in his prediction...

The booklet 'Lest We Forget - an Irish Record of One Year' came up for sale online over the summer. I had never heard of it before. It is a pretty horrific contemporary diary of some events from June 1920 – July 1921, cataloguing a range of political and sectarian murders which were carried out in many parts of the south of Ireland, which would become the Irish Free State in 1922. For example the murder of a 79 year old retired Church of Ireland rector James Finlay who was dragged from his home at Bawnboy in County Cavan in the middle of the night by a crowd of up to 50 armed and masked men, was shot dead in the road, his head smashed in, and the house burned to the ground. A different house stands there today and is listed on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, having been built in 1923.

In my time in Cork recently I came across this image from December 1920 which makes the city look like Dresden in WW2 - an event called the Burning of Cork (Wikipedia here), carried out by the British Army forces known as the 'Black and Tans'. How on earth that was sanctioned and enacted is beyond me, and its aftermath was in many ways inevitable. But 'fight the power' too easily became 'shoot the neighbours' - the Protestant neighbours.

The vicious, discriminatory, sectarianisation of both parts of this island was in so many ways institutionalised on both sides of the new border. It is wrong to pretend this only happened on one side or the other. Over the summer, yet another friend told me of his own grandparents having to flee 1920s south of Ireland for refuge in Northern Ireland, just because they were Protestants. I know many families who have told me of similar experiences.

James Craig became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in June 1921, and whatever his achievements may have been during his life in modern times he is - dare I say it - inextricably linked to remarks he made in 1934 about Stormont being "a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State" (see previous post here). Newspaper reports as late as 1937 show the Presbyterian moderator and also Thomas Joseph Campbell taking Craig to task for these words. As an exact mirror image Eamon De Valera's speech from St Patrick's Day in 1935 said that "Ireland has been a Christian and Catholic nation ... she remains a Catholic nation, and her people will accept no system which denies or imperils that destiny". The 1937 constitution was supposedly developed jointly between church and state.

Earlier this year I saw a memorial plaque which included an Alexander Reid, who had been killed on 30 November 1921. A bit of research uncovered his story - he was a 50 year old shipyard worker, shot dead on his way to work simply because his assassins (correctly) assumed he was a Protestant. He lived at 33 Silvergrove Street just off the Donegall Pass - he was passing the corner of Catherine Street and Cromac Street at 7:20am when he was killed, leaving a widow and seven children. A William Burns was attacked in the same manner, on his way to work in the yard, as he passed the corner of Russell Street and Alfred Street also at 7:20am. Four shots were fired but he escaped and survived.

As I've posted here recently, both jurisdictions on the island are more or less fully secular nowadays. There are new gods. A truly 'new Ireland' must acknowledge, honestly and even-handedly, the full extent of the wrongs which have been carried out on people on both sides of the border.

We are very familiar with Northern Ireland relentlessly being cast as a 'sectarian statelet' and – let's be honest – there is plenty of evidence of that being true. But in Cork, as recently as 2012, another Church of Ireland clergyman Canon George Salter, then in his 90s, bravely gave an account in Irish of his own family's experiences in Cork in a documentary entitled An Tost Fada (The Long Silence). See review here. This 2017 article shows some of the reaction to the film. The film's producer compared this to a 'deep denial' he had encountered in eastern Europe when making a film about the ethnic cleansing of Jews (see article here).

During our most recent and enjoyable trip to County Cork, my 16 year old son and I had a friendly conversation with a middle class couple in a restaurant near where we were staying. I went to the bar to pay the bill, leaving him in their company; they continued talking, but they left before I returned to the table. In my absence they had told him in no uncertain terms that he didn't live in Northern Ireland, he lived in the north of Ireland.

I can understand an instinct to 'fight the power'. But maybe sometimes that is merely a disguise to hide or legitimise the radicalised bloodlust of 'shoot the neighbours', whether those neighbours live in the same townland, the same city, or the same island - and whatever their religious tradition or political persuasion might be.

I hope to go back to Cork again later this year. We met some really lovely people and saw fascinating places. There are more fish to catch, and there are some stories to uncover. There are always things to learn.

Robin Bury's 2017 book 'Buried Lives, the Protestants of Southern Ireland' (review here) has been added to the pile I need to get round to reading, as has Gerard Murphy's 2010 book 'The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork, 1920–21'.