A poignant picture of past troubles

A poignant picture of past troubles Members of the Black and Tans Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images/independent.ie

We face a difficult series of commemorations, for sure, with the centenary of those troubled times between 1920 and 1923 – the War of Independence, the Black-and-Tan war, the disputed Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Civil War.

Small wonder that our elders, our grandparents and parents, said so little about those times. There were aspirations of which they could be proud, but there were memories they would also want to forget.

History must be told, in the fullness of time, in all its unblinking truth, but sometimes fiction can give us a real psychological and personal insight into momentous events and experiences.


So, with all the public discourse about commemorations, I turned to one of the most poignant pieces of writing evoking that period: Frank O’Connor short masterpiece ‘Guests of the Nation’.

It tells the story of a couple of raw young IRA volunteers who are set to guard two British squaddies as hostages. The squaddies, Hawkins and Belcher, are part of the Crown forces, though we are not told whether they are Tans or regular soldiers. The British authorities are threatening to execute Irishmen so these two English soldiers will be the reprisals if the executions are carried out.

The narrator, dubbed Bonaparte, begins the story in such a low-key, ordinary, everyday way. They are in a remote farmhouse, and one of the Englishmen, Belcher suggests a card game in the evening with the words, “Well, chums, what about it?”

And so the four of them play cards, and even the tough supervisor, Jeremiah Donovan, who will give the orders, sometimes joins in. Belcher offers domestic assistance to the elderly woman-of-the-house with the words “allow me, madam”.

There is normal talk and even arguments – Hawkins, the second Englishman, is an avowed Communist and expostulates about “capitalists and priests”: the IRA man Noble, whose brother is a priest, argues back.

Terrible things were done, but the people involved were human beings”

The truth of the situation gradually transpires, and as the British start executing the Irishmen they have in custody, it becomes evident that the British hostages will also face the bullet.

The narrator is uneasy, because they have come to know their hostages as human beings. “If it was only an old dog that was going to the vet’s, you’d try and not get too fond of him.”

Jeremiah Donovan gives the orders: Belcher and Hawkins must be taken out to a lonely part of the bog and shot. Hawkins offers to come over to the Irish side, saying “I don’t believe in your stuff, but it’s no worse than mine.”

The description of the shooting is so affecting, because it is clear that the narrator is so troubled in his conscience.

The last thing they do before they bury the bodies is take a letter from Hawkins’s mother from his pocket, with the intention of writing to her. When they return to the cottage, they find the woman-of-the-house saying the Rosary, and Noble kneels down to join her.

These were terrible times, and terrible things were done, but the people involved were human beings, with human sensibilities, and Frank O’Connor shows that with profound humanity.

After the event the narrator says that  “anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again”.


Harry mustsearchforanew desk…

Canada is still a monarchy, and indeed quite strongly monarchist  (partly to distinguish itself from the US), so no doubt Prince Harry would be welcomed as Governor-General of Canada if that appointment were to be made.

There is, however, one hitch. It’s reported that Harry doesn’t speak French. This will not go down well with the Québecois in Montreal and elsewhere in the French-speaking province of Canada, where language wars have flared up between the communities.

Lessons for Harry on ‘La plume de ma tante/Est sur le bureau de mon oncle’ pronto!


Proportion would be a good lesson

Since 2016, the Teaching Council has been empowered to investigate complaints about the conduct of teachers, and it’s been disclosed that 150 such complaints have been made – two out of three by parents.

Teachers in Ireland, in Britain and in France, have all, independently, told me that a real social change that has happened over the past 40 years is that previously, when a teacher punished a pupil, the parents would accept the teacher’s authority.

The child might be punished again, at home, for having incurred the wrath of the beak.

Nowadays, it’s the other way around: the parent often assumes that the teacher is in the wrong.

Accountability is desirable: but keep the balance proportionate.