Violence and tragedy are hopefully behind us
It’s all very well for Michael D Higgins, going off to London to see the Queen. He does not suffer from on-going oppression by the English. Almost nobody in Ireland is oppressed by the English these days, except me – my wife is English. After eight centuries of bloody defiance, and the eventual creation of a Free State in 1922, the yoke of English oppression has yet not departed this isle, at least not in my house. This very morning, in what I can only describe as neo-colonialism run rampant, I, the beleaguered oppressed, was told to put the bin out.
This, without consideration for the rain or the cold. I was simply commanded, in those haughty Home Counties tones, “to hurry up and get the bin out before the bin lorry arrives.” Was it for this my own grandfather joined the Irish Volunteers? Only yesterday, I was ordered by the Crown’s forces of occupation in my own home to “hurry up and light the fire, I’m freezing”.
How ironic is that? The English have long ago proved themselves adept at lighting fires in Ireland. Timoleague Abbey in West Cork was burned to the ground by the English in 1642. The entire main street of Cork city, burned to the ground by the Black and Tans in 1920. Yet now, I must light the fire, while her Ladyship reclines. I intend to imitate Gandhi: Peaceful non-co-operation with the imperial forces.
Yet, our domestic peace processes aside – the long and tragic litanies of Irish history mean that it is not surprising at all that distrust prevailed until so recently between England and Ireland.
However, viewed another way, it sometimes it seems bizarre that two peoples who are so similar could be so at odds in the modern world, where to the causal outsider the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English all seem fairly indistinguishable: the slightly eccentric English speaking inhabitants of two rainy islands in the North Atlantic. Yet real animosity and mutual distrust did prevail between England and Ireland until very recently. I suppose there’s nothing like an armed conflict to sour relations between two peoples. However, as both President Higgins, and the Queen herself have recently noted, the deepest links between Ireland and England are not merely economic or cultural – instead the most profound connection between the two islands lies in the many families who straddle the Irish Sea, as our own does.
We in Ireland imagine that the troubles were our own problem. Certainly, the bombs and shootings on the evening news were part of the backdrop to my 1980s childhood in Cork. Yet the violence was in fact very distant for us in the south. The Troubles actually came far closer to my wife’s childhood in England. Just a few miles from her childhood home in Surrey, in Aldershot and Guildford, bombs killed many. London was bombed several times, as was Manchester and Warrington, where two boys, aged just 3 and 12, were the victims. The English were often far closer to the violence than we were in the Irish Republic.
Such violence and tragedy, we hope, are firmly behind us at last. It seems that an era of equanimity and mutual understanding and respect is upon these islands now, after centuries of strife and injustice. When my children are old enough to understand history, it will be interesting to see if the fact of their Scottish and English ancestry give them a deeper understanding of the intertwined nature of these islands.
Will they listen disbelievingly when I will tell them how, as a young man, I was routinely taken aside and searched when transiting Heathrow – due to the bombing campaigns in Britain carried out by other young men from Ireland. What will they think that our stories of army checkpoints at the border, with machine guns pointed at civilians are exaggerated? What will they think of how soldiers shot dead innocent civilians on the streets of Derry? Will they wonder at how the quiet suburbs near their grandmother’s house in England were once rocked by explosions?
Hopefully, they will hear such stories and wonder it disbelief at how it was once so.