Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reading Irish History

How we tell a story depends on where we stand. Policemen investigating a crime scene know all too well how this can affect the outcome of a case. It is complicated. The observational evidence can’t avoid being shaped by the values of the witness. In fact, our values determine more of what we are able to both see and remember, than we might care to admit.

This is as true for countries as it is for individuals. In 1978 in Quebec, the licence plate slogan was changed from La Belle Province to Je me souviens.  The origin of the phrase is often attributed to a speech in 1895 by historian Thomas Chapait: Yes, we remember. We remember the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its glories. The obvious question is: yes, of course, but remember what?  

Changes in our lives can shift what we notice. When my children were young, my husband and I pretty much lived off the economic grid, outside of the usual North American market economy. We did this by choice. We wanted to protect our creative freedom to write what we chose to write, without having to fill an unnecessarily large rice bowl for the family. We had already built our own house, but now we also grew our own vegetables, canned, smoked and froze food for the winter, sewed our own clothes, butchered our own meat, and did whatever else it took so we were free to do what mattered most to us.

I have always been a newspaper junkie, but during those years I gave up my daily habit, even though I still had access to them. A friend would save up her papers and every two weeks or so, she would give me a great swat of them. At the time, a serial killer was in the news, and his story was in every edition. It changed how I read about him, because I read the news all in one clump, and yet the pieces had been written to be digested in daily doses. Often a news item on a Wednesday would give a certain tilt that was then rejigged by Saturday. In some instances, even the facts changed. My old pattern of the daily reading of the news would not have revealed this.

As our family’s fortunes improved, I resumed my former addiction, and returned to reading the daily Vancouver Sun. Being even more omnivorous, I also subscribed to the weekly Financial Times as well as to a communist weekly. I think it was called The Pacific Tribune. When I read them, deliberately side by side, what engaged me was being able to read about the same events from two such utterly divergent perspectives. It became evident that neither of them was totally right nor totally wrong. At least from where I stood.

This experience has shaped how I now read history, particularly Irish history.  When I read one book that has a Protestant tilt, I often try to follow it with one that has a Catholic tilt. Or vice-versa. Mix ’em up. It helps to do one right after another, while I can still recall the specifics of each perspective. It becomes like reading two weeks of newspapers in one sitting.

This way of reading also reminds of something said by an old jazz musician friend of mine, Mart Kenney. He had a hot band called Mart Kenney and The Western Gentlemen, the hottest band in Canada in the pre WWII years, and he played with all the big shot jazz men of his era. Once he told me that Duke Ellington said, There’s only two kinds of music. Bad music and good music.  He meant that it didn’t matter whether the music was classical or jazz, opera or folk. The same is true with writing. No matter where the author stands at the start, no matter what he or she sees, what I look for is solid research, clean writing, and an honesty of the soul.

Two very different books that I read in this past week met these criteria.

The first is by Charles Foran, The Last House of Ulster is a book that I read once before in 1995, when it was first published. This was also the same year that I went to Northern Ireland with two of my brothers for the first time as an adult. I was butt ignorant with respect to Irish history, and am still playing catch up. Except for being Canadian, Charles Foran  and I could not have inherited a much different place to stand with respect to Irish history. I come from an Irish family whose roots were predominately Protestant and Presbyterian. His family stood in the shoes of the Irish Catholic Diaspora . His book is his riveting tale of various visits he shared, between 1979 and 1992, with a Catholic family of two parents and five adult children, who lived on the fault lines of the Irish religious divide in Belfast and paid the price. Foran has a pitch perfect ear for dialogue and telling detail. Towards the end of the book, he sums up what he sees coming next, much of which has amazingly come true:

Northern Ireland remains, to a great extent, the old province of Ulster: one-fifth of an Atlantic Island. It is a homey, homogeneous place where faces are familiar and distrust of outsiders nearly equals that shown towards the adversaries. A place where, in certain minds, the very lack of differences between people somehow makes highlighting these distinctions seem all the more urgent. A divided household, in other words, but a single household still. The moment of truth for the ceasefire may come when a document is put forth that obliges the occupants of the various rooms to acknowledge that the future, if not the past, will need to be grounded in equality and power-sharing. Legislated equality; constitutional power-sharing. Put more bluntly, family members will have to agree to lay aside conflicts and share a common table. They'll have to listen to each other. They will have to show mutual respect.

This quote is a good jumping off point for the second book, Ascendancy to Oblivion by Michael McConville, a writer who studied history at Trinity University, and went on to serve in Yugoslavia and Italy in WWII, and then became a diplomat, retiring in 1977. His book was published in 1986, and like Foran’s book, there are a few aspects of Irish history that have since been revisited and rewritten. For example, they both have the same example of Cromwell’s atrocities at Drogheda, which current historians are backing away from.

McConville’s writing benefits from his wide range of experiences in not only Yugoslavia and Italy, but also in Malaya, Ceylon, Haiti and Canada. He himself has been an actor in the rooms where the sausage factory of political compromise does its work, and this perspective shows. When I read books like this, I usually keep a stack of post-it-flags at my side, so I can readily identify the parts that I really liked, or the parts I want to revisit. This book ended up with so many flags sticking out the side of its pages that it looked like a porcupine. I can’t possibly do it justice in the space of a piece written for a blog.

One quote struck me, from Arthur Kennedy, a public servant born in Cultra, Co. Down in 1809. His connection to my Silver Bowl story is that he was the governor of Hong Kong, serving at the same time as Thomas Jackson held the reins at HSBC. Both men worked to raise money for relief funds for famines in Ireland and India, and given each of their backgrounds, it is easy to understand why. Long before Kennedy served as governor of Western Australia, Vancouver Island, the West African Settlements, Hong Kong and Queensland, he served as a Poor Law inspector in County Clare. Reflecting back on a long career of public service, for which he was knighted, he said:

There were days in that western country, when I came back from some scene of eviction so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery I had seen in the days’ work, that I felt disposed to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met.

Another Anglo-Irishman, Arthur Wellesley, is better known as the Duke of Wellington, the defeater of Napoleon. He also held a seat in the Irish House of Commons as the member for Trim, Co. Meath, and talked about Irish landed proprietors who spent their time ‘brawling and balling in London” and “amusing themselves in clubs in London or Cheltenham or Bath or on the Continent. With respect to the problems of Ireland, Wellesley complained that they expected the solutions to be found anywhere except in the pockets of the Irish gentleman.

McConville is careful not tar all Anglo-Irish with the same brush, after all the two men quoted above were also Anglo-Irish, and there were many more like them. He is crystal clear about the effects of the worst of them and the price that Ireland had to pay for their actions. At the same time, he expresses some pride in his heriatge, and the contributions of the Anglo-Irish to architecture, to judicial and governance structures, and to the eventual overthrow of the corrupt landlord system of land ownership.

Ireland, more than many countries, is a land of conundrums. These two books together give some sense of the range of this. I am grateful for both of them.

PS. For those readers of my blog who live in BC, Charles Foran will be reading at  the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts. I already have my ticket. 

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