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This is part one of Convivium’s series on Northern Ireland and its history as it exists today. Click here to read part two: "Ireland's Accidental History."
As the vast majority Canadians dip their toes off docks, laze and graze about at barbecues, or even – shudder – go camping on Canada Day, I will diligently and dutifully be testing Irish on my tongue.
And I don’t mean Jameson or Bushmills Irish whiskies. My intensive summer program in Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast kicks into high gear this coming week with introductory Irish language class first thing Monday morning. That’s followed by lectures on the Anglo-Norman Colony in Medieval Ireland the 1641 Rebellion in early modern Ireland, Revolutionary Ireland from 1770-1803 and the infamous Great Famine of 1845-51. Gradually, we’ll work our way to The Troubles and the still-troubled politics of Northern Ireland. And equal part of the curriculum, of course, focuses on the astonishing richness of Ireland’s world-shaping role in art, literature, music, and Christian faith.
All that – and more – might seem an odd thing for a Canadian to be taking on during our too short summer, and particularly on what my Convivium co-founder Father Raymond de Souza still insists on calling Dominion Day. From my own perspective, it seems a most fitting – might it be Providential? – thing to do on and around July 1. What brought me here, after all, was asking myself two years ago that most Canadian of questions: why here and not in Canada?
Here, at the time, meant standing on Moore Street in Dublin. Very near where I stood, 101 years earlier, the leaders of the Easter 1916 rebellion huddled in a fishmonger’s shop to surrender to British military forces. Even by the measure of the vicious English artillery destruction of the city’s centre, the scene outside the shop was horrifying.
Virtually every building lining the small street was ablaze. People cowered in terror inside shops and houses with their rooves on fire. And in the rubble lay three elderly male citizens, clutching safe-passage white flags, each deliberately, cruelly, cut down by British machine gun fire. How, I wondered at a human level, could such inhumanity occur? How, I wondered as a Canadian, could the country that I love, the country that has been home to my family for 200 years, and to my wife’s family for almost double that, been spared such flagrant horror?
I am not naïve about the violence that has beset Canada over its existence. We began in Conquest, and grew into a colony by sending men into ludicrous 19th century battles to preserve our status as a distant outpost of Empire.
The rebellions of 1837 meant murders and executions. The rebellions of 1869-70 and 1885 were answered with State-sponsored suffocation of the aspirations of a people. There were riots in Quebec City over conscription during the First World War.
This year, we mark the centenary of the deadly suppression of the Winnipeg General Strike. 1970 saw the FLQ crisis. We’ve experienced significant race riots in Vancouver and Toronto, to say nothing of our legacy of tormenting Indigenous people for two centuries and more. (Let’s not forget that the late prime ministerial father of the current prime minister advocated, as recently as 1969 in an official government white paper, the politically forced assimilation of those who fell under the paternalistic Indian Act).
So, no, we are not the spotless irenic kingdom of our myths and imaginations and Canada Day propaganda. And yet, nothing in our history remotely compares to the violence of the 1916 Easter Rising. More critically, the Rising itself stands, in the long history of a country roughly three-quarters the size of Newfoundland and Labrador, as a something of an also-ran on the death and destruction scale.
Modern historians estimate 12,000 Protestants were slaughtered in the 1641 rebellion. About 280 years later, after the 1920 Government of Ireland Act was proclaimed and the country partitioned into into north and south, Protestants launched pogroms in the streets of Belfast that murdered hundreds of Catholics and drove many thousands more out of their burning houses and across the new border to sanctuary. And of course the 30-year “Troubles” from 1969 until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, led to the paramilitaries and security forces killing an estimated 3,500 Protestants and Catholics combined. For a Canadian, the question as to why Irish history has been so violent has to be followed by the question as to why ours has been so much less violent. But the framing of that question cannot permit a scintilla of a hint of superiority, much less smugness on our part. It’s not even framing it in terms of how we have been so fortunate as much as it is, far more realistically, how we have managed to unwittingly and persistently escape misfortune.
Countries are not petri dishes, of course, or science fair projects or research undertakings where comparisons can be made on a point-by-point basis with careful calibration and control. Human nature, and so the history it produces, is vastly too complex to allow that.
But the Canadian question that overwhelmed me on Moore Street in Dublin that day two years ago led me to enroll in the Irish Studies program at Concordia University in Montreal last fall. It’s what brought me to Queen’s in Belfast this summer. So far, it has produced in me at least a qualified hypothetical simulacrum of something approaching a belief.
That belief is this: study of Ireland is obviously a good in itself for all the reasons mentioned above. But it is also, at this particular moment in Canada’s history, an excellent means to understand the very troubling future we sometimes appear almost eager to launch ourselves into. I don’t mean to say, in any way, that we are at serious risk of the kind of violence that afflicted Ireland’s past until the achievement of uneasy peace on Good Friday 1998.
A root of that affliction, which is beginning to embed itself in our own soil, is the splitting into ever-diminishing strands of isolation, abject refusal to attend to – never mind accept – counter-narratives to our own, and rejection of even the suggestion that those who are not us are ipso facto disqualified from the charitable assumption of positive intent. Or as a Queen’s lecturer on the roots of Irish nationalism put it here this week: “If you speak of being liberal in all the right ways at the same time that you are firing guns at the other side, it raises questions.”
Irish history exemplifies the literal, physical cost of that contradiction.
But the rhetorical weaponry now increasingly on show in too much of Canadian life can be fiercely destructive, in its own way, of political and democratic possibility. Indeed, for two decades now Ireland has been painstakingly, delicately yet implacably, working to leave that physical force history in the past where it belongs. It would be blind foolishness on an extraordinary scale if Canadians were to pick up and adopt the very affliction that the Irish are working so hard to leave behind. In that sense, rich, infinitely complex, tiny Ireland is both a beacon of both hope and bright, flashing warning for Canada.
For the next few weeks while I’m here in Belfast, and elsewhere in Ireland, I’ll be watching that beacon as closely as I can and reporting back on them here in Convivium. I’ll be looking to communicate why this little island, its extraordinary landscape, and those magnificent, baffling people the Irish, are all so fascinating.
Not that you’re not fascinating, too, Canada. You are, in your own way-big-empty-land-mass way, especially on your big national birthday. You are my home, the only home I’ve ever known or loved. But…but…well, on this July 1, enjoy the dock and the barbecues and even the – shudder – camping. Excuse me, though. I’ve got to go and get some Irish on my tongue.
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