Thursday, March 31, 2016

100 years of this place.

This week in 2016 is being commemorated as 100 years since the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. An important event in the formation of the current state, and one that is being marked all over the country, in many ways throughout the year leading up to this week and no doubt for the year to come. That the commemorations are spread out over time and take many forms is fairly fitting, because the roughly week long rebellion began on Easter Monday but its date was 24th April 1916, and now the main focus of the commemorations is Easter Monday 2016, which falls on the date 28th March. So there is nearly a month to wait before the chronological hundredth anniversary. Yet it was only this year that it occurred to me for the first time that the April date might be significant or be observed by some people, the Rising had in my mind always been so inextricably linked to Easter, a moveable feast according to the Christian calendar. That this seminal event is moveable, fluid, that it shifts even so basic a feature as what date it is associated with, has been observed by many others and commented upon as an crucial feature that sustains the long-lasting fascination this event exerts over the Irish psyche. This malleability, this ability to be seen and understood in a myriad different ways, and the connections of the Rising to Easter, to Christianity, to 'blood sacrifice', have all been commented on and dissected by many more, and more knowledgeable, heads than mine. So I don't wish to add to that never-ending discourse.

I have many problems with the Easter Rising, beginning with its violence. I am against violence and for non-violence. I am a strong pacifist, in that I believe violence is never or rarely ever justified. The comparative lack of attention given to non-violent, peaceful and parliamentary struggles for the independence of Ireland from England over their long and intertwined histories is I think problematic for Ireland's sense of itself as a nation, and lessens its founding and sustaining narratives of itself as a country. Again many of the other problems I have with the Rising have been explored in depth by others - its unpopularity at the time, the lack of recognition of the important roles women played in it, its (possibly deliberate) failure, its association with Christianity and especially the death of Jesus Christ at Easter, the deaths of over 450 people during it most of of whom were civilians, the shrinking emphasis on socialist or radical politics within and after it. There are many issues, and because of this complexity this anniversary, whenever and however observed, has opened what I think is a valuable opportunity for reflection and analysis within Ireland and by those with Irish connections, or indeed English links, to think about what it means to be Irish and what Ireland means, today, 100 years later.

It is a sad enough picture to me, some days. Some estimates are that one in four people in Ireland has suffered abuse as a child, whether physical, sexual or psychological. The name of one organisation for abuse survivors is One in Four, in recognition of this. Even if the proportion is only half that, that is a huge number of people and a huge proportion of a nation's citizens. If the given percentage is roughly correct, that is one quarter of all Irish people who have suffered abuse as children. That makes abuse incredibly widespread as a feature of Irish experience. I have said for many years that this makes abuse a societal problem, part of the national psyche. As a nation we have survived abuse. And we act like abuse survivors and show the characteristics that sadly those who survive the trauma of abuse are left with, often for the rest of their lives - low self-esteem, a tendency to blame themselves, feelings of worthlessness, a misplaced respect or even love for their abusers, a fatalistic attitude to bad situations and a lack of belief in the possibility of change. We too often suffer with these and related characteristics, individually and as a nation. Many many citizens have suffered abuse, often in institutions or over long periods of time, when they were at their most vulnerable, as children. Meanwhile the abusers, powerful individuals protected by even more powerful religious and state institutions, are very rarely exposed, and even more rarely brought to justice or punished. This in turn makes it harder, although of course not impossible, for the children who have survived their abuse to deal with its effects and heal, and free themselves of its lifelong negative impacts. That is a tall order for any abuse survivor, which Irish society has made even harder, and it is all the more impressive that so many abuse survivors do manage to go on to regain their self-esteem and lead healthy and fulfilling lives as adults. The abusers meanwhile have continued to exert power over Irish society and institutions, in many other ways as well. Because of the pervasiveness of abuse in Irish society, particularly in the Catholic church, the industrial schools, the laundries and other institutional settings until the 1990s, presumably very large numbers of ordinary Irish citizens have suffered abuse and gone on to live and work in virtually every aspect of Irish society and every part of Ireland. Many of them have of course done great work. But considering how unacknowledged this abuse was for such a long time, and how even today we have so broadly failed to recognise its impacts or support survivors in overcoming its effects, or to bring its perpetrators to justice, it seems likely to me that many survivors, through no fault of their own, have inevitably brought to their lives and work the self-destructive, fatalistic, self-blaming mindset that is very often the sad legacy of abuse. And that this legacy and its direct impact on one in four citizens, and by extension on the entire population, has had a significant effect on our national attitudes and behaviour as a country. Essentially much of the time it seems that we act like people who have been abused and who have been denied justice or even a chance to heal. We don't criticise those who wrong us now or who treat us badly or act against our interests, in fact we often praise them, put them in exalted positions, or seek to emulate them. We have unfairly low estimations of ourselves. We say that 'this is just the way it is' and that it's not possible to really effect positive change, in fact we are likely to mock those who say 'it shouldn't be this way' or 'it doesn't have to be this way'. And while some part of us might think it would be nice to have things a bit better, deep down we believe we don't deserve it. And so it goes. Coupled with the guilt and inbuilt self-criticism of decades of Catholicism, even if now waning, and the perversities of being a post-colonial country (in Europe, next door to our former colonizer), even if now on friendlier terms, we have a fairly lethal cocktail that helps explain some of why Ireland was, and continues to be, 'the way it is'. When I believe this country, and the lives of everyone in it, could very easily be so much better.

What I have outlined here, and have said many times in the past, is not anything like the full explanation, of course, and there are many more complexities. It is just something that I think is part of our national story. And a part that I think needs much greater attention and change if Ireland is ever to become the healthy, happy, fair, even joyous place to live that it could be.

I intended here to write about the things that I've reflected on this week, that make my country truly my country and a place of joy and happiness and wonder and goodness, sometimes. The people, mainly, and the sea, and the trees, the rivers, the animals, the stones, the mountains, the writing, the poetry, the novels, the plays, the music, the bogs and the beauty, and, very much, the cheese. And so much more. Instead I've ended up writing more about the pain. But it is through acknowledging, being with, and starting to heal that pain, as well as ridding ourselves of its causes, that we can move to being able to enjoy all the things that make this country worth living in. And that doesn't have to take another 100 years.


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