Thursday, May 19, 2011

Peace, Slowly Dropping – An Historic Visit

As I have mentioned in previous postings, I am the child of Irish parents, parents born, not as citizens of a free Republic of Ireland, but as subjects of British sovereigns. From an early age I have come to know and to love the country of my ancestors. And, with my own intense interest in the past, I have come to know and to understand the often painful history of that country.

In recent decades I have personally lived through a few of the episodes of recent Anglo-Irish history. I was in Ireland on August 9, 1971, the day on which internment was imposed on Northern Ireland and over three hundred individuals were taken into custody. I saw the reactions of my mother and her siblings, who had lived through the war for independence in the period 1919-1922. It was as if they were reliving an old nightmare. I was in London on July 17, 1974 when members of the IRA set off bombs in the Tower of London, killing one person and injuring 41 others. I heard and saw the ambulances racing through the streets and thanked God that my mother and I had chosen to postpone our planned trip to the Tower that day. I was in Ireland many times during the 1980s and 1990s when the news from over the border in Northern Ireland was of daily reprisal killings and the weight of sorrow from the North often threatened to drown the peaceful Republic in despair.

I have no romantic illusions about the often dreadful costs of this old conflict. And, like so many Irish people, I have English relatives. My “English” cousins are as thoroughly English as I am American and yet, we are the children of a brother and sister. The ties are tight and deep.


Oisin Kelly, Children of Lir
So, it is with intense interest and not a little emotion that I have followed via RTE (the Irish TV network) the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic of Ireland. I have watched in a kind of daze of wonder at a British sovereign laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin because that garden honors all those who fought the Crown in the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, 1916, 1919-1922. Many of them were executed or exiled by the Crown as a result.  The garden's signature sculpture, “The Children of Lir” by Oisin Kelly, is a visual metaphor for the transformation of Ireland from colony to independent state. (A detailed examination of the history of the monument may be found at http://www.ucd.ie/gsi/pdf/34-2/sack-2.pdf

It was also moving to see the Queen and Prince Philip visiting the grounds of Croke Park, where 14 spectators at a Gaelic football match were killed by British troops on November 21, 1920 in reprisal for the assassinations of the so-called “Cairo Gang” of British agents earlier that same day, an event that forms the nucleus of Neil Jordan’s movie “Michael Collins”.

Memorial Gardens, Islandbridge, Co. Dublin
(Photo: Irish Heritage)
And it was good to see both the Queen and President McAleese lay symbolically crafted memorial wreaths at the beautiful gardens, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, at Islandbridge, Co. Dublin.


Photo:  Irish Times

The gardens were planned as a memorial to the Irish soldiers who gave their lives for Britain in World War I, the last war in which Ireland was still a colony of Britain.   The Queen’s wreath was composed of red poppies, a flower symbolic of both the First World War and the color associated with England. President McAleese’s wreath was of green laurels, symbolic of victory and service, and the color traditionally associated with Ireland.

But it was the speeches given by both women at the state dinner on the evening of May 18th that really caused the tears to well up. Both acknowledged the painful presence of the past that have shadowed the visit and given it its depth. Both noted the historic and the human ways in which both islands have intertwined. But both also looked forward to the future when a new relationship can be forged between these two sister islands.

Photo: RTE
The most touching aspect of their speeches is that both spoke of the heartbreak and loss from personal experience, a fact often forgotten. Mrs. McAleese, born in Northern Ireland, was forced out of her home during the “Troubles” of the 1970s. The Queen has suffered personal loss as well. Her cousin, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who was also Prince Philip’s uncle, was assassinated by the Provisional IRA while on a visit to the Republic in August 1979.

Quotes from both speeches are:

President McAleese (full text here):

“This visit is a culmination of the success of the Peace Process. It is an acknowledgment that while we cannot change the past, we have chosen to change the future….

The two way flow of people between these islands goes back millennia. This very room is dedicated to St Patrick, whose name is synonymous with Ireland. Yet he is reputed to have been born in Britain. Patrick’s life as the man who brought Christianity to Ireland is illustrative of the considerable exchange of ideas and knowledge that there has been between our two nations throughout history....

It is only right that on this historic visit we should reflect on the difficult centuries which have brought us to this point. Inevitably where there are the colonisers and the colonised, the past is a repository of sources of bitter division. The harsh facts cannot be altered nor loss nor grief erased but with time and generosity, interpretations and perspectives can soften and open up space for new accommodations….

W.B. Yeats once wrote in another context that “peace comes dropping slow.”
The journey to peace has been cruelly slow and arduous but it has taken us to a place where hope thrives and the past no longer threatens to overwhelm our present and our future….”

Queen Elizabeth (full text here):

Madam President, speaking here in Dublin Castle it is impossible to ignore the weight of history, as it was yesterday when you and I laid wreaths at the Garden of Remembrance.

Indeed, so much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.

Of course, the relationship has not always been straightforward; nor has the record over the centuries been entirely benign. It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss.

These events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy. We can never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all....

There are other stories written daily across these islands which do not find their voice in solemn pages of history books, or newspaper headlines, but which are at the heart of our shared narrative. Many British families have members who live in this country, as many Irish families have close relatives in the United Kingdom.

These families share the two islands; they have visited each other and have come home to each other over the years. They are the ordinary people who yearned for the peace and understanding we now have between our two nations and between the communities within those two nations; a living testament to how much in common we have.

These ties of family, friendship and affection are our most precious resource. They are the lifeblood of the partnership across these islands, a golden thread that runs through all our joint successes so far, and all we will go on to achieve.

They are a reminder that we have much to do together to build a future for all our grandchildren: the kind of future our grandparents could only dream of….”

May God grant that the hopes expressed by these two women, who have both suffered personal loss from the history of which they spoke, may come to fruition in the future. For, if these two islands, so deeply and sorrowfully intertwined these 800+ years, can overcome the conflict, the pain and the resentments of that past, surely there is hope for the conflicts of the present.

© M. Duffy, 2011

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