Rabhadh: Béarla ar mo bhlag inniu. Gabh mo leithscéal. Tarlaíonn sé scaití.
Who Fears to Speak of Imperialism?
We all do, damn it! And that’s a problem.
Things that happen during the week send me blogging at the weekend. Usually it’s in Irish. I have no idea why it is different today. This week it was a tweet, an email message, and a reflection on our 1916 talks that provoked three questions that kept running around in my head. So I need to try to answer them here as we discuss the legacy of 1916: does Ireland have a problem now, are we afraid to speak the truth, and why is it always the Irish holding the guns?
The first thing that started niggling at me was an odd comment tweeted from the Conradh na Gaeilge ArdFheis this week. Apparently a speaker had said Ireland was NOT suffering from post colonialism or post imperialism or something like that. Of course I wasn’t there, didn’t hear it, and don’t know the context. It’s possible the argument was clear and went somewhere else and that I would have praised the speaker. As an isolated comment though, it physically hurt me that someone would think that way. It made me wonder if the younger generation knows anything of the horrors of imperialism. Scratch that, it’s not just the young. To be fair, I didn’t really either until I traveled to India and saw the paintings of the armies on the walls and learned of the diabolical horror of imperialistic invasion and plunder.
Who fears to speak?
The second unsettling thought was in a note from a friend who mentioned he wanted to stick to poetry and songs when making a presentation for 1916 because he didn’t want to be too anti-British or anti-English. He is right. We should not be anti-English. ‘British’ as used by the establishment is a false construct that serves the imperialistic machine. I agree with my friend. Wholeheartedly. The English, the Welsh, the Scottish, and the Irish (I mention the individual nations deliberately as British tries to wipe out individual identities) suffered under imperialism too. Their children were used as cannon-fodder for imperialism, for ‘God,’ for King and any other excuse that made those with power in the Empire richer. Schools taught and teach them to respect the Church and the Crown. Nursery rhymes tell them of The Lion and The Unicorn fighting for the crown and they rhyme it off happily. I did too. We were being fed propaganda and lies. The Lion is the Crown and the Unicorn that gets driven out of town is Scotland. Not so pretty now, is it? We should not be anti-English or anti-British (in the true sense of that word – respect to Wales and Cornwall) but we all should be strongly anti-imperialism. We should understand who set the damage in motion and who perpetuates the myth that still does damage. Sadly, that’s us too. When we fear to speak of it. Keeping the lies alive is unfair to all and allows the war machine to plough on. As it is doing. The truth can be told in poems and songs too. I’ll have a look for a few more.
Who is doing the shooting?
As the commemoration of 1916 takes hold and I get caught up in the endless material and footage available on the topic, I feel my own unease grow. I realize we are telling this wrong. As I show material from the abundance of footage and testimony now available about 1916, I realize that a large amount of what I present is showing Irish people getting arms, shooting, and killing. Something major is missing from the picture. I realize I have seen little or no footage of the British firing and even when I did see it, it didn’t register as real. They were shadows in the background just there to show there was someone else in the ‘theater’ of war. I didn’t pay attention to them. But we should. And know why they were there. So we must talk of imperialism. The 1916 Rebellion makes no sense without knowing what sparked it. I should say we have actually spoken of the causes in our talks but still feel we have focused too long on the Irish with guns in their hands. It’s like we are afraid to focus on any one else doing that. Softening the story. Like we have been taught to do. This we should not do.
The sun never set on the British Empire. I heard it many times when I was young. So many say that blindly with reverence and some of the same people get annoyed when you suggest that Welsh or Cornish should be on signs in the UK. Some can turn from being sweet to nearly throwing a hissy fit if the Empire is questioned or the value of one of ‘its’ nations extolled in any way that deviates from a proper English view of things. Take David Mitchell mocking Cornish here for example. His arguments sound somewhat reasonable but do not ignore the tone. Mocking is his language. He excels at it. His show is funny. I enjoy it. But this is just arrogant and ignorant. It would be convenient for an Empire if languages and cultures were to die. No more people to bring up the awkward questions of history about why Empire wanted to erase their culture in the first place. Do not forget.
Who fears to speak?
There is a fundamental problem in the lingering effects of British imperialism but we were afraid to mention it. The past broke us. The way we dealt, or rather didn’t deal, with it has us still broken. Apart from Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry decrying war, there was little shared in school to dispel the notion that ‘British’ imperialism was strong and honorable. No one blinks when someone is killed in a poor area of LA. When an archduke is killed in Sarajevo, that’s a different story. How many have to die to protect royalty and the imperialistic system? So many words in the history books were cover ups. Words hide the truth. As I read about Plantations in Ireland, that should have meant crops being sown in the fields. That’s not bad. It meant something completely different. People who were taught to hate us were given our land. They passed the hate on down through generations. Lies grow.
Who is doing the shooting?
The victors write the history and people all around the world study that version. They see it from that perspective. What horrifies me is that people in Ireland have learned to say nothing. Seamus Heaney understood that. Tolerating lies. Accepting occupation. We learned to think our culture was inferior. That post colonial damage makes us our own worst enemies.
All references to what was done to the Irish language and people I heard in school were tempered with Historical context and Things are different now and No violence is justified. That last one I agree with. Self-defence may be a different argument. However violence as we heard it clearly referred to the IRA. No mention was to be made of UVF or Black and Tans. That might offend our neighbours. No one dared go there. That would be rude. How they entered our heads! Too many still believe that narrative.
It was from my Dad I learned of the Black and Tans. A look of pure disgust and some deeper horror etching the lines on his face as he stumbled to say it was bad without sounding anti-English. He didn’t need to say more. The stumbling and the look of horror was enough. I have seen it on people’s faces before. An aunt who was beaten by her husband trying to come to terms with the fact that she was being told to go back to the house and be with her husband. Her face was that of a lost soul. I was young when I saw her stark future written on her face. An adult student whose uncle tried to rape her. That lost look again. People go to a different place in their heads. A limbo. A teenage student who was gang raped and couldn’t find a way to talk about it. Her face was haunted. Memories eating her from the inside out. I recognize the look of trauma.
Who fears to speak?
The sun never set on the British Empire. Cue a dramatic rendering of that phrase full of panache and gallantry in your head. But the word British always confused me too. It still does. Many people who declare themselves Irish spent an inordinate amount of time trying to be accepted by the British and decry the Irish language and culture as backward. I watched that too. No one would dare speak Irish in shops or on the streets of Mullingar when I was growing up. It was probably the same in most towns and cities. You would be mocked to high heaven for it. Who do ye think ye are? Are ye IRA? Go back to the Gaeltacht, ye culchie, ye fanatic. That dark shadow of imperialistic harm is still strong. Too many ignorant people still know how to mock the language and the music etc. It is a hatred passed on through generations and through a world view we learned from school books, from TV. It trained us to mock ourselves for being Irish. So well, most don’t even see the warped treachery of the lesson learned. Just like some Scots groups were taught hatred of The Papists (imagine it spoken with venom), it is racist. The sad truth in Ireland is that we are racist against ourselves. That is our post-colonial inheritance. A sick disease that needs a cure. The truth will set us free if we dare to speak it. Tell the stories of the soldiers who rolled grenades out at children coming home from school in Clare just to see them run in fear. A story from a man in a café in LA. Told as he heard it from his grandmother. Lose the fear and tell the stories of the suffering that led to the Rebellion.
Who is doing the shooting?
The Why? is missing from the story. Why it happened. The invasion, pillage, centuries of oppression and subjugation. That’s too quiet. Because that’s still taboo for too many people. We fear we might offend others talking about it. But talk we must. Speak of what British imperialism did around the world and do not hold back. Do not click the following link if you are squemish of the truth.
We have an inferiority complex. We must have done something wrong. Victim’s guilt. We must have provoked something. We have Stockholm Syndrome. Shall we ask Britain what she thinks? we ask reverently. Have we forgotten to think for ourselves, to understand who we are and what belongs to us? Yes. The BBC was seen as better than RTÉ. It had a ‘The’ before it. Just as it was obvious that men had more power in the world than women. Priests more clout than nuns. That’s how it was. Why it was not so was not on the curriculum. That was swept under a carpet in an attempt to appear respectable. British imperialistic damage got compounded by Vatican imperialistic damage. When Pat Wall brought up the word proselytism in Carysfort so long ago in his Philosphy of Education class, he was being revolutionary. Few heard or understood what he was saying. The truth almost saw the light and that brief opening of the curtain was glorious. Here I am now, years later, remembering that lecture hall and how a spark was lit in me. There WAS a different interpretation of my world and it was honest. It was like breathing clean air for the first time. That was more than 30 years ago but Ireland’s education system is still being ruled by a Church that violates and decries human rights. We are not free.
What have we learned?
In Ireland we are still not free of Imperialism or its damage. Our flag is Irish over most of the country but still British in the North. Northern Ireland is not. It is a false construct as much as Britain is. British languages (Welsh and Cornish) are not seen on signs in England. English is. The United part of The United Kingdom is not respectful of the culture of the nations within it. Too many fear voicing that truth. A fear of being condemned for not being polite. We are trapped by politeness and lies. I am not Southern Irish. I am Irish. People should not have to identify themselves as Northern Irish or strange versions of that such as Nornironish. Labels. Inaccurate. Lies. False constructs. Cover-ups of crimes.
Northern Ireland, constructed as a lie to cover up a crime, would be bitterly contested were it not for the fact that people fear to condemn Imperialism. That which is referred to as The South is not free of imperialism either. Giving Archbishop McQuaid power meant defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory as imperialistic power switched into Vatican hands.
We must not fear to speak the truth. Indeed, if we do so we are part of the problem. Dare to speak of ’98, and before it, and what we had stolen from us (not what we lost). Openly, honestly, with no malice to a people, but in the clear understanding that imperialism is rotten to the core and should be condemned for the diabolical crime that it is.
Right. How strange to write in English again. Is leor sin. Caife uaim. Céard a bhí mé ag rá? Oh yeah, scaoil amach an fhírinne.