The village was Kiltyclogher in County Leitrim and I was there to take part in a panel discussion at the Sean MacDiarmada summer school which was discussing how the centenary of the 1916 Rising will be commemorated in the south in a couple of years’ time.
It was a warm evening, so I parked the car in the lovely village and walked a few seconds across to look at “the monument” which was a stone statue of a man. Not surprisingly, (the clue is in the name of the summer school) the man was Sean MacDiarmada, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. More of him in a moment.
But what struck me is this. I travelled a short distance from home, about 30 miles or so. At the start of my journey and at the end, there were two monuments. In Enniskillen I passed the War Memorial in Enniskillen, an imposing statue of a British soldier under which wreaths are laid each year to mark the local people who died fighting for Britain in World wars and other conflicts.
In Kiltyclogher, the man being honoured is an Irish Republican who fought against Britain and was executed for his part in the GPO in Dublin in 1916. Other names on this monument include Republicans from the area who died in the subsequent years.
In microcosm, two towns a short distance apart illustrate very clearly the different allegiances of two communities; difference which has manifested itself in violence over much of a century, indeed more. Never more so dreadfully than in Enniskillen in 1987 when innocent people were massacred when gathering to commemorate the dead.
What occurred to me when considering the events of our long and chequered past, though, is how little many of us know of the history of the whole of island. Sometimes I think there is a conscious decision to ignore history as it is too difficult; sometimes there are people who want to live in the past with all the rawness that brings.
How much do Protestants know about the history of Ireland, south and even north? The teaching of it in schools in Northern Ireland was described to me recently as somewhere between non-existent and patchy. I’m guessing some children think that Northern Ireland has existed as a state for ever, not less than 100 years. Indeed, it was said to me recently that while the Catholic sector did teach Irish history, it wasn’t high priority. I don’t know.
But how many of you even knew who Sean MacDiarmada was, never mind that he was born a few miles from Fermanagh?
And how many people in the Republic know of the history which Northern Protestants remember; that 1916 is recalled more for the Battle of the Somme than it is for the Rising?
Do we sometimes wilfully park Irish history to the back of our minds because, in part, we know that it is a bloody history. We are in a decade of centenaries; both sides were engaged in arming themselves to the teeth, from Unionist anti-Home Rulers shipping guns into the UVF in 1912 to the mirror image of Irish Volunteers gun-running into Howth in response.
While Europe, and indeed many Irishmen, were engaging in world armed conflict in 1914, Ireland was at the start of a decade of its own strife which resulted in partition and the formation of the Free State of the 26 counties with the six counties forming Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
Much has been written about the state of Northern Ireland being ruled by a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people. But one of the points that I made to a southern audience last week was that the southern state was, in its own way, sectarian. I know of Protestant families who fled Leitrim to come north because they couldn’t survive in the new Free State.
The major effect of Partition was the division of the spoils, and when the Provisional IRA campaign of the 1970s and 1980s was raging, the Border became even more of a physical one with roads blown up and people from the south afraid to come north. And of course, the division between the two sides became even greater, perhaps the greatest irony being that a violent campaign aimed at unifying Ireland actually had the effect of causing greater division between Protestants and Catholics.
My point is that we know far too little of the history of each other; indeed too little of the history of our own side. Maybe, we’re afraid of it; it’s why, for example, we couldn’t get the Maze centre built because Unionists feared that it would become a “shrine to terror”.
But, the Maze/Long Kesh IS part of our history. It happened, knocking down buildings won’t airbrush it away from the past.
In all areas of life, I believe that you should never forget where you came from.
I think we should extend that to our country’s past. And as I said in Kiltyclogher, we shouldn’t just learn more about dates and events. Don’t just look at things through romantic rose-tinted spectacles; we should look critically at things and analyse. For example, I would ask if the ideal of Republicans in 1916 of cherishing every child equally was followed. Or is the principle of uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter still the aim. Is the Orange in the tricolour still important?
I know that our more recent history is very raw and that the mistrust and hurt doesn’t make it easy.
But if it is true that both sides have so much more in common than that which divides, surely we should have the maturity and confidence in our own relative strengths to learn about our own past, and the past of our neighbours. It might put our deep differences into some sort of perspective.
This week, Ireland was voted the best country in the world, according to their contribution to humanity and the planet. (Libya was last in the survey in 125th place!). Maybe the anniversary decade should be regarded as an opportunity, not something to cause further division.
We are that good, you know, despite our bloody and violent past. Who was it who said just because you have a past, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a future?