Let's be open to the past - 'warts and all'

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

Let's be open to the past - 'warts and all'

Simple but tricky question: When should we celebrate Irish ‘Independence Day’?

TYPICAL! Here we are, bang in the middle of a ‘decade of centenaries’ and utterly unable to agree on an ‘Independence Day’. Some people think it should be April 24, the day of the Easter Rising; others think it ought to be the day the first Sinn Fein Dail declared an Independent State in 1919 and yet others favour the day the Treaty was signed – which would be like a red rag to a bull as far as some people are concerned, and might cause all kinds of unforeseen trouble with the bonfires and the fireworks.

Some of us, of course, couldn’t give a toss what date they opt for, so long as we get another day off work and the pubs can remain open and we can indulge in a bit of revelry.

The compromise - if we are to ape the rest of the world and commemorate our hard won independence on a special day every year - now seems to be St Patrick’s Day.

Now I’d have a big problem with that because St Patrick’s Day may be the national holiday, but it is essentially a Christian feast day and the patron saint had nothing to do with the revolution. He wasn’t even mentioned in the Proclamation. Anyway March 17 is also my birthday and I can’t see myself sharing it with the birth of the nation.

On top of all that, we’re now faced with a bit of a sticky wicket in our centenary of commemorations. We’re confronted with a period of the revolutionary years that may well call for a selective memory or collective amnesia or whatever is needed to capture the ‘feel good’ factor and enable us to worship it in the manner in which we last year worshiped 1916.

Generally speaking, 2016 was an inclusive commemoration and undoubtedly gave the nation that elusive ‘feel good’ factor. The whole country became swamped with patriotism and it was like a shot of dopamine to the brain. Everyone wanted to be associated with the rebellion, however tenuous that association might be. A cousin of my father’s was at the Fairyhouse races that day and nearly died for Ireland that night when a bullet came through the window of the room where he was staying in the city centre. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of heroics, but at least it made me feel good. In one village in Tipperary there was great excitement altogether when a local historian unearthed the name of one former native who died in Dublin in 1916, but he was promptly dispatched back to obscurity when it was discovered that he had fallen on the wrong side. He had been on his way back to the trenches after a couple of weeks furlough at home when he was diverted with his comrades to help quell the Rising.

But for all that, I’m still not sure whether the commemoration was a good thing or not because, as James Connolly once pointed out, the worship of the past is never really about the past. It’s the only way we have of coping with, and reconciling ourselves to, the mediocrity of the present. So maybe we’d be better off practising a bit of mindfulness and focussing completely - as mental health advocates are advising - on the present moment with all its tedious mediocrity – and forget about the rest of the decade of commemorations. The Government, however, is preparing for the final years of the decade with admirable imperturbability, although what shape the commemorations will take is still a mystery. It’s good to look back they say. I don’t really like looking back, myself, considering what happened to Lot’s wife in the Bible, and anyway, I have found that no matter how often I do look back, the view is never what I thought it was the last time I looked.

Some people, however, are all for opening up the past, ‘warts and all’ as one Sunday newspaper put it at the week-end. What are they talking about? We’re too thin-skinned for gut communication, as they themselves discovered the week before, when their most outspoken columnist went and tested our sensitivities beyond the limit.

Anyhow, I’d be a bit wary of exposing the warts, seeing that most of us can never quite distinguish between a wart and a beauty spot when it comes to Irish history, so partial have we become to the mythical.

Nevertheless, we need to know our history, even if the lessons of history are lost on us most of time. We forge our identity largely from the history of our people, and while a spot of mindfulness may give us a momentary feel good factor, it isn’t going to inspire us, at least not in the way a glorious past and a good old centenary celebration might.

So may I respectfully suggest then that we start studying our history and respecting its nuances, good and bad, before we indulge in any more worship or commemoration of the past. Regretfully, history has been downgraded as a subject in the Leaving Cert and is no longer a core subject. It has been replaced by half-baked codology like mindfulness. And a fat lot of good mindfulness is going to do us when we’re desperately looking for something to help us reconcile ourselves to the undoubted mediocrity of the present.