Written on: 26. 2. 2021 in the category: Uncategorized

Not At All, Mr. President

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“Today, we explore this past, not to air inherited grievances or seek justification for injustices perpetrated in our name, nor do we seek to compare atrocities committed in the name of nationalism, unionism or British Imperialism,” said President Higgins the other day in yet another speech almost solely dedicated to doing what he said he wouldn’t do, namely venting inherited grievances and denouncing British imperialism. As for atrocities, he listed many British examples, but none that had been perpetrated in the name of Irish nationalism.

Can this really be considered the grand, peace-making talk of the kind that we might expect from a President of the many Irish peoples? After all, some of us are only here because of conquest, immigration, and the various tides of history that have assailed all peoples everywhere. Does not O hUiginn mean offspring of Vikings?

Yet his speech on the subject of British imperialism read like an editorial in The Andersonstown News, as in….

“We also must acknowledge that the British found willing agents of Empire among the native Irish from the earliest days of conquest. While many were drawn through economic necessity, it cannot be denied, that both at home in Ireland, and throughout the expanding Empire, some Irishmen became even enthusiastic accomplices to the excesses, cruelty and hubris of colonialism.”

These words will certainly go down well in IRA army-council lands in Kerry, South Armagh and West Belfast where killing fellow Irishmen and women for a long time has been a popular sport and – and how we all live in hope! – might well be again one day. But are “excesses, cruelty and hubris” the only terms to describe the British empire? The Irish Presentation Sisters alone had forty-four convents and schools in the Indian sub-continent and five in Rhodesia: which of the terms “excesses, cruelty and hubris” apply to them? Moreover, it was that same empire which helped to abolish slavery from the face of the earth: is that not worth a passing mention, not just to keep the unionists in countenance, but also for those halfwits who harbour a taste for larger truths?

Apparently not. So, within just days of Othering others left right and centre in The Guardian (see earlier post) the President returned to the same theme. “Notions of cultural superiority, of inferior peoples and their cultures has (sic) as intellectual background the European Enlightenment.”

Got it! So it was the Enlightenment of the 18th century which explains the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the slaughter of thousands of Christians, the enslavement of 50,000 survivors and the destruction of its Christian churches? The Enlightenment was also the reason why a language that was spoken by a small number of people in Arabia in 640AD within a couple of centuries or so had become the lingua franca from Sindh in the east, across Asia Minor and through North Africa all the way to southern Spain. The Enlightenment explains why the Zulus and the Xhosa in the 18th century drove the little San and Khoi peoples from most of Southern Africa into the Kalahari Desert, and why the Aztec and Inca empires slaughtered so many other – or indeed Other – peoples of South America. Similarly, it was the Enlightenment of the 18th century that led to the sack of Baghdad and the butchery of some 80,000 of its citizens by the Mongols in the 13th Century. This will be the subject of a future essay, in which the Tardis will possibly make its debut.

“The othering of particular cultures includes the attribution of particular tendencies and particular ideologies to those perceived as lesser,” the President explained. Indeed: and making fun of the way other people talk is a classic form of “othering”. Which is why the Ancient Greeks called non-Greeks “barbarians”, that is to say, backward people whose speech sounded like ba-ba-ba, and the 9th century Arabs called the natives of Morocco “Berbers” – from the Arabic “barbara”, meaning to talk nonsense. The Old Testament city of Babel has Semitic roots, but with a comparable meaning, as does the English word “babble”. The origin of the word “baby” is “baban”, meaning to speak incoherently, and is probably related to all the other ba-b sounds, thus connecting Semitic, Arabic, Greek and English languages. Mocking other people’s languages is not some European, imperial or Enlightenment vice, but a universal one.  Furthermore, permanently identifying some people as outsiders – ie, “gall” in almost all European languages – is the source of names of people and places such as Doyle, Dougal, McDowell, Donegal, Wales and Wallachia. This is how humans have behaved since the British introduced the serpent to Eden.

If President Higgins is thoroughly committed to the concept of opposing 19th century imperialist nastiness, might I direct his attention to the USA? Five centuries ago, the North American continent was populated entirely by the descendants of those who had arrived there over the Bering Straits around 20,000 years earlier. By the end of the 19th century, those peoples had almost vanished after one of the greatest human dispossessions in history. The natives of just about very European country participated in this continental landgrab, and almost the only bits they didn’t occupy were the uninhabitable arctic parts occupied by the Eskimo. The consolation-prize the conquerors have given the aboriginal peoples is to call those in the north Innuit, which is apparently better than Eskimo, though why I don’t know, or “Native-Americans” in the USA, as if calling them after a Portuguese adventurer somehow neutralises their virtual extinction and dispossession. This is rather like calling the native Irish “Oliverans” after Cromwell.

The story of the Amerindian peoples is one of the most tragic in world history and the Irish did their heroic bit. When Buffalo Bill Cody, aged 11, shot dead his first Indian, the fellow who admiringly hailed “Little Bill” as an “Indian fighter” was a fellow killer of Indians named McCarthy. The US army general who coined the term “The only good Indian is a dead one” was the Irish-Catholic, Philip Sheridan, who like Cody, also heartily approved of exterminating the bison. His reasoning was simple; with their food gone, the Indians would follow, and he was not wrong.

Is President Higgins prepared to face the wrath of Washington by publicly reminding the Americans of the fate of the people who once inhabited the continent? Is he similarly prepared to ask the governments of so many North African countries what became of the Jewish, Greek, Roman and Christian communities who lived in those lands before the Arab-Islamic conquest? Will he ask Arab countries what befell their Jewish communities in the past century? Forty percent of Baghdad was Jewish in 1918 – the largest ethnic component in the city. Now it is 0%. How? Why?

But maybe asking difficult questions about other people’s histories is not the job of the heads of state. After all, Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Anglican religion. In 1911, the Church of Ireland had nearly 206,000 adherents in the 26 counties. Today it is 126,000, within an overall population that has doubled since 1911, and would be much lower if it hadn’t been boosted by recent immigration from England. Might she not ask searching questions about the fate of Anglicans in Independent Ireland? Or should she – as I believe she ought – stay simply silent on the issue? As she declared during her visit ten years ago: “We can all see things which we would wish had been done differently, or not at all.”

And “Not at all” might be a succinct description of how any President of Ireland should deal with controversial issues.

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