Horror in Charlottesville – and a warning from history

This is the most frightening sequence of film I have seen in a long, long time. I can only compare it to the scenes some of us – of a certain age – watched on Irish television back on the evening of October 5, 1968 . But this is at a much, much deeper, rawer, level of horror. What is most terrifying about this is the realisation that in Ireland those events were the beginning of what we euphemistically called “the Troubles” but which was in reality a blood-soaked civil war – a civil war which went on for thirty years.

The depth of injustice and the depth of prejudice and hatred which were at the roots of Ireland’s conflict were real, palpable and now, with hindsight, measurable and understandable. But for that hindsight to become a force capable of staunching the flow of blood from the wounds inflicted in that war, it took those thirty years. It also took 3000 lives.

In Charlottesville and in the precursors to Charlottesville – which only history will eventually be able to confirm as precursors to this and subsequent murderous follies which seem all but inevitable – can be seen the same ingredients which were present in the horrors of Ireland’s troubles. Here we also have: a class of citizenry denied human respect and equal rights – in practice if not always in theory – by another class; a fear of loss of privilege by that ascendant class generating a hatred of those perceived to be threatening their privilege – and a racism masquerading as religious fervour.

Add to that mix a State authority whose stance in the face of the unfolding chaos was at one moment seen as compromised by one side, at the next moment by the other side. In the resulting confusion the rule of law itself seemed to disintegrate.

Is this what is now facing the United States of America? In January this year, my namesake, Michael Kirk – without an “e” – made a compelling documentary for PBS television. He called it Divided States of America. It ended with little promise that things would get any better. One could only see them getting worse before, one hoped, they would get better. Its non-promise now looks ominously prophetic.

All we can say, with a quivering voice, is God Save America – or even more apt, God Help America.

Michael Kirk’s PBS documentary here:


De mortuis nil nisi bonum, but…

In a virtuous world human beings forgive each other. Some do so unconditionally even while they remain set up on by those they forgive. Others do so conditionally when forgiveness is asked for with repentance by those offending. The dividing line between them is probably the dividing line between heroic goodness and a more ordinary goodness. In the moral order forgiveness is obligatory. Forgetting is probably an optional extra.

Forgiveness, however, has no part to play in the recording of history and not forgetting is what it is all about. The honest recording of memory has its own moral imperative.

The death of Ian Paisley gives us an occasion to reflect on these two important moral obligations and in the torrent of words which his passing has provoked there are many lapses of both in evidence.

Let us begin by exhorting that he be forgiven, even though he never asked for forgiveness. But let us not eulogise. Let us do justice in recording honestly what he did, what he said, and note as accurately as we canwhat the dreadful consequences were of both.

There has been speculation since his death – and before his death – as to his motives for his actions in the last ten or so years of his life. Was he really a peacemaker or did he finally come to the conclusion that the road on which he had spent his life had come to a dead end? Was coming to terms with his enemies and getting what seemed the best deal possible all that he could do? Unless we get a personal diary, or a reliable personal account of a conversation revealing his intimate thoughts on the matter, we are unlikely to be able to answer this question. An important fact of history, however, is that he did, willingly or unwillingly, play a critical role in returning Northern Ireland to the tolerable normality which its people now enjoy. But another fact of history, unpalatable though it may be, is that it was he who played an absolutely central role in the whole process, from its very beginning, by which Northern Ireland descended into the abyss of civil war and remained there for over 30 years with the loss of over 3000 lives, many of them totally innocent.

This morning I took from a small archive of cuttings which I keep, an article about Ian Paisley which I wrote back in December 1968 or early 1969. Just then he was no more that moderator of the small fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of which he was the founder. I re-read this with some apprehension as to whether it would stand up as any kind of a prophetic anticipation of what was going to unfold in the years between then and now. On that count I am afraid it was mixed. On the other hand, it does stand as a permanent record of what this inflamatory man thought and said up to that time. When taken along with subsequent accounts of what he later did, it bears out the judgement that he was a key catalyst in provoking the suffering endured in Northern Ireland for those 30+plus years.

In the late 1960s, with the emergence of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement, a certain naive optimism led people to believe that rational politics, real economic opportunities, even simple pragmatism, would bring Ireland a more settled future in which North and South, Catholics and Protestants would live and work peacefully for the good of the whole people of Ireland. In 1968 the prime ministers of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic met for the first time since the establishment of the two political entities back in the early 1920s. The symbolism of this, the mutual good intentions of Terence O’Neill and Sean Lemass, the two in question, lead Irish people to imagine what was heretofore unimaginable.  It looked like the end of Ireland’s own Cold War.

Our imaginations, however, did not comprehend the hidden power of Ian Paisley nor the law of unintended consequences which his unimaginable bigotry was going to unleash in the form of the resurgence of the Irish Republican Army which it provoked.

The simple chain of events which unfolded between 1965 and 1969, for which his leadership was the catalyst, set in train all the events which followed for the next 30 years. That chain was as follows: The rapprochement of North and South initiated by Sean Lemass and Terence O’Neill, combined with the peaceful pursuit of civil rights for Catholics in Northern Ireland, set Ian Paisley on the warpath; in doing so he mobilised the extreme Protestant elements in the province to oppose both O’Neill and the civil rights marches; violent clashes ensued while the Northern Irish police and its auxiliary force, the notorious “B Specials”, were clearly not only failing to protect peaceful protesters but were aiding and abetting those attacking them; at this point enter the IRA as a counter force to provide this protection;  with the two communities now at loggerheads, enter the British Army to try to keep them apart – which then becomes the number one target for the IRA. The Thirty Year War is now on. Things would not have gone down this road without the Paisley factor.

Back in December, 1968, in his Protestant Telegraph, he told his followers: “Essentially the ‘struggle’ in Ulster as we know it is a spiritual one. There are those in our province who suffer from guilty conscience; their attitude of mind is that we Protestants are invaders and have no right to be here. The Almighty does not make mistakes; He alone is infallible. Our presence in Ulster is no accident of history. We are a special people, not of ourselves but of divine mission.”

Does all that not sound a little like the ranting of the leader of the so-called Islamic State?

“Ulster”, Paisley continued, “is the last bastion of Evangelical Protestantism in Western Europe; we must not let drop the torch of Truth at this stage of the eternal conflict between Truth and Evil. Ulster arise and acknowledge your God.”

The arch enemy is, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, I wrote in that article in 1969. Allied to it Paisley saw the ecumenical movement of that time, and people like Terence O’Neill whom he saw as liberal unionists. The article continued: “The terror at the prospect of a liberalised and tolerant community which is reflected in the pages of the Protestant Telegraph is based on the fear that a liberalised community will bring about the destruction of the moral and religious standards of Bible Protestantism, the purity of its doctrine will be lost through the growth of tolerance. This is the basis of the intolerance of the Free Presbyterianism mentality.”

Paisley’s war required a myth. He had no difficulty embellishing the “Rome Rule” myth which already existed. “In 1955,” runs a Protestant Telegraph editorial, “Rome chose the IRA and guerrilla warfare as the means of achieving the goal. Today the process is not so blatant, but nonetheless dangerous; her current policy is peaceful penetration.” The Civil Rights Movement was categorised in this way: “The objects of the movement can be listed as follows: 1. To make evil seem righteous. 2. To display bloodstained Popery as democracy. 3. To show Irish republicanism as a British way of life.” It made little sense but it set the fires burning.

Terence O’Neill called him a dinosaur in the political campaign which followed within two months of those words being written. And so he was. But this dinosaur went on to bring O’Neill to his knees and then to found the political party which virtually wiped O’Neil’s Unionist Party off the political map. The religious rhetoric was toned down but that same fundamentalist religious spirit was at the heart of all that Ian Paisley did throughout his career.

Naively, in those months before the opposing floodgates of sectarian and republican violence opened, that article predicted that the end was then not far away for Ian Paisley, Ronal Bunting (his right-hand man at that time) and their movement. “There is a terrible hopelessness about the cause which they are supporting, and its whole basis is as relevant as the basis on which the (IRA) activists in the late 1950s were working” in their futile and furtive raids on border police stations. Hopeless it was, but that hopelessness did not prevent the chain of unintended consequences spinning out that dreadful story for another thirty years. The article concluded, “But although Paisleyism is doomed as the irrational movement that it is, it can still do grievous damage; it can wreck the political life of the province and the country with all the meaningless ferocity which any irrational monster can destroy the work of sincere and rational human endeavours.”

Paisleyism – he had added a new word to the lexicon of religion and politics – was doomed even though its remnants still persist. In his hearts of hearts Paisley himself may have accepted that.  In its virulent form, however, it lasted much longer than any of us ever dreamed it would back in 1968 or 1969. May he now rest in peace, at last.

Strange Fruit

“History may be servitude, History may be freedom,” the poet T.S. Eliot observed in Four Quartets. When it is the former it can also be lethal, as Britain and Ireland were reminded last week. The virus of Irish Nationalism produced another shocker with the revelation that a parish priest in Northern Ireland was the prime suspect in one of the worst atrocities in the three decades of mayhem and murder known as “The Troubles”. Bad history must bear a large part of the blame for this particular manifestation of evil, as it must for much of Ulster’s tragic tale over those 30 years.

The Chesney case, like recent scandals of clerical abuse, appals because of the shocking incongruity of a man committed to the beatitudes of the Christian gospel allegedly taking command of a para-military cell and committing mass murder in the pursuit of a political goal.

It was 1972, the bloodiest year in the recent history of Northern Ireland, the year of Bloody Sunday and the year in which 496 people died in political violence. An undeclared civil war was raging. On the morning of July 31 the local IRA unit detonated two car-bombs in the village of Claudy in County Derry. Nine people were killed, including three children. More than 30 were injured. In the weeks following, it emerged that one of the suspects was a priest in a small neighbouring parish, Father James Chesney.

He was never charged. He was never even questioned. His superiors, with the collusion of the civil authorities, eventually moved him out of the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom into the Republic of Ireland. He died of cancer in 1980. Officially he is only the number one suspect but few people now have any doubts about his crimes.

The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman released a report last week sketching the case against Fr Chesney. Together with records of police intelligence, including interviews with Cardinal William Conway, it contains the text of an anonymous letter sent by a “Father Liam” to the police in Northern Ireland in 2002. The writer claimed that he had met Fr Chesney at a house in Donegal in late 1972. In a long conversation Chesney broke down and confessed his role in the bombings. “He said that he was horrified at the injustices done to the Catholic people… He became a member of the IRA and was soon in charge of a small number of volunteers,” the letter revealed. He had been ordered ordered to place bombs in Claudy to relieve pressure on the IRA brigade in Derry city”.

According to the letter, Chesney had wanted to give warnings of the bombs so the streets could be cleared but when they stopped at nearby Dungiven, the IRA men could not find a telephone box in working order.

“This horrible affair has been hanging over me like a black cloud,” Fr Chesney allegedly said. “I must talk to someone in authority before I die… I must meet my maker with a clear conscience. The souls of the deceased are crying out not for vengeance but for justice.” The police now think that errors and inconsistencies suggest that the letter was not written by a priest. But it may represent Fr Chesney’s state of mind.

Why didn’t the authorities act? Probably because they feared a bloodbath. What might have followed the arrest of a Catholic priest for the murder of nine innocent Catholics and Protestants did not bear thinking about.

The Claudy atrocity was the culminating one in a month in which nearly 100 people lost their lives. Just 10 days earlier, more than 20 bombs exploded in Belfast over a period of 75 minutes, killing nine people and injuring a further 130. Ulster was a powder keg. The arrest of a Catholic priest might have set a light to the fuse. For Catholics it would have been the last straw in victimisation; for Protestants the confirmation of everything they believed about the Catholic Church.

But commenting last week, Mark Durkan, former leader of the moderate nationalist party, the SDLP, while accepting the concerns people might have had, still holds that it was a grave error of judgement. The oldest of axioms should have been given priority: “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall,” he said.

The real story behind this murkiest of murky affairs will probably never be known. Rumours are even spreading that the real reason for the non-arrest of Chesney is that he was an undercover agent for the security forces. But the mystery — if it is a mystery rather than just another example of Realpolitik at work – of the decisions taken by the agents of justice is only one part of story. The other is the mystery of how a man trained to live by and serve the gospel of Christ could end up in the place in which Chesney eventually found himself – allegedly a perpetrator of mass murder.

Perhaps there is no mystery. One of the patriotic icons of Irish history was the 1798 rebel priest Fr John Murphy. We can be sure that Fr James Chesney regarded himself as another Fr Murphy. To compare the two might enrage nationalists who revere one as a martyr while despising the the other as a terrorist. But this is the problem with bad history. The truth is that Chesney and Murphy responded to oppression in a similar way.

Fr Murphy led a rebellion against the forces of the Crown in the failed rebellion of 1798. He triumphed for a short period but was eventually captured, tried and barbarically executed. His story is retold in graphic detail in a ballad which is a virtual second Irish national anthem, Boolavogue.

Back in 1998 a long historical article about him appeared in An Phoblacht, the weekly newspaper of Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA’s political arm. It tells the story of a priest, somewhat at odds with his pro-government bishop, but initially obedient in “getting people in his parish to hand in whatever weapons they held in a hope that such a gesture would relieve the terror being inflicted on the people of County Wexford by the crown forces.”

“But the Yeomanry continued their reign of terror. That radicalised Father Murphy to the point where he aligned himself with the highly organised United Irish structure in Wexford, particularly in the Ferns district.” A contemporary, Edward Hay, writing in 1803, says that seeing what was happening he advised the people “that they had better die courageously in the field, than to be butchered in their houses”.

Fr Murphy and others then organised and procured arms for a growing army. In the first major engagement with the opposing militia he routed them and nearly wiped them out: 105 out of 110 were killed while only six of the rebels died. The town of Enniscorthy was the next target. An Phoblacht recounts how “The attack, led by Edward Roche and Father Murphy, saw the town taken with high casualties on both sides; several hundred United Irishmen and around 100 of the North Cork Militia garrison lost their lives.”

Fr Murphy’s eventual capture and execution made him a hero. Militant nationalists used his story to inspire Irish armed resistance for 200 years. To give you an idea, An Phoblacht described him as a patriot cut down by the tyranny of the British and the servility of the Catholic hierarchy: “While men like Father Murphy… played an important role in the rising and in many subsequent attempts by republicans to wrest Ireland’s independence from Britain, the true history shows that far from being with the people in their fight, the Catholic Church has been guilty at the very least of obstructing them and usually being in active collaboration with the imperial forces in Ireland.” No doubt that was Fr Chesney’s view as well when he packed explosives into three cars which would explode on the streets of Claudy.

An Phoblacht’s account of the Murphy story rationalises the option for armed resistance and violence. It is dangerous but ultimately can be countered with the incontrovertible truth that violence only perpetuates violence and diminishes humanity in appalling ways. But the mythological and emotional account of the career of John Murphy and the entire rebellion of 1798 is much more dangerous. This is the version of the story lodged in the consciousness of the Irish race “wherever green is worn”, presenting Fr. John Murphy in the image of a pious martyr for faith and fatherland. It is much more difficult to deal with.

The hero worship of half-truths is one of the most lethal potions available to mankind. The priest-terrorist of Claudy is another sad example of the slavery induced by bad history. The mythology of Irish Nationalism must bear a large share of the responsibility for 30 years of suffering endured by the people of Britain and Ireland.

(This post was first published online in www.MercatorNet.com which carries links to other material including the ballad, Boolavogue.)