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Jan/Feb 1999 Salon

Repeating History

by Paul Sampson


Santana's famous warning is trotted out each time the world seems bent on returning to some favorite folly: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

More terribly, those who remember history seem condemned to repeat it. And the more appalling the history, the more tenacious the memory, and the greater the compulsion to re-enact it, horror for horror, drop for drop of blood.

Supply your own examples, or switch on the TV or radio and let the newscasters give you a fresh supply each day.

The Balkans: Mark Twain said this region "produces more history than can be consumed locally," and it's still true. We are told by sober and reliable persons that the current mayhem cannot be understood without a knowledge of the region's history. It seems the locals have hated each other for hundreds of years, and therefore they must keep the grand old tradition going. They haven't forgotten their history, no Sir.

The "Holy Land:" The Israelis, far from forgetting history, recite it incessantly and obsessively, using the Nazi Holocaust to excuse their current intransigence. Their opponents, the Palestinians and their supporters, have lately taken to naming "the Crusaders" as co-conspirators with "the Zionists" as the authors of all their woes. That's a pretty good historical stretch.

Ireland seems to be one of those nightmare places where nothing happens for the first time. That useful phrase "deja vu" ought to be in Gaelic, not French. It's no wonder that Stephen Dedalus called history "a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

Now here I can add some personal notes on history and inherited hatred. I was born shortly before World War II and grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago. Our neighborhood was, like all of Chicago in those years and much of it now, racially segregated, not by law but by inflexible custom.

But I am not going to write about black-white racial friction here. Rather, I want to look at another traditional kind of ethnic ugliness, namely, the Irish Against Everybody Else, Especially The English. We lived in what everyone called an Irish neighborhood. Our neighborhood was generically white and specifically Irish Catholic. (We were also Democrats and White Sox fans, but let's stick to the most relevant signifiers.)

Mind you, it's unlikely that any great number of people in the neighborhood actually came from Ireland. But their parents (or in my generation, their grandparents) came from Cork or Tipperary (as mine did) or Kerry or Clare or God knows where. When somebody in my neighborhood said "The Old Country," he didn't have to say which one. It was Ireland and no mistake.

This identification with The Ould Sod was largely malarkey, the shamrock-kitsch kind of sentimental nonsense that spawned movies starring Barry Fitzgerald and Margaret O'Brien, and made otherwise sane people march in freezing weather in the St. Patrick's Day Parade.

As far as I can remember, nobody in our neighborhood was ready to march in anything more warlike than the Paddy's Day Parade, but if you got a bunch of them drunk (no great challenge) and got them singing, you would hear many a martial air, from "The Wearin' Of The Green" to "Kevin Barry" to "The West's Awake," and many a tearful lament, too, from "Mother Machree" to the inescapable "Danny Boy." Not a dry eye in the house, you may be sure. (Nor a dry lip, for that matter. They liked to take a little drop, as they said.)

All of this spawned a lot of anti-English rhetoric, some of it based on real grievances suffered by real family members in the recent past. One of our kindred--my mother's cousin, I think, but I usually get these things wrong--had actually fled Ireland in 1921 or so, one jump ahead of the hangman after killing a Black-and-Tan. (I remember him as a decent, friendly fellow with a rich brogue. He died an ironic death. As an old man, he got up during the night and mistook the door to the cellar stairs for the bathroom door. He fell and broke his neck. I wonder what his shade said to the hangman's ghost.)

But most of the shamrock-waving in the neighborhood lacked even this level of connection with any real Anglo-Irish warfare. Most of it was mindless, culturally inherited malice. We despised the English because our parents did, and they did so because the English had done their parents wrong. The fact that we had never encountered an actual living Englishman had no influence on this process. It did, thank God, keep us out of any real mischief.

Meanwhile, History went on in Ireland without my neighbors. World War II came and went, largely without the Irish. And in Ireland itself, History seemed not to go on at all. Everyone remained stuck in postures of conflict like a series of tableaux vivant: 1690: The Battle of the Boyne and the victory of King Billy. 1691: The Treaty of Limerick and the Flight of the Wild Geese. (Those were the Irish Catholic soldiers who followed Sarsfield to France to fight for Louis XIV; I am obscurely indebted to them. One of their marching tunes, "The White Cockade," survives, and I like to play it on the banjo.) 1695: The Penal Laws essentially make outlaws of the Catholics of Ireland. 1845: The Great Hunger, the Potato Famine, kills more than a million and drives countless others from the country.

And on and on and on: Easter 1916. The birth of the Free State in 1922, followed (of course) by the Civil War that kills some 5,000. And on and on some more, through The Troubles that began more or less officially in 1968 with the riots in Derry following a banned civil rights march, but which of course had their roots in....

In what? In which grievance by which culprit toward which victim? Well, that brings us back to where we started, with the parallel wisecracks, Santana's and mine, about forgetting and remembering history.

Nobody in Ireland has ever forgotten a moment of history. I doubt that they ever will. Until a few months ago, this precise, obsessive memory, far from freeing them from the need for repetition, has locked them into a deadly dance of eye for eye, bomb-blasted limb for limb, world without end, amen. As I write, at the turn of the new year, the peace has held, with one stunning exception, since April 10. The people of Ireland have elected to step outside their history. Will they succeed? That's next year's history.

 

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