Friday, May 20, 2011

The Queen's Speech

The Queen’s visit to Ireland was certainly not a celebration. Her arrival at Baldonell Airport was as close to furtive as a State arrival can be and her motorcade down Dublin’s O’Connell Street was, like so much in Ireland’s sad history, desolate.

Desolée -- to be saddened, dismayed, sorry; the French phrases came to mind as, with equal perplexity I pondered the raison d’etre for this visit. It was certainly evident that Anglo-Irish relations were yet a work in progress and, being in progress, still harbored an outcome that was dubious.

Why would the Queen go to a place where a cordon sanitaire had to be drawn between her and its people? It was hardly the image or even the role of a modern monarch, which is to commemorate deeds done and seal done deals. The Queen’s speech, given at Dublin Castle, provided the answer: the visit was an exercise in remembrance for the sake of the future.

At once lean and rich, the speech began by hearkening to the “many layers and traditions” of a shared past while acknowledging that the “weight of history” was marked by the “sad and regrettable reality” produced by a relationship that had not always been “straightforward” or “benign.” In so saying, the Queen bowed to the fact that, on balance and despite the many complexities of the narrative, Britain had been the oppressor.

She then spoke what many commentators have already said was as close to an apology as a monarch could proffer:

“These events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy. We can never forget those who have died or been injured and their families. To all who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

But the words went beyond "apology." They embodied a transformational call for compassionate atonement and forgiveness which was all the stronger because it came from within the circle of all those who had suffered. Those listening could not but themselves acknowledge that Elizabeth’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, had been blown up by an IRA bomb.

In speaking thus, the Queen’s remarks called to mind that most ancient and stunning scene in which Priam comes to Achilles' tent to beg for the body of the son who had killed the other’s lover. “But come now, sit” says the warrior, “though we each feel our pain, let our grief lie quiet on hearts....” And when they had had their fill of lament, Achilles slew a sheep, skillfully spitted it and when it was ready “they set it in fine baskets, took bread, poured wine and filled their need for food and drink.” (Iliad, Bk. 24.)

“But it is also true,” the Queen continued, “that no-one who looked to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are now in place between the governments and the people of our two nations....”

Throughout the speech, the words “us,” “us all,” and “our people” recurred. The Queen repeatedly returned to the remembrance of the “families” which “share the two islands” and to the “ties of family, friendship and affection” which bound “the people of our two nations.”

What the Queen would have her audience recall was that in the end, the Irish and the English, as the Welsh and the Scots and as, indeed, the Saxons, Danes and Normans, were all one people sharing, as every family must, a difficult but ultimately enduring bond.

Far more than just platitudes, the speech was an exercise in remembrance. Most people think of “memory” as the replaying or retrieving of a recorded hard fact. There is, they think, a “factual truth” which can be laid hold of and put back on the table before our eyes. But that is not the way memory works.

The word re-member means precisely that: to re-assemble, to re-collect, to put something back together again. There are, to be sure, pieces of the past which are worked with but the memory is the result of a present act of recreation. We put the past back together as we see it, and as we wish to see it, today.

Lawyers and psychologists have long understood the mechanics of memory which are now being confirmed by neuroscience. Eye-witnesses are the worst evidence because they see what they want to see and convince themselves that they did see it -- like the alleged murder in the “clear light of the silvery moon” which Lincoln famously proved didn’t shine that night. Likewise, people stuck in psychological ruts from which they can’t break loose simply “replay” today a record of their own fashioning that represents not the past but their reaction to it.

The two poles under the tent of remembrance are exaction and forgiveness. Do we demand our own satisfaction or do we forego and move on?

If we were to aggregate the sum total of all the injuries perpetuated by the “English” on the “Irish” satisfaction would be well nigh impossible. English oppression was all at once ethnic, economic, religious, linguistic and cultural. Such a heap of sins requires a diabolical first cause. But if we break down the past into more manageable bites, we are left simply with fallible and failing humans.

It is true that the English oppressed the Irish but who were the “English”? The celtic Britains conquered by the Angles, Danes and Saxons? The Saxons conquered by the Normans? The flexible majesty of the English language itself reflects the waves of invasion and oppression that swept over the isle.

It is true that Ireland was economically despoiled, its inhabitants left to poverty and famine. But the most classic study of economic oppression by one class against another was Frederick Engles’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) -- a true horror tale if ever there was one. What the English did to the English under capitalism and by means of the “enclosure laws” which deprived the peasantry of its common lands was just as bad.

It is true that Irish Catholics were barred from office and civil advancement by the Act of Settlement of 1701, but so too were English Catholics and Protestant Dissenters. Moreover, had James II, with his Irish-Catholic and Continental backers succeeded in their endeavors the shoe would simply have been on the other foot. The sorry fact is that for three centuries all of Europe fell into the pit of sectarian animosity and exclusion.

Such an analysis allows us to see that both Ireland and England were rife with divisions of various sorts operating at different levels. We can then choose to remember only the fact of divisions, which is to remain dismembered; or, we can choose to gather in all the divisions, which is to be made whole.

Are we to say that George Bernard Shaw was not Irish but James Joyce was? That Daniel O’Connell was an Irish statesman but Edmund Burke was not? Such exclusionary resentments are pointless. It is a far, far better thing to recall more generally that throughout the English speaking world, the rose, thistle and shamrock are entwined.

Some people choose “never to forget” a past wrong. In so saying, they resolve to gnash their teeth over an ever more deepened and elaborately remembered injury. The Queen pointed to another path: Better to remember with “forbearance and conciliation” that the “ties of family, friendship and affection" are the “golden thread that runs through all our joint successes so far, and all we will go on to achieve.”

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011


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