What a lovely volume, from its easy grip and illustrated cover, to the clarity of its structure and font. Contents, from articles to reviews, are delivered by fine minds and fine writers, under the astute eyes of its editorial team led by Editor Director Professor Jane McGaughey of the Canadian School of Irish Studies at Concordia University. Michelle Holmgren of Mount Royal University, Alberta, now takes over that role and we can look forward to her upcoming issue. I learned a lot from this volume. If there was a theme I picked up, it was that of identity: as a complex and evolving motivating force for good and bad. The contributors share a common fearlessness in exploring this.
The cover illustration takes its cue from the transatlantic cable that was laid in 1858 (and again more successfully in 1866) between Valentia Island in Co Kerry to Heart’s Content in Newfoundland. Chris Morash of TCD thrillingly anatomizes its significance, contrasting the hyperbole at the time about how the revolutionary technology collapsed space and time, with the desperate poverty in the surrounding areas of both terminal stations. His is an eloquent plea for ethical remembering about the gap between progress and lives lived, about the need to temper hyperbole with more grounded perspectives. There’s a beautiful and informative visual essay to accompany it. Check out too the website of the project, supported by the Embassy, to have the cable and its terminal stations declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site www.valentiacable.com
On the theme of identity, Jackson Tait’s article on the Canadian AOH reminds us that the Irish of Canada were proud of their nationalism, religion, contribution to building (settler) Canada and loyalty to the crown, a combination squeezed out of our national narrative at home because of the duration and intensity of the struggle for independence against an imperial centre that offered little but resistance.
Natasha Casey deftly explores how Irishness in the United States has been stealthily used to advance white supremacy and the alt-right. She reminds us of the dangerous and profoundly wrong notion that the Irish American experience was equivalent to the African American.
Both Tait and Casey testify to the complexity of the Irish Diaspora. To be sure Irish emigrants were the exiled colonized while in many instances too colonizers in the new lands in which they found themselves. Much of their success lay in their deftness in moving between divergent worlds, something of a survival skill in conquered Ireland. We have to be careful in drawing parallels with other experiences, such as the indigenous. There are certainly resonances over the long arc of history but complexity and contentions too.
At the same time, their contributions in the volume capture too some of the excitement in Ireland’s national intellectual life as we recover this complexity of roles and identities in our own history. As we face into debates of profound import like the prospect of Irish unity, the emergence of a diverse and tolerant post-Christian Ireland, and the challenge of forging a new bilateral relationship with Brexit Britain, this conversation is of the utmost value. To navigate the future, we can no longer afford the simplification demanded by past national struggles and ethnic assertions. Complexity, self-awareness, and empathy are our essential allies.
Andrew Sanders and F. Stuart Ross name-check the high-level contribution of Canadians Hoyt, de Chastelain and Cory to the Northern Ireland peace process but the focus of their work is at the activist level of support to both the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries emanating from Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. I look forward to more research on high-level support because I indirectly got Hoyt involved by writing the Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material on Bloody Sunday (which made the case for the new inquiry*) and directly engaged Justice Cory to investigate allegations of collusion which was a commitment under the Weston Park Agreement. Peter Cory was a wonderful person and Canadian hero, a rare combination of gentleness, determination, absolute integrity, and passion for true justice. I was honoured to know him.
Joanna Bourke looks at another aspect of identity, namely gender and the history of sexual violence in Ireland from the 1830s to the 1890s. This is a much-neglected aspect of our history only now being being seriously examined, with a few rare exceptions. Bourke explores her themes through specific cases that from the victim’s point of view must have had a nightmarish quality from the uproarious laughter in court, the use of euphemisms, and the allegation that rape accusations were merely means to leverage marriage. Washed through all of this is the influence of Ireland’s colonial status and its needful stereotypes.
In terms of the book reviews, I was very taken with Eimear Rosato’s review of Mark McGovern’s Counterinsurgency and Collusion in Northern Ireland. As a traveller (DFA officers who travelled to the North and reported back) and eventually Director of the Justice and Security Section of Anglo-Irish Division, I was heavily involved in this aspect of the NIPP so I look forward to getting a copy of the book itself.
There is so much more in this volume, including articles on poetry, drama and literature generally, not to mention nineteen reviews of recent publications all of which I look forward to reading, preferably beside a fire with a Jameson to hand. I cannot recommend it highly enough as a volume to snuggle down with as the winter draws in.
Ottawa, 6 October
*Legend has it that Tony Blair gave Cheri, who had just taken silk, a copy of the Assessment and asked her to read it with her barrister’s eye to see if she thought he could still stand over Widgery. Oh, were that true!