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The intricacies of Irish historical politics

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TORONTO — Being originally from Dublin, an Irish-themed column for St. Patrick’s Day seems like a natural fit. But finding an aspect that hasn’t been done to death isn’t easy. Then I remembered Marianne Elliott.

Elliott is a distinguished Irish historian with several notable books under her belt. One of them — 2009’s When God Took Sides — grew out of a series of lectures she delivered at Oxford several years earlier. And while it’s not a particularly easy read, it has an interesting perspective.

First, a quick primer for those who are not au fait with the intricacies of Irish politics.

Elliott’s subject matter is the relationship between the two historically differentiated Irish communities — Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist. Although there are exceptions to the rule, Irish political identity is strongly correlated with religious background. Catholics tend to be nationalists who believe in a separate Irish state, whereas Protestants tend to be unionists who see themselves as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Origin myths play a big part in Elliott’s analysis. Loosely defined as the popular traditions or beliefs groups have about the past, such myths can be benign, even useful. At their most productive, they can help bring diverse people together for a common purpose.

But they can also be destructive, setting one group against another. If the groups share the same geographical space, this becomes particularly problematic. Like in Ireland.

Unfortunately, as the competing Irish origin myths are based on extremely negative views of each other, they tend to bring out the worst in everyone. The troubles in Northern Ireland "happened because both sides acted as the stereotypes said they would."

For Protestants, the origin myth has two principal components.

One component is a feeling of endangerment, of being surrounded by enemies anxious to do them harm. Historically, this foreboding is traceable to the massacres of 1641 — real events that have been grossly exaggerated in the retelling.

The other component is an intense anti-popery, based on a deep antipathy to the papal institution itself and a belief that, when push comes to shove, it’ll always enjoy first claim on Catholic loyalties. Viewed as an historically malign foreign power, the papacy is the entity that attempted to overthrow Elizabeth I and continued to support the Stuarts for more than a half-century after the deposition of James II. In Irish-Protestant tradition, the concept of "a loyal Catholic is an oxymoron."

For Catholics, the origin myth goes just as deep. But in their case, it emerges from a history of being on the losing side and paying the price.

Oppression and dispossession are the particular themes. And while the historical basis has a robust foundation, it’s also susceptible to exaggeration and an inability to put things in context.

Although the 18th century anti-Catholic Penal Laws were discriminatory, they were also less fiercely applied than legend suggests. And they need to be understood against the pan-European context of widespread religious persecution, itself linked to considerations of allegiance. To quote: "Religion and statehood were inseparable, and those who did not conform to the state religion were deemed disloyal."

As for the pervasive sense of loss of the land, those dispossessed by the imposition of Protestant settlement in the 16th and 17th centuries were generally the aristocracy, not the ordinary people. Indeed, the creation of an Irish Catholic peasant proprietorship was only enabled by the British Land Acts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

To be clear, Elliott doesn’t postulate an equivalence of suffering. Irish Catholics undoubtedly drew the shorter historical straw. Still, it has been the "selective communal remembering of Ireland’s faith communities which has shaped national identities and made the northern crisis so difficult to resolve."

History is funny. It can be a fascinating subject of study, a source of inspiration, and a repository of insights. We’re all familiar with some variation of the aphorism that those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

But maybe there can be too much of a good thing. To paraphrase Churchill on the Balkans, sometimes people have more history than they can (safely) consume.

So perhaps it’s like imbibing fine wine or good brandy. By all means indulge, but know where to draw the line. 

Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

— Troy Media

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