The Dream of America (an Irish fable)

We returned from vacationing in Scotland and Ireland Wednesday night: in time to make it Thursday to the rally in Hillsborough honoring the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and offering a crucial history lesson. Tim Tyson explained that North Carolina’s Confederate memorial statues were erected decades after the war, after the defeat of Reconstruction, to cement the new narratives of Jim Crow intimidation and violence. Laurel Ashton demolished “the lie of southern heritage” that upholds Confederate symbols as representing anything other than white supremacy. And Rev. William Barber wove connections between the contemporary fight for voting rights, the murders of nine African Americans in Charleston, and the North Carolina legislature’s passage of an act to prevent removing or altering historical monuments without the state’s permission. As my friend Al Brophy says, this conversation is moving almost too fast to keep up with.

Our visit to Derry was freshly in mind as all of this history tumbled forward.

One of the murals in the Bogside neighborhood, scene of terrible violence during the Troubles, echoed the slogans of the American Civil Rights Movement: “One man, one vote,” “Jobs not creed.” In Northern Ireland, minority Catholics suffering political oppression looked to America as they dreamed of a better world. They found inspiration in the words of Dr. King, the strength embodied in nonviolent direct action, and the progress being won in our courts.

But nonviolence was not to carry the day in this border town. The predominately Catholic Bogside took the brunt of it, culminating on January 30, 1972. In the outrage that became known as Bloody Sunday, British paratroopers fired upon a Catholic demonstration, shooting 26 protest marchers, of which 14 died. What actually happened was bitterly contested for years. The British government maintained that the paratroopers were reacting to suspected IRA members bearing guns and nail bombs. But eyewitnesses said that the soldiers attacked an unarmed crowd, including people who were attending the wounded. Finally in 2010, following an extensive public inquiry process that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had agreed to (John Major had refused), the accounts of the eyewitnesses were vindicated. Prime Minister David Cameron formally apologized. “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable,” he said. “It was wrong.”

“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.”

–W.B. Yeats

Things seemed calm in Derry, even peaceful, from our limited vantage point on a guided tour. Standing on the ancient walls of the city–walls once besieged by the armies of the deposed Catholic King Charles II–our guide reminded us, in the measured tones of one who had been a teen there in the 1970s, that the dream is not yet reality. As recently as this June, four men were arrested in nearby County Donegal for placing a bomb under a Northern Irish police car just outside of the city.

At the entrance to the city, at the end of a bridge over the River Foyle, a striking bronze sculpture rises from the middle of a roundabout. Called Hands Across the Divide, it depicts two men reaching for a handshake, a gesture unrealized. It was erected in 1992, twenty years after Bloody Sunday.

Twenty-three years after that, not even the name of this city is settled.

Next year, 2016, will mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Uprising, the beginning of the civil war for Irish independence, which resulted in the partition that created Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The contested memories of that period are already on display. This past Saturday, on the hundredth anniversary of the funeral of the Irish Republican leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rosa, the State of Ireland and the Sinn Fein party held separate commemorations.

That history lesson in Hillsborough comes not a moment too soon. For the way to “end the racial nightmare” and finally “achieve our country” (achieve the dream of our country), as James Baldwin so longed to see happen, has everything to do with the way our history is told and understood.

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