Stuck in the Past
By Patrick F. Cannon
I last saw my father’s oldest brother, Mark Cannon, when he was in his mid-80s. It was at my brother Pete’s house in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He was then living with his son Mark in Dayton, Ohio. They were visiting old friends in the area, and stopped by. I happened to be in from Chicago for a visit. It may have been 1980, plus or minus.
Uncle Mark was born on the island of Innisbofin, Ireland in 1896, as was my father Peter in 1906. The whole family emigrated to the US in 1908, when Mark would have been 12. I don’t believe he ever returned to Ireland, and I don’t recall him having an Irish brogue when I would most often see him in the 1940s and 50s. Yet, that evening in Monroeville he seemed to have regressed to his boyhood and spoke as if he had just gotten off the boat. I don’t recall how it came up, but he spent a good deal of the time railing against the “bloody English.”
He was reflecting an animosity that lasted nearly 400 years, ever since the English began to seize Irish land in 1609 and transfer it to English and Scottish immigrants. The land grab culminated with the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the last Irish effort to turn the tide failed. It wasn’t until 1922 that Ireland gained a measure of independence from Great Britain after three years of war. Even then, the Irish Free State, as it was known, did not include the northern six counties, commonly known as Ulster, which still remains part of the United Kingdom. This partition initiated a civil war, in which the new government prevailed.
The discontent over the partition simmered over the years, with occasional violence, but what became known as the “Troubles” only began in earnest in 1987. During it, radical wings of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) initiated a series of armed attacks and bombings meant to force the British out of Northern Ireland, and ultimately to unite the two Irelands. An estimated 3,500 people died; not only combatants, but innocent civilians as well.
It’s too complicated to go into all the aspects of the struggle here; suffice it to say that the people of Northern Ireland began to demand that the politicians find a way to make peace and end the violence. Finally, on April 10, 1998 – Good Friday as it happened – the two sides signed a power-sharing agreement that has largely held to this day, although sporadic violence still occurs.
Why, after nearly 400 years of strife, did this happen? Largely because the people of Northern Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, grew tired of living their daily lives burdened by past grievances. In looking at their history, they chose to understand it, but not be shackled by it. In short, they voted for the future. As a result, Northers Ireland entered a new era of prosperity. Tourists, who had feared being caught in the crossfire, began to return; and business and industry was revived. If Ireland is to be reunited, it will because the citizens of the six northern counties wish it.
There are many areas of the world that seem mired and constrained by the past – Israel and Palestine, the Balkans, India, and our own country. We can all learn from the past, but we don’t have the power to change or punish it. Pulling down statues doesn’t erase the past; nor will erecting new ones. It’s what we do today and tomorrow that counts. After all, there is a difference between studying and learning from the past, and stubbornly living in it.
Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon