I promised myself not to add to the glut of commentary/bloggography that’s already been spewed about the recent visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama to Ireland. But that promise—like so many before it—is now broken. Those of you who’ve had the misfortune of knowing me know that my interest in things irish can border on the obsessional. (okay, okay, it crossed the border a long time ago.) In this vein, it seems to me that, though the word is overused, historic best describes the back-to-back visits to Ireland by an American president and a British monarch. Each in its own way was a reminder that the ties among Britain, Ireland, and the United States, rocky as they have sometimes been, are profound, complex, and abiding.
The United States and Ireland were colonies of Britain and, in theory if not in fact, Ireland was integrated for over a century into the United Kingdom. The United States and Ireland both fought bitter and prolonged wars of independence, which were followed by civil war and, for Ireland, partition. During World War II, when the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain was cemented in the Atlantic alliance against Nazi Germany, Irish memories of its struggle against Britain rule were still raw, and it chose to stay neutral.
Profundity and complexity, mixed with irony, were on display in the tributes Queen Elizabeth and President Obama paid to figures from the Irish past. The Queen visited Croke Park, site of a bloody reprisal carried out by the British army in 1920. At Garden of Remembrance, she placed a wreath in honor of the Irishmen executed for their attempt to overthrow British rule in Ireland and immortalized in William Butler Yeats’s much-quoted poem, “Easter, 1916”: “MacDonagh and MacBride/ And Connolly and Pearse/ Now and in a time to be,/ Wherever green is worn,/ Are changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born.”
The Queen arrived in Dublin bedecked in emerald green, but the beauty born was humble rather than terrible. Her gracious gesture acknowledging the heroism of Irish patriots executed as British traitors during her grandfather’s reign was a small but significant step in building a new relationship between Ireland and Britain. Amid the divisions generated by the current economic crisis, it also served as a reminder of the enduring need to move Europe away from a history scarred by brutally destructive wars, ethnic cleansing, and religious persecution toward a community willing to confront long-standing grievances in pursuit of continental unity.
Barack Obama, America’s first president of color, visited Moneygall, the small town in County Offlay from which his Irish ancestors emigrated. There, he paid tribute to the impact that millions of such immigrants–Protestants and Catholics alike–have had on every aspect of American life. In Dublin, he invoked the memory of Daniel O’Connell, the 19th-century Irish leader who, in pursuit of full civil right for Catholics, mounted the first mass political movement in European history.Unlike the Irish revolutionaries of 1916, O’Connell was an opponent of violence as a means of political change. After his successful campaign in the 1820s for Catholic emancipation, he mounted a hugely popular effort to return a measure of self-government to Ireland while at the same time encouraging the Irish to abandon their traditional culture and language and adapt to modern–i.e., British–ways. He was also, as President Obama pointed out, an outspoken supporter of abolitionism who befriended Frederick Douglass, the escaped American slave, during the time he spent in Ireland.
O’Connell’s public embrace of Douglas occurred in 1845, just as the potato blight pushed Ireland over the cliff into mass starvation that was exacerbated by the callousness and malign neglect of the imperial parliament in Westminster. Two years later, O’Connell died a broken, disillusioned man.
More than any other event in modern history, the famine changed Ireland utterly. A million people perished. A quarter of the population–2.1 million Irish–left. The majority arrived in the United States as unwelcomed newcomers, slum dwellers in the country’s burgeoning cities, and participants in an unfolding maelstrom of religious, racial, and class-driven antagonisms.
History is a haunted woods. The hobgoblins who inhabit it can’t be instantly dismissed. If they hovered only dimly during the visits of President Obama and Queen Elizabeth, they know all too well when to hide and when to reappear. Yet, for now, what stands center stage are the possibilities for gradually coming to terms with the past, transcending its sins and stupidities, and finding common ground. What is done is done. What is to come, whether terrible or beautiful, remains ours to decide.