Unless you’re well versed in Irish history, it’s hard to appreciate the significance of the Queen’s visit to Ireland that ended yesterday. The history of Britain’s occupation of Ireland goes back four centuries, with many of the familiar elements of colonial domination: the seizure of land by settlers with an alien language and religion; callous disregard – sometimes approaching genocide – of the native population, viewed by the occupiers as a lower form of humanity; mass emigration; an armed struggle with atrocities on both sides leading to partition and a two state solution; and eventual peaceful coexistence.
Palestine has been much on my mind over the past few months, and it is tempting to try and see a parallel between the situation there today and the situation in Ireland a century ago. Will we ever see Shimon Peres or one of his successors bowing his head in respectful memory of Palestinian fighters killed during the intifadas? yet that is equivalent to what the Queen did this week in Dublin.
I have a small piece of family history tied up in this. My Irish grandfather was shot dead by the Black and Tans, possibly the greatest scoundrels ever to wear a British uniform. He was completely innocent, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It would have been tempting for my grandmother, widowed with a small baby (my mother) to seek some consolation in her grief by honouring her late husband as a martyr to the cause, and pledging never to forget. Fortunately for my mother, she didn’t – she got on with her life, remarried, had another five children, and brought all six up to stay well clear of the paramilitaries and all their hangers-on. She didn’t live to see one of her grandchildren have a successful career in the Royal Ulster Constabulary – a highly dangerous career choice for a Catholic – but I suspect she would have understood.
I found Palestine full of memorials to ‘martyrs’ for the cause – everywhere from market squares to living rooms. I don’t consider my grandfather a martyr, a hero in the struggle for Irish independence. He was just an ordinary guy on his way to do another day’s work blending tea for the people of Sligo. However, I do consider my grandmother, in her own small way, a heroine in the struggle for peace. Peace in Ireland came when the heroes and heroines for peace finally overcame those seeking martyrdom and victory through the armed struggle. I trust and pray it will not be another century before the same victory happens in the Middle East. May what has happened in Ireland be a small beacon of hope for the world.