Rebel songs are powerful stuff. As an adolescent in a mixed Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil household in Donegal, Pearse Doherty’s initial conversion to Sinn Féin was about ballads and the romance of fallen heroes. I was seven when I first picked out the notes to “Kevin Barry” on the piano.
Now as then, resistance was futile. Back in the charts thanks to heroic acts of resistance by the barstool brigade, the Wolfe Tones are on well-drilled, lucrative territory. Even with an unofficial ban on “rebel” songs by RTÉ radio in 1971 and no national air play, the band came second only to Abba in the best-sellers.
So yes, it’s a generational thing. But so unavoidably is everything else that went with it. I was among the incandescent thousands who walked off the job in Dublin city to join a march on the British Embassy after 14 unarmed protesters were killed in Derry by the British army. The building was set alight and gutted. Evidently no one in that crowd was overly concerned about kowtowing to the British.
The reaction to the 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings — with more than twice that number murdered in one day in a loyalist outrage that stank of collusion — was strikingly muted by contrast. On the anniversary, this paper reflected that “many people seem to have forgotten the bombings even took place”.
That may have been a reaction to the horrific escalation in republican violence since Bloody Sunday. That year’s IRA spectacular was Bloody Friday when 19 IRA bombs exploded across Belfast in the space of an hour and the nine dead included 14- and 15-year-old boys, with 130 people seriously injured. Its campaign across England included the heinous Birmingham pub bombings — 21 people killed, 182 injured — and a predictably cruel backlash against Irish immigrants of whom I was one for a while.
Generational events matter for a reason. You had to be there to sense the anger and despair of the thousands who turned out for a Dublin peace rally in 1993 after two bombs exploded inside cast iron litter bins on Warrington’s crowded streets, killing three-year-old Johnathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry.
The IRA acknowledged its involvement in a statement but added: “Responsibility for the tragic and deeply regrettable death and injuries caused in Warrington yesterday lies squarely at the door of those in the British authorities who deliberately failed to act on precise and adequate warnings.” Read that twice and remember the bombs were planted outside Argos and Boots.
When the peace rally was organised, it was criticised predictably for focusing only on IRA violence.
Many people reading this column support Irish unity in theory and wouldn’t sing Rule Britannia even for a bet
This is why the generational memory matters. For IRA apologists that particular criticism remains the default answer. But we knew that the difference between the UVF and the IRA was that the latter’s savagery was being perpetrated in our name, under our flag, even styling themselves Óglaigh na hÉireann — cheered along by influential politicians who claim to this day that there was no alternative.
The cheerful ignorance or deliberation that conflates the War of Independence leaders with the PIRA’s is also a constant in these exchanges.
The generational memory is important because the past is always with us, regardless of whether or how we wish to project it. What we should be concerned about is who gets to shape the narrative.
Many years after my childish efforts to honour Kevin Barry, “just a lad of 18 summers”, I stood in Bragan Bog in Co Monaghan watching the first agonising attempts to locate a 17-year-old’s grave. Investigators were tracking the nicks cut into trees as a guide by the IRA killers who buried him there. A sixth search for Columba McVeigh’s body ended again in failure a few weeks ago.
For 22 years after the boy’s vanishing, his parents bought new clothes for him every Christmas. To this day, his brother Oliver is approached half a dozen times wherever he goes — any word?
It shouldn’t be this hard nearly quarter of a century after stomach-churning concessions by all sides to win the peace. A Border poll may feel tantalisingly close but — as these exchanges prove — without a hint of the brave, mature, grown-up conversation that has to precede it. Either the past matters or it doesn’t. Nothing is simply “generational” while so much remains unresolved about the past.
A few days ago, the Sinn Féin MP for Mid Ulster Francie Molloy retweeted his previous memorial to IRA men Martin McCaughey and Dessie Grew with the line “Going to do it anyway” as if it was a daring game of chicken. How will a Sinn Féin justice minister answer when new versions of the IRA pop up claiming the same justification, without time limit, demanding that their “volunteers” killed on “active service” be publicly honoured?
Many people reading this column support Irish unity in theory and wouldn’t sing Rule Britannia even for a bet but are nonetheless disturbed by some of the vicious language casually hurled by its most earnest proponents. West Brits, shoneens, planters, Free Staters, the “partitionist mindset”, are all regulars, sucking up to the British “occupiers”.
Many reading this will also note that Belfast’s brutalist peace walls remain in place and the towering bonfires advertise the still festering hatred.
Presumptions of bad faith are rife in these exchanges. So let’s begin again. If a line from a song resurrects a sense of dread in any group, it costs nothing to give those people a respectful, even curious hearing — just like Vera Pauw.