Seamus Heaney used to tell this story. Some time back in the 1980s, in his time as Boylston Professor at Harvard, he was giving a poetry reading there. After the reading, questions were invited from the academic audience, largely white, whether of the WASP or Catholic Irish variant. As was inevitable in those years, one member of the audience asked the poet if he could say something about the background to the ongoing violent political conflict in his native Ulster? The story goes that Heaney asked the audience to imagine a situation in which they, the descendants of immigrants, were still the majority in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but that the original people of Massachusetts (who gave it its name) made up 45 per cent of the population. By breeding more rapidly, in some future scenario they might well become the majority. When that happened, their political goal was to vote to remove Massachusetts from the United States of America, ultimately linking up with a Great Native American Nation, joining the other states who had opted out of the USA.
There was some uncomfortable laughter, then an awkward silence, then they moved on to other questions. But Heaney was nothing if not a man who knew what to leave unsaid. He knew that his audience was all too aware of the deeper levels of analogy. For example, the small Cavan town of Virginia, which in the 17th century had been a frontier town with Ulster, was settled by English colonists in hostile territory. It was called Virginia in honour of Queen Elizabeth 1, which some claim is also the origin of the New World colony of the same name. It was founded with the same motives, and by the same people, as part of the same great Protestant enterprise, the quest for religious freedom and prosperity, on land appropriated from the native peoples by genocidal violence and unfair treaties. What Heaney was implying, of course, was that the American colonists had just been far more efficient in exterminating the natives than the British had been in Ireland.
In a famous scene in Ulysses, James Joyce has a character say, with regard to the Irish Famine, ‘ ... the Times rubbed its hands and told the whitelivered [sic] Saxons there would soon be as few Irish in Ireland as redskins in America ...’. But the Irish survived, and succeeded in winning back most of their lands in the Irish Republic, where natives and colonists now rub shoulders fairly amicably. Ulster remains a different story. A key factor in Irish survival, of course, was America. For us, America really was the shining city on the hill, a refuge from religious oppression, hunger and poverty, and a base from which to support Irish independence.
My own first trip to the USA came in 1989, as a poet with a fellowship to live for some months in Robert Frost’s old home in Franconia, New Hampshire. The surroundings were beautiful, and the people were friendly and hospitable, despite the gun racks in their trucks. When we walked into town to buy groceries, the local sheriff, a charming, petite woman, would sometimes give us a ride home, and I ended up sitting uneasily up front, beside her pump-action shotgun. Half the population seemed to have Irish roots, but from the beginning the landscape seemed to me to be haunted by the absence of its original population, and that feeling grew stronger as we trekked through the surrounding woods. Their silence was overwhelming. I tried to investigate the local history of conquest by visiting the library and asking local people, but there didn’t seem to be much information, nor did people seem very interested. It was an unsettling experience. I felt that like Jim Morrison, an Indian “had leaped into my soul”. It would be many years before I could bring myself to set foot on American shores again.
It is still difficult to comprehend why it is so hard for America to deal with its own past concerning Native Americans. After all, America is not so exceptional – many modern nation states, like the US, are built on some primal sin, usually involving extreme violence, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The modern states of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic acquired their current form in the mid-1940s through the violent expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans who had lived there for almost a thousand years. Their nation-building on ethnic grounds was also facilitated by the genocide some years earlier of millions of Jews. Modern-day Turkey was formed by the dispossession and expulsion of millions of Greeks and Armenians. And similarly, it should not be so problematic to acknowledge that modern America was created through the dispossession and slaughter of the Native Americans.
America seems to have difficulty reconciling its belief in itself as a ‘republic of values’ with its actual history. But initiatives such as the New York Times’ 1619 Project on slavery in America show that America is indeed trying to face the huge existential issues from its past. And Thanksgiving – “Thanksgiving disguised as a feast”, as Jay-Z has it – should be the perfect time to re-examine part of its own legacy. After all, not all white people are complicit in slavery – but every white person in America is complicit in the dispossession of the Native Americans – including the Irish.
Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and poet