March 12, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Jenny McCartney

Jenny McCartney is 44 and was born in Belfast. She was Educated at Methodist College, Belfast and later Keble College, Oxford. Jenny is currently living and working as a journalist in London.
Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Jenny McCartney:
"I was aware of the historical fact of the Easter Rising in conversation while I was growing up, but I learned about it in detail when studying A-level history at school."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" JMcC:
"They have meaning, of course, but a very complicated resonance. At the time when I first read closely about the 1916 rebels, I was a teenager growing up in Belfast in the midst of IRA and loyalist murder campaigns that had been my political reality since birth. On the local news every day you could see the deep misery caused by small groups of people – on both sides - who had taken it upon themselves to pursue their political goals through violent action, knowingly without the sanction of the majority among either Catholics or Protestants in Northern Ireland. It seemed to me a deadly and dangerous form of arrogance. 
The Provisional IRA regarded themselves as the inheritors of the rebels’ version of “physical force republicanism” and defended their actions by direct reference to Easter 1916. So I viewed Pearse, Connolly and their fellow rebels partly through that lens. I was unsympathetic to the way that a small number in the IRB had deliberately sought to dupe Eoin MacNeill and his Irish Volunteers, who had been against an armed insurrection. And I was instinctively suspicious of Pearse’s quasi-mystical melding of nationalism and religion, his 1913 view that “bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing.” From where I was looking bloodshed was sad and squalid: there was nothing sanctifying about it at all. 
I can understand to some degree how the view became different in the Republic of Ireland, which after 1923 had evolved into a stable state.  Easter 1916 is the Republic’s origin story, and with hindsight 1916 could safely be romanticised, and the undoubted personal courage of the rebel leaders – regardless of what you thought of their actions - could be exalted.  And of course the harsh response of the British authorities had turned a military defeat for the rebels into a moral victory, awakening popular emotions more powerful than arms. 
I would contrast it like this. In the Republic of Ireland the electricity from Easter 1916 was placed in a permanent structure, rendered safe, and used to illuminate the house; in Northern Ireland it was fed through a high-voltage live wire, electrocuting everyone it touched."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" JMcC:
"Again, I was aware of the Somme in discussions as I was growing up. My grandfather lived with us, and he remembered calling out the headlines of the battles of the First World War as an eight-year-old paper boy to sell his papers. I knew that there had been very heavy casualties among soldiers from Northern Ireland at the Somme. One of my great-uncles on my father’s side had been killed in the First World War, and another had survived the war but with a degree of shell-shock. 
The Somme was never really talked about in our house in terms of religion, but as I got older I became aware that commemorating the First and Second World Wars seemed of greatest psychological importance to Northern Irish Protestants in general, and that the Battle of the Somme had a particular resonance because so many of Carson’s Ulster Volunteers went into the 36th Ulster Division, and fought with an extreme courage that was remarked upon at the time. 
I disliked the way that loyalist paramilitaries invoked the Somme, as if they somehow sought to own that memory. There seemed to me no comparison between the men at the Somme who had sacrificed their lives for their comrades and country – and were there along with thousands of Irish Catholics who had also joined up to fight on the British side - and loyalist paramilitaries who went about killing Catholics in the most cowardly sectarian murders. I thought that the modern UVF and the UDA dishonoured the memory of the Northern Protestants who had died at the Somme."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" JMcC:
"The history of the Great War is one of terrible sadness and suffering for all its combatants: so many illusions of glory ebbed away in mud. You can see that in the change from poets such as Rupert Brooke, who in the early days wrote romantically about patriotism and death on the battlefield, to the rage and raw horror in the later writings of Wilfred Owen. 
The determination of Northern Protestants to demonstrate their loyalty to Britain in the First World War had an extra layer of poignancy, I think, because it was already laced with the suspicion that they weren’t fully wanted or valued by the British establishment in peacetime, that they weren’t guaranteed their place in Britain and they had to shout and agitate for it. 
Of course, their allegiance immediately became more valuable to Britain in time of war, as it did again in the Second World War when Churchill praised “loyal Ulster” for keeping open the sea lanes between Britain and North America. So dying or being wounded or decorated in war became a badge of belonging, and of your family’s belonging. You had paid a price; there was an emotional debt to be honoured. 
There has always been that contradiction in Ulster Unionism, a love of Britishness combined with suspicion about Britain’s fidelity, the sense of fickle or unrequited affection. It persists today, although Britishness itself is now complicated by devolution and growing Scottish nationalism." 
BJS: "As a (Northern Irish/British/Irish) person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" JMcC:
"Yes, it’s important, because of what flowed from it. But it doesn’t give me a sense of belonging. The Proclamation refers to the rebels’ “gallant allies in Europe” by which it meant an aggressive imperial Germany, against which thousands of fellow-Irishmen were risking their lives at the time in the most horrific of circumstances. It speaks of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” but – compounded by the reaction of the British – the Rising went on to achieve the opposite, to create an intense, emotional notion of Irish authenticity which excluded many Irish nationalists, never mind unionists. 
You can’t unpick history, although you might wish it had followed another route, and that physical force republicanism had not overpowered moderate constitutional nationalism. The Irish nationalist MP Tom Kettle – who died at the Somme – had hoped that the terrible suffering of the war would ultimately be a force to reconcile nationalists and unionists. He also anticipated that in terms of Ireland he, and not the leaders of the Easter Rising, would end up on the wrong side of history. But we are still remembering him now: perhaps his struggle to balance his loyalties, conscience and identity speak more eloquently to this particular time. Who is to say where history stops?"
BJS: "As a (Northern Irish/British/Irish) person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" JMcC:
"Again, it’s important, and as I said I have a family history in the First World War which I’m interested in. So do many citizens of the Irish Republic and I’m glad that is being talked about and honoured again. I think there is some pride that my family played a part in the First World War, although the way that so many lives were squandered in that horror remains intensely sad. I’m also proud that Northern Ireland was an important part of the fight against fascism during the Second World War."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" JMcC:
"I don’t know that I’ll be formally commemorating or celebrating either. I’ll certainly be thinking more deeply about both events and reading about them again. The history of Ireland, North and South, and my feelings towards it is a puzzle I’m still trying to figure out."
BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" JMcC:
"From what I can see the Irish State has made an effort to be sensitive rather than divisive in its commemorations. But mutual respect between nationalists and unionists should also mean allowing the space for one side not to take an active part in an event, for people to be able to say politely: “You go ahead and dance, I’ll sit this one out.” 
There’s a great appetite for gestures in modern politics – in fact we’ve become a bit addicted to them - but I think gestures need to have real meaning for the individuals involved. In Arlene Foster’s case I think it’s probably honest of her to say that formal commemorations aren’t for her, although she happily attended historical discussions about the Easter Rising recently in Dublin, and discussions are important. It should be possible to respect the significance that Easter 1916 has for citizens of the Irish Republic, while acknowledging the toxicity of its legacy of “physical force republicanism” for so many in Northern Ireland. The complexity of that position is hard to convey simply by turning up at an event that becomes a photo-op. 
At other times, however, I think that Unionists could be braver and more confident about how they define and explain themselves. There’s a certain public reticence in the community in which I grew up, a wariness of perceived falseness or showiness, or of crossing into “culture” that might be perceived as owned by the other side. 
Often, conversations are much more relaxed, funny and open in private; there's the sense that the world out there is waiting to wrong-foot and misinterpret you. I think unionists have allowed themselves to be too narrowly defined in modern times, and should remember that you can support the union and be outward-looking and interested in all kinds of art, poetry, literature, sport and history. Unionists have frequently felt under political siege, often with justification, but to take on a siege mentality is its own kind of trap."
 BJS: "As a person on (or from) the island are you happy with the where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" JMcC:
"Clearly we’re not there yet. But I think that the longer we go without violence, the more it will be possible to expand the conversation. Paramilitary violence shuts down discussions or makes them shrill, caricatures history, entrenches separation. Fear and sectarianism are closely linked. The paramilitaries on both sides in Northern Ireland became the self-appointed enforcers of some imagined tribal purity, in the cruellest and most brutal of ways. That’s still hard to forget when former paramilitaries follow a political path, and every now and again you hear echoes of that."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" JMcC:
"I think we need to study more Irish and British history, not less. We should talk not only about the history of nationalism but also that of pluralism and dissent. The more such history you actually know, the more it speaks to us of the ways in which stories and families are connected, in which culture, identities, geography and people are complicated. My great-uncle Robert, a working-class Protestant in the Royal Irish Rifles who died at the battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, aged 23, was mourned back in Belfast by his Catholic widow Bridget, who received his pension. My Belfast-born Protestant grandfather was orphaned at the age of 10 and sent to a boys’ industrial school in Blackrock, Dublin. 
Patrick Pearse’s father was from Birmingham; James Connolly grew up in Edinburgh and served nearly seven years in the British Army; Edward Carson grew up in Dublin and went to Trinity College. They were all people of their time. The influences upon them, the political climate around them, were different from today. 
In the past we have sifted and held up certain truths and experiences while dismissing or silencing others. One of the greatest blights upon 20th century Ireland was the search – both North and South - for some definitive vision of cultural or religious purity, often underscored with violence. I hope in future we can all hold our views on the nature of the state, but be freed from the expectation that an identity is something you are handed off the peg."
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