It’s been 100 years since the partition of Ireland – but history remains a battlefield
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It’s been 100 years since the partition of Ireland – but history remains a battlefield

WE do not live in an age that lends itself to subtlety.

The dominance of social media is the dominance of loud, hectoring, undiluted opinions. There are no grey areas.

The Glasnevin Wall in Glasnevin Cemetery is a testament to this.

The wall was unveiled in 2016 somewhere near the start of what was to be the many historical years marking the foundation of this State.

The Decade of Centenaries as it has been called.

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The Easter Uprising, The War of Independence and The Civil War to name just some of the centenaries we have or are soon to be living through.

The wall in Glasnevin sought to list everyone who died during the turbulent years of 1916 to 1923. Both friend and foe, as one journalist put it.

After a couple of attacks upon the wall, paint, chisels, that sort of thing, the wall has been covered in tarpaulin.

It has now been covered in tarpaulin for a couple of years.

The deliberate damaging of the wall stemmed from objections to the inclusion of the names of British soldiers who’d died.

The same outrage followed last year’s plan to commemorate dead members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

History it seems is still a battleground.

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It is divided, so we are told, between those who wish to revise the ‘green’ history we all grew up with and those who wish to keep it.

There are no grey areas. No subtlety.

What those who might take take a chisel to a commemoration of the wrong names wish to create is a history without complications.

A history of good guys and bad guys. A history of those who were right and those who were wrong.

A history, indeed, far more straightforward than any aspect of life we might experience.

A history, in fact, with little or no bearing to actual life. A history, we could say, that sidesteps the truth.

There is a story in my own family about my grandmother in Cork when she was eight years of age.

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Sent to the local shop she was suddenly caught up in a raid by drunken British forces that looked like it could get very serious until a regular British Army officer turned up and let everyone go.

The story has passed on into family lore. Our grandmother was rounded up by the Black and Tans.

My family would, in the older sense of the word, be a very Republican one and despite some historians not revising history but rewriting it I’ve never found any intellectual reason for justifying imperialism.

The British presence in Ireland was a baleful one. It was unjust. I think historical truth supports that.

But it’s full of grey areas. My father’s uncle fought in the British army in WW1 and was involved in the IRA when he came back. This isn’t interpretation or agenda.

This is truth. Complicated truth.

What if, for instance, we take the famous Soloheadbeg ambush in county Tipperary in 1919.

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This ambush is, more or less, pinpointed as the beginning of the War of Independence.

During it Republican volunteers shot dead two RIC men, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell.

The two policemen were from Mayo and Cork respectively.

They were Catholics. They were native Irishmen.

They were two of some 400 RIC men killed during the following years.

In all honesty, in all historical truth, does anyone argue that all of those RIC men were committed imperialists, against the Republic, full supporters of British rule.

Didn’t some of them, perhaps, just want a job?

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James McDonnell, perhaps, in order to feed his five children.

I’m not sure what kind of mind takes a chisel to a monument in order to remove a history they don’t agree with.

I’m not sure what kind of country, over a hundred years on, is so incoherent it shares a fascination with the British Royal Family alongside an inability to accept the complexities of the past.

Good guys and bad guys with nothing in between.

That’s a game children play, isn’t it?

Accepting the simple human reality that was the deaths of those on the other side does not diminish our own beliefs.

Accepting that the poignancy of those deaths should be acknowledged is not to agree with the position of the other side.

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It is simply to admit our shared humanity and our shared history.

It is to merely acknowledge the past of this island.

The actual truth of what happened here on this small patch of earth.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?