A survivor’s guilt

Irish Famine Memorial, Dublin

We returned earlier this month from a lovely ten-day tour of Ireland, which took us from Dublin through the southern counties of the Republic, to Galway, Connemara, the Burren and the Ring of Kerry, and back through County Cork. It was a smallish tour, with 25 participants among whom Alison and I were the only English people. (Run by My Ireland Tour – highly recommended!) Tony McGoey was a our driver and tour guide, who informed us, told jokes and stories, even sang to us! And of course, there was a lot of information about the history of Ireland.

I knew about quite a bit of it. But most of what I knew was the story the British tell. So, very little about the penalties imposed on Roman Catholics for much of the 17th to 19th centuries, the attempts to eradicate Irish language and culture, the greed and land-grabbing of the Anglo-Irish gentry. We know of the Irish Potato Famine as a huge, terrible ‘humanitarian disaster’ as we term them now. What the British histories don’t tell us is, that while the Irish peasantry were starving and being driven off their land in their millions, the landowners’ fields were producing bumper harvests of grain, which they were exporting very profitably across the Irish Sea. Recent attempts to rebrand the period as not the Irish Famine but the Irish Genocide make more sense now.

Notice to Quit, served on the Widow Mary Campbell in 1849. Derry Bog Village, Ireland

It was a wretched experience to hear these accounts, along with those of the brutality of the British suppression of the protests and uprisings against the system, and know I was one of the race that is guilty of these atrocities. It’s not much consolation to think, “It’s not me that’s responsible. It wasn’t even my ancestors who were the governing classes or the gentry – my ancestors were the people Below Stairs, or if they were lucky, the clerks slaving away at their writing desks, like Bob Cratchit.”

And all this guilt, if it is guilt, came while I’ve also been reading Simon Schama’s History of the Jews, with its catalogue of the persecutions of the Jews by Christians, ever since – well, forever, really. Certainly since Christianity became the State religion under the Emperor Constantine. History is a long, long record of abominable things that powerful groups of people have done to less powerful people, and the English are among the worst offenders. History may, or must, always be written by the victors, but it’s also true that any of us who have survived (so far) are in fact the victors in the human (rat) race. Even if we are only the victors’ running dogs.

Can we atone for our share in what has been done? No. Do we need to atone? I’m hoping that Someone Else has done that, but perhaps atonement can only work for us, if we recognise that survivors’ guilt isn’t an imaginary thing, but is indeed real guilt. And recognising guilt surely means doing all that we can to avoid guilt by association in the evil things that are still being done. What genocides are the British people still complicit in? Maybe by selling arms to despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia, so that they can kill Yemenis or support Islamist terrorism? Maybe by paying the taxes that pay for the bombs killing people in Syria? Maybe by tolerating Governments that continue to make the rich richer, at the expense of the poorest in society?

When we stand before the Great Assize and the only plea we have to offer is Guilty, I hope it really is true that the Bleeding Charity1 is also greater than anything we have so far imagined.

  1. ‘What do you keep on arguing for? I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
     ‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’
    C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

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