Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Those that I fight I do not hate; Those that I guard I do not love"

Here we are again at the annual focus for things Irish. How sad that this now includes three funerals for men of public service, the result of a new spark of violence in a land which had finally, slowly settled into an era of sanity following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Ireland and death. It’s a strange fate for a people of such warmth, life, and art.

Stephen Carroll, an Ulster policeman, and two British soldiers, Sappers Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, where murdered by some "new" faction of the IRA. The “historic” IRA formally declared an end to its armed campaign in July 2005 and followed through by scrapping its vast arsenal of guns and explosives that September.

In a turn of sad irony, the Ulster policeman was Catholic. This makes the new IRA stupid as well as murderous. As part of the peace process the Royal Ulster Constabulary became the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001. It was a good move to help de-militarize general living conditions, to remove the unnecessary “royal” and to help attract Catholics into its ranks so that the police force be a better mirror of those it serves, though Catholics have been policemen throughout the history of the RUC. Denis Donoghue, the literary scholar, wrote a moving memoir of growing up in Warrenpoint, where his Catholic father served on the RUC in the thirties and forties. Of course, he could never get promoted above sergeant.

The world is a different place than when the IRA was at its height in the 1970s and 80s. The people of NI are not tolerating this from all sides (except for some teenagers with a petrol bomb in Lurgan). Hopefully that will become a trait we come to associate with the Irish-—a zero tolerance for homeland terrorism—-instead of a helpless acceptance of the vestiges of a civil war that just won’t burn itself out. Those soldiers were hours away from deployment in Afghanistan. Instead, their bodies were returned home to their families in England for burial.

It’s still a question why England needs formal troops in NI, although the numbers have been scaled back significantly. That military occupier presence in the British Isles itself is such a 20th century idea. We all need a new, bold vision of life, not death, among the wider understanding of “the happy breed of men.”

W.B.Yeats's 1917 poem written at the request of Lady Gregory for her only son who died in the Great War resonates for this tragedy.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I KNOW that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross, 5
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds, 10
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind 15
In balance with this life, this death.

(A poignantly artful photograph by Cathal McNaughton/Reuters, from an impassioned bit of reporting by John F. Burns for The New York Times.)