Just a phrase we're
Just one phrase can make all the difference, as Fr Alex Reid
discovered. Unfortunately if it makes all the difference it
is usually a phrase with a destructive effect, though there
are stirring and positive ones too. Decommissioning of negative
phrases will take an extremely long time in Northern Ireland.
Sticks and stones will break my bones and words will always,
but always, hurt me (or be let on to hurt me even more than
In a meeting which had been intended to
allow the two independent monitors of IRA disarmament, Fr
Alex Reid and Rev Harold Good, to show their bona fides, Alex
Reid allowed himself to be provoked and said "The reality
is that the nationalist community in Northern Ireland were
treated almost like animals by the unionist community. They
were not treated like human beings. It was like the Nazis'
treatment of the Jews." It was a step and a statement
too far. It allowed some loyalists to question the integrity
and reality of the disarmament process. Though see my previous
comment [NN 126] when Mary McAleese said something different
but also mentioning Nazi Germany.
Anyway, Fr Reid's comments sent me looking
for my copy of "Phrases make history here - a century
of Irish political quotations" compiled by Conor O'Clery,
although its 1986 publication date means there is nothing
since then (O'Brien Press, ISBN 0-86278-108-6). O'Clery's
comment that "Words have often come to be charged with
as much significance as the events which inspired them"
(page 7) has never been truer. His book is quite a treasury
of the good, the bad, the indifferent and middling, the prescient,
the woefully inaccurate, and the ugly. I'll pass on a few
samples here with some comments, avoiding some but not all
of the best known.
Charles Stewart Parnell spoke in 1886 of
the provisions of the then Home Rule Bill as "a final
settlement of [the Irish] question and...I believe that the
Irish people have accepted it as such." Well, apart from
the fact that it didn't pass the Westminster Parliament, his
words didn't come to pass either. [When I was a student I
named our common household purse 'Kitty O'Shea' - Ed] [Listen,
it's me who bakes the puns around here - Billy]
It was a Fianna Failer, and not just any
Fianna Failer but Sean Lemass, who used the term "a slightly
constitutional party" for Fianna Fail (March 1928) -
an interesting parallel with another party today. Carson advised
not to be afraid of illegalities in September 1913 and wasn't
worried about being treasonable (page 39) - what would current
Unionists make of that? What is sauce for unionists may also
be sauce for republicans. Pearse was happy to see everyone
armed (November 1913); "I am glad that the Orangemen
have armed, for it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish
hands" - which must be one of the most shortsighted and
silly comments made by anyone on civil strife.
Then there was General Sir John Maxwell's
comment on 2nd May 1916 that "I am going to punish the
offenders, four of them are to be shot tomorrow morning. I
am going to ensure that there will be no treason whispered,
even whispered, in Ireland for a hundred years." What
a bundle of laughs.
Included are Catholic sectarian remarks
by de Valera in 1931 (page 90) - though he often rose above
this, and Brooke and Craig's backing for only employing Protestant
lads and lassies in the North (page 93, 95). Interestingly,
Eddie McAteer weighs in with a comment on non-violent resistance
to partition in 1950. The Paisleyite "Protestant Telegraph"
printed what purported to be a Sinn Féin oath in 1967
(slightly reminiscent of the tone of that infamous anti-Jewish
forgery, the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion")
and there is Paisley's comment from 1981 that "Isn't
it remarkable that all the worst crimes of Republican violence
have been committed immediately after Mass?" which, apart
from being a lie, totally ignores the intra-Catholic community
rivalry between the Catholic Church and military republicans
in the Troubles (I covered some other lies from Ian Paisley
in my Colm in issue No.120).
1974's coverage includes Rev Joe Parker's
self-proclaimed sad comments on leaving Northern Ireland.
He had lost a son in Bloody Friday and founded Witness for
Peace but felt the churches had not backed the cause of peace.
1985 saw Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich's comment "I
think ninety per cent of religious bigotry [in Northern Ireland]
is to be found among Protestants, whereas the bigotry one
finds among Catholics is mainly political". Whether you
agree with his assessment or not it does raise the perspicacious
issue of different kinds of bigotry and prejudice which is
helpful in analysing the realities.
But it's fairly obvious that people haven't
been studying their nonviolent communication, à la
Marshall Rosenberg or anyone else. In theory it's easy to
be well prepared and watch out what you're saying but in the
heat of the moment (and/or enticement or goading) it's very
difficult. And if you're trying to make your speech (as in
talking, not speech as in speech-making) sound interesting
and avoid people losing interest, then it's easy to let yourself
get carried away with a thought or phrase which, in retrospect,
was rather unwise. Yes, I speak from experience though fortunately
never in the limelight that some others have had to endure.
What is more chilling is that many of the worst comments above
were made in cold blood and not in the heat of debate.
One for the archives
Of all the terrible non-medical afflictions known to humankind,
one of the worst must be to an archivist. I will qualify that
slightly. There is nothing wrong with being an archivist;
retaining the past in tangible and understandable form that
we may learn from it is a noble profession, up there in the
pantheon of callings with greengrocery, haberdashery (now
there's a word you don't often hear these days - you might
say it doesn't have a dash about it anymore, a bit like a
darned old pair of socks) and bricklaying. The past may be
another country but at least it would be good to recollect
that it is one you have visited, got to know quite well and,
indeed, even spoke some of the language. The problem is not
being an archivist when you are a salaried worker in the vineyard,
so to speak, the problem is when you are an archivist in a
voluntary capacity without the time to do it, and this includes
it being an 'add on' to an existing job and you're not paid
extra for it.
Never get interested in the past and preserving
for the future what might be significant from the present.
It doesn't matter what you're archiving, even bits and peaces
like me. Do you see that great big bundle of miscellaneous
papers, magazines, correspondence, notes and so on hiding
in the corner? You know, the one you haven't touched since
last year and is just about to fall over despite being stacked
against the wall? Well, the normal person would just say "There's
nothing there I need, into the recycle bin with it ",
and, bingo, it's gone in under five minutes from thought to
bin and they can get on with the rest of their life. The poor
downtrodden archivist says "There's five hours work sorting
that, a whole day really, then I've got to find somewhere
to file what I'm keeping - and I don't have the space - and
then bring what's sorted to go to the library*" (*'library'
= specialist archive such as the Political Collection at the
Linen Hall Library, Belfast).
And sorting through all those miscellaneous
papers requires making one judgement after another; significant,
not significant, not significant, one for me to keep, don't
know so what will I do with it, not significant, not significant,
may be significant......and so on. It requires thinking. Being
able to tell your Erse from your elbow, that sort of thing.
And as you are all very aware, thinking hurts, particularly
when you've already had a hard days work doing your other
tasks in life.
In the end, what you're getting rid of
for recycling or to the library is fine, it's going to be
gone. Finding space for what you're keeping is the long-term
problem if you don't want to a) be burrowing about your home
or organisation's office like a rabbit between stacks of papers,
however they might be stored, or b) continually extend the
premises, an expensive option which is not necessarily the
best when 90% of the premises becomes devoted to the past
and only 10% to the present and future. Electronic storage
is not an answer either unless you've got oodles of time and
cash; updating and saving your files in triplicate in a new
format every decade sounds like a perpetual nightmare, a bit
like looking after nuclear waste without being quite so toxic.
And if you retain paper stacks then maybe you're allergic
to dust or paper mites which have probably established home
sweet home there.
I have a distant relation whose biography
came out there some few years ago. It was a fascinating portrayal
of life in the latter part of the 19th century and early part
of the 20th, and included not just observations on my home
town but also on my antecedents of that time (my great-grandfather
swore a lot) [bloody hell - Ed] [something like that - Billy].
It was primarily based on the letters which she had written
to family members and the biography was published around seventy
years after she died. If one of us dropped dead today and
someone tried to write our biography in sixty or seventy years,
what would they find? I don't know about you but I ask this
hypothetically as no one is going to be writing my biography
but you get the picture. There would probably be little or
nothing to go on, even within our family circle. The chances
of there being a comprehensive record of someone's e-mails,
equivalent to the old bundle of letters in a trunk in the
attic, is so slim as to be almost non-existent. So there will
be problems for the biographers of the future who will undoubtedly
blame the archivists of yesteryear (today).
In the end, the moral of the story is,
do not get involved in preserving the past for the future
because it can ruin your present. On no account become an
archivist (it even sounds bad, a bit like a recidivist or
a hedonist, though come to think of it, the latter is meant
to be pretty enjoyable). You have been warned. Now where is
that meeting taking place for Archivists Anonymous? Just where
did I file that bit of paper with the details.....
Rant is usually thought of in Norn Iron as what you pay to
your landlord but it is also what you do when you 'rant and
rave', as in getting lost in your anger. ME? Never happens
to me. Well, only occasionally. Well, the last time was the
other day. As I remarked recently, modern technology is a
wonderful thong and I must admit I've got rather used to,
and dependent on, the internet, having been dragged kicking
(and only internally screaming) into the internetage (it wasn't
that I was afraid of it per se, only afraid of the work it
would bring). Anyway, our broadband sat down the other day.
A phone call the next morning informed me that the system
was working perfectly so far as the providers' end of it www.as
concerned, this deduced by checking our account (presumably)
and describing the state of the lights on the modem. Oh oh.
Was it cabling gone, the router heading off on its very own
route, or what, I didn't know, so a couple of hours was spent
on different configurations of cables, computers and so on
to try to figure what was up. I even went to a techie shop
in town to get cabling that doesn't exist. No joy.
So, in the afternoon I made a second call
to NTL, our broadband provider. Yes, they told me this time,
there is a problem; you're 'region suspended' (sounds dangerous
doesn't it) and they would transfer me to someone else to
get it sorted. Of course this was having queued for ten minutes.
But I had to queue again because I was immediately lost in
the transfer. Then I eventually got another person who confirmed
we had been disconnected and would transfer me to the Disconnections
department; this was highly appropriate because I was immediately
Disconnected on the phone. Queue again. Next time the mysteries
of the universe began to unravel and why we had been disconnected
(all, I hasten to add, 100% NTL's fault and the end result
- don't ask - of their incompetence a year and a half ago).
And I didn't want the Disconnections department anyway because
they only Disconnected and didn't Reconnect. Half an hour
later we were in business again.
Modern conveniences are great, it's when
they sit down that they're rather inconvenient, particularly
when you have a firm which is so spectacularly bad at customer
service as our internet provider. All the call centre people
I spoke to on the phone were doing their best but, all bar
the last person, either they weren't trained or given the
information to get it sorted straight away, or their systems
were just up the creek and badly linked. One headache and
about an hour and a half on the phone later (plus another
couple of hours doing what didn't need doing), I was sorted.
Now that that rant's over I can sign out
until next time. As I may have told you before, I don't need
a shrink, I have a monthly Colm to get it all out. See you
soon, geulp, that'll nearly be Christmas, Billy.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).