Humans need to plot their place on the existential map of the world in order to know where they stand in relation to others, especially to those who belong to a different community. We also need to have a sense of how we should relate to the life forms we share the planet with and the topography around us. The entirety of our sense of place in the web of life is called a worldview and surprisingly for something so important it is largely based on myth. Myths exist in the face of evidence to the contrary and all too often are used to bolster our sense of identity, importance and entitlement to things we have no right to on the basis of equity and ecological sustainability.
The power of myth, as a self-justifying narrative, was illustrated by President Joe Biden during his recent 4-day visit to Ireland. There is no doubting the pride he takes in his sense of Irish identity but as he could have made a visit to his ancestral home towns a private matter he almost certainly did it to bolster his standing with the electorate in the United States. His focus on family, religious faith and ancestral roots is something most of his fellow citizens can easily identify with and through extension have some empathy for Biden the man and presidential candidate.
What makes basing one’s identity and view of the world on myth dangerous is that it plays to our emotions and biases while completely sidestepping the facts of the subject in question. The primary myth President Biden used was his portrayal of the role the Irish played in the formation and economic prosperity of the United States as heroic and that many Irish immigrants and their descendants improved their economic and social circumstances beyond what their ancestors could ever have imagined as praise worthy. He used his own family story to give credence to this.
The collective history of the Irish in the United States is that they imposed a variant of the poverty and persecution they experienced in Ireland on the Indigenous people to further their own interests. The Irish immigrants, along with the immigrants from other European countries, stole the land of the Indigenous people, exterminated them by warfare, starvation and disease, forced them to move with little provision to parts of the country they had no connection with and was the home of other Indigenous people. The tragic forced removal of the Cherokee in the Appalachian region, where many Ulster-Scotts settled, is a case in point.
The European colonists also confined the Indigenous people to reservations, and from the 19th through to the late 20th century, Indigenous children were kidnapped by the public authorities and placed in residential schools in an attempt to eradicate their culture. Pope Francis, on completing his 2022 visit to Canada, named what happened to the kidnapped children as genocide.
The myth that lay behind the Irish and other European nationalities colonising what the Indigenous people called Turtle Island is that the Indigenous people were not human in the sense the colonisers felt themselves to be. The same view was held about the people kept as slaves whose ancestral home was west Africa.
In his remarks in Leinster House, President Biden said about the Irish in the United States that:
“the values that sustained these people throughout their hardship in their lives – Freedom, Equality, Dignity, Family, Courage.”
Except for courage these values are what many Irish immigrants denied the Indigenous people. It was only in 1978, on the passage of The American Indian Religious Act, that the Indigenous people were free to practice their traditional religion. This was denied them by the 1883 Code of Indian Offences under which Indigenous people were liable to be imprisoned or denied food rations for 30 days for taking part in traditional ceremonies. It was only in 1994, five years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, that the American Indian Religious Act Amendments was passed giving the Indigenous people legal protections that were not contained in the 1978 Act.
Among the things this tells us is that most of the 23 U.S. presidents of Irish descent did little to advance the rights and dignity of Native Americans. President Ulysses S Grant, (1869-1873 and 1873-1877) is one such president but with reservations as his aim was assimilation, which is to say, eradicating their culture. It might surprise some readers that President Nixon, who was of Irish descent, empathised with the dire situation of Native Americans and signed the Indian Self-Determination and Self-Organization Act of 1975, which greatly enhanced their autonomy.
All of the following ecological catastrophes are due to the myths we have about our relationships with others and the Earth. This includes climate breakdown, the rapid loss of biodiversity which many biologists call the Sixth Mass Extinction, and the ever-increasing expanse of dead zones in the oceans caused by plastic pollution and the run-off of agricultural, industrial and urban waste. Myth has played its part in the creation of air pollution, which the World Health Organization says kills an estimated 7-million people a year, with 9 out of 10 of us breathing air containing high levels of pollution. And, as we in Ireland well know, myth plays an important role in communal conflict.
Much, if not all, of our ecologically destructive behaviour is based on the myth that we are separate from the rest of nature. The extent to which we consider this to be the case is the widespread and long held belief that out of all the species of life that have ever existed on Earth in the course of 4.5 billion years we are the only one that is immortal. The prevalence of this myth plays no small part in our viewing the incredibly beautiful bio-world we live in as expendable. That we regard it as such is something that Pope Francis touched upon in Laudato Si’ (2015) when he said that: “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” This, our observations readily tell us, is fact rather than myth.