Monday, April 25, 2011

"A Terrible Beauty Is Born"

Ninety-five years ago this day, Irish rebels took to the streets of Dublin in the Easter Rising of 1916. Against insurmountable odds, the insurrection was doomed to fail militarily, yet it was destined to change the fate of Ireland as a nation. Padraic Pearse foremost among the leaders knew that the times had called at last for the fire of sacrifice. James Connolly's Citizen Army provided the tinder, the capture of Roger Casement, the spark. Who else among the mass of men knew that all was about to "change utterly"? Who knew?

The hapless fanatics who had drilled in the streets and hills for weeks before the Rising had been scorned by their fellow citizens as hopeless dreamers. Then, after the British began shelling the city center in response to the Rising, the rebels had disrupted the course of the daily routine in Dublin. How were people to get to work? How were they to carry on with their lives? What price would they all now pay for this foolish insurrection? What price, indeed?

The rest is written in the blood of history that tells of how the British executed most of the leaders of the Rising, shooting them against a wall in the yard of Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol, propping up in a chair the wounded James Connolly so they could riddle him with bullets. Then with thoughtless arrogance, how they dumped into mass graves the corpses, thereby desecrating the graves of Irishmen and making martyrs of them all.

In the ninety-five years that have come and gone since then, the poet Yeats has said it best, all is "changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born." Years of guerrilla warfare by the Irish Republican Army followed under the banner of Sinn Fein, "Ourselves Alone." From 1920-22, the Irish were subjected to the hated reprisals of the Black and Tans, but in 1921, Ireland negotiated a degree of independence for twenty-six of its counties as the Irish Free State, at the cost of relegating to the British the six most Protestant counties of the northern part of the island, what became known as Northern Ireland. A cruel and bitter civil war over that treaty ensued, with the pro-treaty forces eventually winning out. In 1949 Ireland declared the Republic of Ireland, severing all political ties between Britain and the twenty-six counties. Northern Ireland remains under British rule to this day.

As Ireland now looks forward to the centennial of the Easter Rising in five more years, it is with a glance both backward and forward, with a nod to the hopes and promise of 1916, and a yearning for the eventual economic independence and reunification of all Ireland through peaceful means that are surely their destiny.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Reunion

It is remarkable how much of our past we carry with us. Faulkner's memorable line from Requiem for a Nun rings true here: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." My wife, Rita, and I drove recently from New York to Waukesha, Wisconsin, to reunite with three friends she hadn't seen in the forty years since they had roomed together in Dublin. Back then, in 1970, the girls were all in their early twenties, a young, adventurous, and innocent time. Today many of their children are older than they were then. Yet, in the words of Tennyson's Ulysses, "Tho' much is taken, much abides," and in the moment that brought them all together again after all those years, sparks of instant recognition rekindled their joy in each others' presence, and they seemed to pick up where they had left off forty years ago.

Christine and Priscilla had organized the reunion. At Christine's invitation, Rita and I had driven the 950 miles to surprise Mag and her husband, Mattie, on their arrival at The Pub in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, halfway between Madison and Milwaukeea, a little gem of an Irish pub run by Aelred and Bernie Gannon, from Sligo, Ireland. It was Mag and Mattie's first trip to America, and the moment was memorable all around. Mattie and Mag arrived with her sister Priscilla and her husband Jeff. Christine and Rita approached and reveled in the moment of instant recognition as the four of them embraced, together again for the first time since 1970. They had kept in touch, more or less, over the years through Christine with notes at Christmas, but this moment, their first time together in forty years, was special. The party at the pub, driven by a lively Irish session with Priscilla on the button accordian, Mattie on the guitar, Aelred on the tin whistle, and countless other musicians joining, and slipping away, lasted well into the early hours of the morning before we headed back to Waukesha for the night.

What struck me was how much Christine, Priscilla, Mag, and Rita still enjoyed each others' company, the sheer delight in their eyes evident as they beheld the strong women they had become. They peppered the days and nights that followed with stories of their days together in Dublin and tales of their lives apart, with songs and videos and family photos to share. They even reminisced about a red Irish linen coat that Rita had designed and drafted for Christine, who then sewed it up all those years ago in Dublin. An hour or so later Christine made a grand entrance in the same coat, which still fit her, if a little snuggly. Both the fabric and the style had held up as well in the intervening years as had their friendship. It is indeed remarkable how much of our past we carry with us, like coals smoldering under a layer of ash, a fire just waiting to be rekindled