a combination of historical ignorance and monumental self-pity

Also in the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole was in the Polish city of Wroclaw when Fr Alec Reid’s comments hit the newswire. As he says, he didn’t discuss them with his Polish hosts, he was too ashamed “..that this combination of historical ignorance and monumental self-pity is far from rare” and he wondered “How could you possibly explain that Irish nationalists, who are thought to be so steeped in the past, know so little about the recent history of the continent they inhabit?”.

Instead he conducted a silent comparison with the history of the city he was in and now provides a useful historical corrective to those, like Jude Collins, who simply look to the response of Ian Paisley Jr for validation of Fr Reid’s absurd claim –

We love to talk about the exquisite and allegedly unique dilemmas of our national identity, how complicated and confusing it is, how richly ambiguous, how deeply unsettled.

Wroclaw, a single city of around 650,000 people, has had about 50 names in its recorded history; among them Vratislavia, Vrestlav, Vraclav, Presslau and, until 1945, Breslau.

It has been Slavic, Hanseatic, Polish, Bohemian, German and Polish again. Its multiple languages, teeming identities and shifting religious allegiances have been shaped by forced as well as voluntary migrations.

Prior to the Nazi rise to power, Breslau had one of the largest Jewish communities in Germany, with 20,202 members in 1933. Within weeks of Hitler’s rise to power, the thugs of the SA attacked Jewish judges and lawyers in Breslau’s courthouse, signalling the start of the city’s “purification”. Gradually, the Jewish population was moved to the suburbs, then to “housing communes” in the Polish countryside.

From these camps, those who had not already died from the rough treatment and woeful conditions were sent on to the concentration camps at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and elsewhere. It was to the university in Breslau that the sexual organs of Jews, who were the subject of horrific medical experiments in the camps, were sent for study.

The suffering in Breslau was not only that of Jews, however. The Polish population was expelled from the city. Polish Catholics, political dissidents, homosexuals, the disabled and the mentally ill were murdered. The German population itself, some of which had been moved in by the Nazis to replace the exterminated Jews, experienced horrific violence in the last months of the war. The city was unfortunate enough to be declared “Fortress Breslau” by Hitler and to be the site of a fanatical Nazi resistance to the Soviets that made it the last German city to surrender, four days after Berlin. In the course of the siege, an estimated 170,000 civilians died and 70 per cent of the city was destroyed. Many of the surviving women and girls were raped by Soviet troops. The entire German population was then forcibly expelled. Breslau got a new Polish name (Wroclaw) and a new Polish population. All of this happened within living memory. (The “persecution” of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland evoked by Fr Reid went back as far as 1921.)

And he argues that there is no excuse for an absence of a general sense of proportion, for being wary of comparisons, or analogies, that are as inaccurate as they are offensive –

Whatever the “provocation”, any Irish person should have an instinctive knowledge that the very real sufferings of Catholics in Belfast or Derry don’t even begin to compare with those of the Germans in a city like Wroclaw, never mind those of the Jews. How would we feel if some English twit compared post-war rationing of food in Britain to the Famine?

The irony of all the hyper-inflation of the experiences of Catholics in Northern Ireland after partition by invoking the Nazis or, as Sinn Féin tends to prefer, apartheid South Africa, is that it actually occludes those experiences themselves. It discredits history itself as a context in which we can understand the present. You can’t really talk about the present-day consequences of decades of structural discrimination if you treat the past as a balloon to be filled with so much hot rhetorical air that it either floats off into absurdity, or bursts with violence. And it also comes back to haunt you. If, as Fr Reid claimed, the present Protestant community “should be absolutely ashamed of itself” because of unionist misrule, it follows that the entire Catholic community has to accept responsibility for the atrocities of the IRA.

Avoiding responsibility is what this self-pity is all about, for it tries to invent a Catholic community that suffered everything and perpetrated nothing. To believe in that illusion, you need to perfect your ignorance of the recent history, not just of Europe but of Ireland.[emphasis added]

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42 thoughts on “a combination of historical ignorance and monumental self-pity

  1. Boy does this story have legs!!!
    Ignorance of the recent passed isn’t a crime peculiar only to our wee irrelevant corner of the world – and to act as if it is only confirms our own perverse sense of self-importance. We’d have knee-capped Galileo, without a whimper of condemnation from any side.
    Of course Nazi comparisons are nonsense – as are basically any other comparisons for the north, whether that be that of the sieged Israeli population of Israel or the sieged palestinian population of Palestine.

  2. O Toole writes: “How could you possibly explain that Irish nationalists, who are thought to be so steeped in the past, know so little about the recent history of the continent they inhabit?

    Much of his column is about the suffering of the Polish people at the hand of the Nazis – and it was real and not imagined and beyond any scale of comprehension now or ever.

    However, with just three words, he deals with the ‘very real suffering’ of Catholics in the north. That’s it.

    This rush by southern commentators to distance themselves from the import of Fr Reid said which described the character of the Unionist misrule in the north and what it meant for nationalists if not the accuracy of the detail indicates a very real reluctance on their part to deal with what happened in the north.

    It would mean they had to deal with the fact that it was right to resist, with force, as the IRA did the tyranny of those who would treat their fellow citizens as animals, stopping short, of course, of herding them into concentration camps for systematic extermination.

  3. Oilbhéar Chromaill

    I think you are on to something there. The aggressive stance against northern nationalists that some in the south take is in fact guilt. They were unable to help when they should have and needed to construct an analysis which excused them.

    Fintan O’Toole’s famous call for the banning of the Wolfe Tones and his hilarious failure to beat that band in an argument on the Late Late Show was the most comical expression of the phenomenon.

  4. Oh God when will this stop? Listen OC and Henry, there was stupid, ignorant, bigoted behaviour by local government agencies in NI between 1921 and 1972, right? That was it, petty, mean little discriminatory actions by people who hadn’t the vision to see beyond their own miserable little parishes.

    It was NOT tyranny, no one was treated like animals, I lived there then; I was a catholic, as were all my family and friends, no one, not one person ever treated us like animals. Get over yourself, nothing that happened remotely justified the rise of the provisional IRA, and nothing they did justified the loyalist thugs activities.

    Stop digging this hole even further, it’s embarassing, read about the Warsaw ghetto, read about Babi Yar, read about Riga December 1941 read that and feel the shame rising that you have the affrontery to include yourselves in such suffering I was in Northern Ireland then and my toes curl when I hear such small minded comparisons.

  5. Henry


    It’s because there’s a large section of society in the contemporary Republic that deals with reality, not myth.

    And the Republic is much the better for it.

  6. Henry – I’ve said this before to you, Fintan O’Toole wasn’t “beaten” by the Wolfe Tones in a debate, unless by beaten you mean shouted down smugly every time he tried to speak. The Wolfe Tones revealed themselves as the base, moronic clods that they are, and O’Toole was the only person to emerge from a very grubby evening with any dignity intact.

    (and no I’m not his mum.. I just don’t like this particular cheap shot at one of Ireland’s more articulate voices..)

  7. harry

    The Provos were not a respose to the discrimination. They were a response to the reaction to peaceful protests. If your position is one of opposition to all violence then I respect it.

    I do not support the Nazi analogy. The difference in degree is to substantial for it to be useful.


    You must have missed Fine Gael’s Michael Collins commeration this week. They described him as a constitutional nationalist.

    But I’m not talking about myths. I’m talking about standing idly by and accepting the analysis that the provos were the problem.

  8. lafcadio

    Henry – I’ve said this before to you, Fintan O’Toole wasn’t “beaten” by the Wolfe Tones in a debate

    Revisionism knows no bounds.

  9. Hmmm. There is a little bit of mis-direction going on here.

    Republican’s generally have not compared the situtaion of the nationalist population in the north (which was to have their democractic voice engineered down and face prejudice in employment and housing) with that of Jew’s in Hitler’s Europe (mass murder).

    Comparisons between the behaviour of fascist movements elsewhere and Unionism have been made fairly frequently (which are either less absurd or more truthful depending on your political colour) but as history’s ultimate bogeymen (unless your are GLC) this is no surprise – I am sure that it would not be too difficult to dig up comments from Unionist politicians comparing Sinn Fein with the Nazis (though I think the main Unionist equivalent is to claim northern protestants were ethnically cleansed from border counties).

    The current absurd and disgenuous fuss over Father Reid’s foolish and mistaken remarks is just another event in the dialog attempting to establish moral superiority for one side or the other in NI.

    ie: Republican terrorism was a a greater crime than Unionist majoritarianism.

    Harry Flashman thinks that there was no just cause for the troubles starting, Republicans do and Europe’s much greater recent woes do no make that debate meaningless or any easier.

  10. “However, with just three words, he deals with the ‘very real suffering’ of Catholics in the north. That’s it.”

    I don’t think Fintan O’Toole would argue that there was no discrimination againsy Catholics in NI. Its a fairly short column and the focus of the piece is on the cruel absurdity and necessary ignorance needed to draw simple and harmful comparisons between the Nazi killing machine with the Stormont sectarian state.

  11. No Henry, I’m not a pacifist I fully believe in resorting to violence if the situation warrants it but it is my contention and the contention of many honest republicans I know who speak privately and honestly that the IRA war was unjustified in the circumstances. They look back and see how they got caught up in the hysteria of the period 1968-70. Just as many loyalists, Gusty comes to mind, accept that the violence was an overreaction that in hindsight was unnecessary.

    When the peelers clobbered the civil rights people in Duke Street, Derry in October 1968 they were beating the nails into the coffin of the old Stormont regime and the world saw it. The catholic/nationalists had won, simple as that. After that there was no going back, the unionist govermnent granted almost the entire raft of NICRA demands and they knew which way the wind was blowing.

    But wee Bernadette couldn’t take that, she pretended to be a socialist though we now know that she’s a narrow, wee, catholic bigot of the worst stripe and she got her wish. Using the same coat trailing tactics the Orangemen are rightly condemned for using in the Ardoyne she had her march and got what she wanted in Burntollet. After that the game was up, it was no longer a struggle to implement necessary and overdue local government reforms now we were on the slippery slope to ethnic/religious slaughter and the trogladyte backwoodsmen came out licking their lips.

    No Henry I’ll never accept that what happened in those few months justified the godawful thirty years that followed and I would hope that no rational person would still believe so today.

  12. “Republican terrorism was a greater crime than Unionist majoritarianism”.

    Thanks for the clarity Shay. Maybe we should just vote on that and move on.

    Re the Nazi thing I’m feeling a bit deafened by the roar of thousands of Irish WW2 volunteers whirring in their commonwealth graves.

    Last summer I found myself in Ranville. It wasn’t a pilgrimage. I’m not sure I’d even heard of the place before but I was just pootling out from Deauville along the Normandy coast.

    Anyway, if you get a chance please go. You can get a bit of vicarious pride if you’re so inclined. Ranville was the very first French village to be liberated from the German occupation. On the 5th of June a battalion of air-landing Royal Ulster Rifles were with the 6th Air Assault Division as it secured the area, which was home to the strategically important Pegasus Bridge, in preparation for the D-Day landings the next day. The graves of the men who stayed are in a little plot by the church. The Royal Ulster Rifles were, I think, the Royal Irish Rifles in disguise for the war on account of Ireland’s neutrality and were made up of volunteers from all across the island. Some stories of them are in Max Hastings’ Armageddon.

    When Hitler was alive and well 100,000 Irishmen of all flavours signed up to go and kill him (let’s not beat about the bush). And I’m sure they’d not be too impressed at our little bit of mudslinging now.

  13. Harry

    I think you are living in a fantasy world if you want to blame republicans alone for the duration of the conflict

    I think the years of the war saw many opportunities to end it but there were to many people involved on all sides who believed in a military victory.

    I was never one of them. I thought the war would simply go on for my entire lifetime and beyond.

    I give great credit to those who led us out of it.

  14. So to recapitulate nortern nationalists were never that badly off, Unionists were pretty reasonable by the standards of the time and Bernadette McAliskey was the bigot who really caused the troubles.

    Northern republicans sure have a lot to answer for, eh, Harry?

  15. Oh for goodness sake I never suggested all the fault rested with one side, my posts have all without exception pointed up the failures of the unionists. I mention the trogladyte backwoodsmen on both sides.

    However I am very insistent that the circumstances that pertained in that fractious time justified the resort to violence of the provos (there was simply no excuse for loyalist violence in the period prior to that, I’d imagine that goes without saying).

    My response was to what I perceived was your assertion that the cackhanded brutality of the RUC towards the civil righters in some way justified the provo campaign. If I misunderstood you then I apologise.

  16. Planation of Ulster, Oliver Cromwell and “to hell or Connaught” and all, is that Facist enough?

    The people of Ireland have suffered just as much as any other nation at the hands of the British. To deny this your head is up your arse.

    I know people talk of 1641 but what do you expect when you steal peoples land and make them pay for the land that others wouldn’t use!!

    It’s time all foreign occupiers left small nations alone.

  17. Bit of missing text in that last post “I am very insistent that the circumstances that pertained in that fractious time did NOT justify the resort to violence”.

    Shay try to read my posts and don’t put words into my mouth, I stand over my assertion that the situation in NI was not comparable with the Nazis (the original purpose of the thread, right?), unionists in authority were often petty minded bigots and yes Bernadette must accept a hell of a lot of responsibility for what happened following her stupid coattrailing in Burntollet. Heck we’ve no problem calling out Big Ian for his less than positive impact in Northern Ireland, what is Saint Bernadette beyond reproach?

  18. ”but as history’s ultimate bogeymen (unless your are GLC) this is no surprise”

    Shay — much as I’m delighted to be name-checked in a thread I haven’t actually contributed to, I do have to take issue with your presumptiousness (again).
    I’m assuming here that you think my views on nazism are somehow more benevolent than on stalinism. Incorrect — both were vile unspeakable regimes — to borrow from our glorious wannabe leader — they are a ‘tyranny of equals.’

  19. Harry

    Burntollet was the place when loyalist mobs attacked a peaceful civl rights march while the RUC looked on and did nothing. If you don’t think violence was justified and you are opposed to peacful demonstations what methods, if any, do you consider legitimate?

  20. Hmmm. I would disagree with you South Derry, I think Wales and Scotland had worse treatment than we did from the English. Southern Ireland has had a remarkably succesful outcome in terms of its cultural identity and place in the world (we are tiny after all) since independence.

    Cromwell was a bad man though, it one of the the ironies of the British cultural identity that the winner is always right, comes from not being invaded sucessfully since the Romans, who incidentaly did not slaughter the locals and destroy their culture but brought civilization, so thats OK. Heh.

    However I would like to persuade inhabitants of NI that a nice cuddly reuinification with their sorta celtic cousins in the south would be a spiffing idea. Come on people. Dont think of it of leaving Britain, think of it as joining some of it to Ireland. We have more recent Eurovsion winners than you and Cork is almost British anyway and they dont seem to mind. Much.

    Finally it is not just that we want your women, Lough Neagh is also an attraction.

  21. GLC said: “Shay — much as I’m delighted to be name-checked in a thread I haven’t actually contributed to, I do have to take issue with your presumptiousness (again).

    Again? You do realise GLC, that this means war?

    Actually, no, it was excessively presumptious of me. My apologies. I will not do it again.

  22. Shay,

    Personally I have always found the company of Irish Catholic women delightful.

    It’s just a pity I had to go to England to meet them as in Norn Ireland they were kept away from us in special prod exclusion zone schools.

    Thank-you for your kind invitation. I’m happy to accept if you all promise not to use the acceptance as some sort of justification for horrible republican behaviour over the last 30 years or to call me a Nazi anymore.

  23. Fair dos again shay.
    And as regards ‘wanting our women’, my mother-in-law is available for immediate desptch by first class post.

  24. Wait a second jaffa – I had not thought this through. I can not compete with men with northern accents for the attention of women.

    Forget about unity, I want tougher border controls immediately! Nazis!

  25. The loyalists and the RUC were most definitely responsible for the violence at Burntollet, that’s right but my point is that the whole march was a deliberate act of provocation that was utterly unnecessary. Why did they march? Stormont had granted the entire NICRA wish list two months before and the unionists were well and truly beaten.

    It is my contention that Bernadette and the old school nationalists were not prepared to accept a reformed Northern Ireland and that 1969 seemed like a good time to push it over the edge. I’m not sure that my analysis is particularly flawed in this regard.

  26. Coming soon to Clonard College–Irish history class according to Fr Reid:

    117something- English Pope allows English into Ireland-see, I told you we couldn’t trust Mother Church

    1641 many heretics suffer from Asian bird flu and die by drowning, spontaneous combustion, etc. No Catholics believed hurt

    1690-Pope wins great victory at Boyne over King of England

    1798- Irish win great moral victory over British by losing to them- some Protestants die when one drops a match in a barn at Scullabogue-Pope never about when you need him- Thomas Russall confirm de-commissioning of all pikes -in thatch

    1845- British genocide against irish people commences-

    1916 another glorious victory of irish in Dublin besmirched by populace fed brit propaganda in irish indo-Pearse decommisions weapons by handing them over to brits- the fool!

    1919-21 heroic campaign for indigeneous architecture results in destruction of alien buildings and some occupants- survey reveals most Protestants to be spies and many subsequently disappear themselves in shame

    1921 Sir James Hitler comes to power in the infamous Shankill Bierkeller Putsch with his notorious B Specials-did you know “B” stands for “brownshirt”? He later removes PR voting in the notorious Night of the Long Johns

    1939 Basil Brooke invades Poland

    1940 Sean Russell gets tummy ache in suspicious circumstances

    1945 glorious victory over the Unionists spoiled by De Valera signing book of condolence for John Millar von Andrews – unfortunately somehow the British are also the winners- typical perfidious Albion

    1969 PIRA founded. At last men of integrity, immediately seek peace by …er bombing and shooting for twenty years but do not commit Bloody Friday,Caludy, La Mon, Teebane, Enniskillen- in fact they cause no casualties whatsoever, except for a small Pomeranian which breaks its paw falling into a crater in 1973

    1998 IRA win great victory over British by not surrendering guns straight away to themselves

    2000 David Irving founds F.A.I.R.

    2004 Northern Bank loses some money down back of sofa

    2005 mine eyes have seen the glory of the going of the guns ( just don’t ask me about it in case I lose my temper)

  27. ”Come on people. Dont think of it of leaving Britain, think of it as joining some of it to Ireland.”

    At last shay — something we can agree on.
    So you’ll be getting rid of Sinn Fein, rabid anti-British republicanism, the GAA, exorbitant VAT rates, the Irish language, RC church-state interference (sorry to bring that up again), rip-off prices and that eejit who presents the rose of tralee. Oh and the wolfe tones.

  28. “1641 many heretics suffer from Asian bird flu and die by drowning, spontaneous combustion, etc. No Catholics believed hurt”

    Well now, considering what was going on all over Europe in the 1600’s, and considering this had already been done to the same Catholics when the Plantation started, is it really that surprising what happened in 1641?

  29. my point is that the whole march was a deliberate act of provocation that was utterly unnecessary

    The march was organised by Peoples Democracy a fringe Trotskyite group of the type who organise marches about various things all over the world week in week out.

    You may believe that they were trying to provoke a reaction but they may maintain that they were demonstrating the fact that the Civil rights agenda still had a long way to go. The attack on the march pretty much proved their point.

    If Paisley, Bunting and their thugs had stayed away on the basis that people had the right to walk the queens highway then the march would not be remembered today and history might have taken a different course.

    When the Klan attacked Civil rights marches in Alabama they too would claim to have been provoked. What is the provocation?

  30. Nice one Darth – I expect one day to see your interpretation of European history as taught in the Free P college up the Ravenhill Road.

    I expect that’ll be a long wait though – it seems the priest stirs your imagination a lot more vividly. I wonder why that is.

  31. Ironically enough most Polish people living in the border area with Germany also tend to have a very selective knowledge of their recent history.
    The German history of the area has been effectively whitewashed away. My wife is from Zielona Gora (formerly Gruenberg) and I have never met a Polish person from there who has any knowledge of the German history of the city.
    If you go to Szeczin (formely Stettin) the locals are quite happy to show you the old buildings built by Germans but rarely attribute their provenance.
    Wroclaw is indeed a city with a rare and mixed history. The historian Norman Davies wrote the book “Microcosm” about it because it is so representative of Europe’s bloody history. I have visited the place many times because of my wife’s friends and, again, the ordinary people generally know nothing of the history Fintan O’Toole writes about.
    Ireland is a self-obsessed country where many people are only too happy to recount their version of history but it certainly has no monopoly on navel-gazing.

  32. “..history as taught in the Free P college up the Ravenhill Road”…..

    100 BC – Ulster was invaded by the Irish.
    Despite the best efforts of Cu-chulinn and the other other Ulster Heroes the Irish took over and began a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

    The Ulster people fled to Scotland.

    (Notes – The Ulster people had been converted from paganism by St.Patrick (a Protestant missionary from the UK) and became Protestants who worship God. The Irish people had been converted by Roman bishops and became Roman Catholics who worship God’s mummy, the devil and statues)

    1,000 years later, around 1600, God told the Ulster people to return to Ulster.

    When they got there, they found about half a dozen Roman Catholics, the place was in a bad state of repair with weeds everywhere.
    30 years later the Roman Catholics had increased dramatically in numbers and began a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

    Battles raged for years till the Protestants won out in 1690. This ushered in an era of civil and religious liberty for all which is still celebrated today.

    In 1921 the Roman Catholics set up their own country, Eire. Protestants and Jews were persecuted in Eire.

    The Ulster people set up Northern Ireland. Tight security measures were introduced to prevent Roman Catholics starting another campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing. in 1969 the Catholics started another campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

    By 2005 this campaign had won the Roman Catholics many concessions.

  33. “100 BC – Ulster was invaded by the Irish.
    Despite the best efforts of Cu-chulinn and the other other Ulster Heroes the Irish took over and began a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

    Nonsense. The people known as the “Scots” who travelled to modern-day Scotland in the 5th century were actually ethnically Irish people who were Gaelic speaking. In fact, in mainland Europe, the island of Ireland was known from the 3rd century onwards as “Scotia” replacing the earlier “Hibernia”. The Irish people were known as the “Scotii”.

    The invasion of present-day Scotland is the same sort of the thing as the Irish settlement in Gwyneth in Wales – called after Cunned and Irish chieftain. This is where the surname “Kennedy” comes from. Kennedy’s are originally descended from Irish people named Cunned.

    Proof of what I say can be seen in the obvious near-identical languages of Irish and Scots Gaelic, as well as the near identical surnames many Irish people and Scots have e.g. Gallagher/Gallacher, Doherty/Docherty, Kennedy, Campbell, McDonald, McConnell, McDonnell etc.

    The name Scotia/Scotland was later applied only to present-day Scotland, with Ireland being known as Hibernia.

    Also, the “Ulster” you refer did not consist of the present-day Northern Ireland back then. In 1169 when England invaded, Ulster consisted merely of Antrim, Down and Armagh – a fact reflected in that the Earldom of Ulster created by the English only included these areas.

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