The past is another country

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

—LP Hartley

A recent post about the ‘Curragh Incident’ (here) surprised me by the number and content of the replies. It was a short piece about a single event, though one that seems to have made the British government realise that they could not impose ‘Home Rule’ on all of Ireland by force. Though often called a ‘Mutiny’, this is technically incorrect. I could have written at much greater length about what happened, but so often long posts are met with the ‘tl;dr’ response.

Two major themes emerged in the comments; ‘the Establishment’, and—of course—‘religion’.

Now, before you attack me for my views, consider this; I was conceived in the south, but born in the north; one grandfather was a foreman in a shipyard, and of Huguenot descent; his wife was Welsh. One grandmother was from the south; her spouse was an Ulsterman, a child of the manse as was she; he became a ’knight of the shires’ (and therefore a member of the establishment) with descent from lowland Scotsmen, who were planted in Ulster, and had relations by marriage to John Knox; and, he claimed, descent from a daughter of the High King of Ireland. What am I? A Mischling, simultaneously an insider and an outsider? I may be a descendant of these ancestors; but I am my own person.

The UK in 1914 was a very different place from today. Wealth and income inequality was at the most extreme it had ever been. While working women, and such women were predominantly ‘working class’, often didn’t earn quite enough to support themselves, let alone a family; they, mostly, ‘knew their place’. Meanwhile a member of the establishment, could live with his wife in a mansion with scores of rooms, and be looked after by a retinue of perhaps two hundred servants. The wealth of the old aristocracy came off the backs of the poor, through land and rents. (I do know about American heiresses and parvenus.)

In 1914, the UK was a very class-ridden society; these boundaries were weakened in WWI, with the idea of ‘deference’ to your ‘betters’ being eroded; this continued during WWII, though today’s society is hardly classless.

The Establishment has clung to power and influence, even if today their territory is being encroached upon by the ‘elite 1%’. Even now, the English judiciary is 70% comprised of individuals—mostly men—who were among the 7% of children educated at ‘public’ schools; and just look at the composition of the UK cabinet. Indeed, the extent to which the elite, the establishment, has maintained its grip on power and influence as the public school/Oxbridge coterie, and how very different this group is from the rest of the population is quite astounding. The Guardian commented on this recently (here), as did the New Statesman (here), and even the Huffington Post (here). Nigel Dodds, the leader of the DUP at Westminster, is an Oxbridge graduate (here).

The Establishment has always looked after its own, even to the extent of manipulating the judicial system. It has protected its members, for example, the murderer of Patricia Curran, who was the daughter of a N Ireland judge, by scapegoating the innocent; and it has ensured that mass murderers such as the Ulsterman Dr Bodkin Adams (headcount about 160) go free. And compare his fate to Dr Harold Shipman, not an establishment figure (headcount about 250).

If you look at the Curragh Incident through the eyes of the Establishment, you see in Home Rule an existential threat to their wealth and survival; the reaction of the officers in support for their class is entirely unsurprising.

Religion, or perhaps, what people’s ideas of ‘Christianity’ are, has been a weeping, troublesome, festering sore in Ireland as well as Britain for centuries. In the past, ‘Penal Laws’ were discriminatory, as was Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. If many today see Ulster protestants as dour, mirthless people, primarily obsessed with the preservation of the Union, the condemnation of equal marriage, abortion, and sex, remember who Wolf Tone was—and he wasn’t alone. Things were very different, then. You might well think that, apart from the Union, such socially conservative views are shared by many catholics today.

Whatever your religious viewpoint you can find ‘justification’ for it in the long and sorry, unhappy history of Ireland, and equally a ‘condemnation’ of the views of others. Part of the trick is knowing when to start your narrative.

Do we live in a secular society? Such a society is not comprised of atheists, rather is is one where there is the freedom of religion, and the freedom from religion. In a truly secular society the personal right of any belief (or none) is assured, together with the absence of religious interference in the running of the state at any level.

And yet, we all live in the ‘present’, for there is only the present. We may remember the ‘past’, but we cannot relive it, we cannot go back to it, we cannot right the wrongs done in it; we may foresee the ‘future’, but any future becomes ‘now’. And the future is what we make it today.

I first saw this many years ago on a church noticeboard in Belfast:

He that can not think is a fool,

He that will not think is a bigot,

He that dare not think is a slave.

—Andrew Carnegie (supposedly)

If we can’t, daren’t or won’t accept that the past is gone, that it is a foreign, different place, are we not liable to repeat much of what happened before?

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

—George Santayana


  • chrisjones2

    I too was amazed at the number and vehemence of the responses as if we don’t have enough to fight over today

    Roll on 2016 – it will be fun

    Might you close down for a year Mick?