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By Jason Michael McCann
ÍASON MÍCHEÁL MAC CANNA is ainm dom. In late September 2014, when I began publishing articles in support of Scottish independence, the fact that I lived in Ireland was a serious issue for unionists online. Ireland, of course, smacks of Catholicism and dangerous Republicanism in ‘North Britain’s’ sectarian imagination, and so, almost immediately, some of the most bigotted and vitriolic unionist trolls began to attack me as a ‘Fenian’ and as an ‘Irish Republican’ — a terminology they deployed with an obvious mix of fear and loathing. Call it an educated guess, but they were right; I am a Catholic and an Irish Republican. I am the most feared and loathed version of both — a devout Catholic and a Sinn Féin activist.
It was not until I voiced my misgivings about Nicola Sturgeon recently that my faith, my mixed nationality, and my political opinions became a problem to my fellow Scottish independentistas. In the comments — never read the comments — of the past number of articles I have published on the Random Public Journal, beside one death threat, some rather upsetting remarks have been made. John Livingston wrote, in typical internet shorthand, ‘get bk tae Ireland ya fkn bam pot.’ Pete Murphy — a weird surname for someone joining in this carry on — simply said, ‘Dirty fenian cunt.’ We can assume John and Pete are independence supporters because their toxic bile arrived in response to my criticism of Ms Sturgeon and the current leadership of the Scottish National Party. Without the disgusting language (for which I do apologise), there has been a marked shift in the comments and replies I have been receiving online. Independentistas upset with my criticism of the SNP are now taking issue with my Catholicism, my politics, and my residence in Ireland. One can only see in this the hint of sectarian bigotry behind their ‘inclusive’ and ‘civic nationalism.’
Please don’t be worrying about me, I’m a big bhoy. As the only Catholic child in a predominantly Protestant school in Ayrshire, I have learned how to cope with this failing in others. But it has become apparent to me that for many in the Scottish independence movement — certainly not all, and definitely not the majority — behind the thin veil of toleration (no one should be merely tolerated in their own country) there lurks an ancient grudge and a deep uneasiness with Catholics and Irish-Scots. It has made an appearance before; in my interactions with the pro-independence blogger James Kelly and the young Green MSP Ross Greer. So, in a hopefully rare moment of gratuitous self-disclosure, I would like to offer here an apologia pro vita sua — an account of myself and my politics.
McCann from the Banks of the Bann
In the years after the Great Famine, like so many other Irish people, a drove of McCanns from the County of Armagh arrived in Glasgow. For a while James and Elizabeth McCann lived in the overcrowded slums of the Gorbals before taking work on the railroad. With countless Irish navvies, James broke the ground and laid the lines along the west coast of Scotland before settling down with his teaghlach beag in the village of Hurlford near Kilmarnock. By the 1970s, more than a hundred years later, where exactly they had come from in Armagh was unknown. A few hobbyist genealogists in the family through the years looked but nothing ever turned up. It was lost. The poor quality of the parish records during the years of the famine and the destruction of the Dublin Records Office during the Civil War always brought us to the same dead end. It wasn’t until the death of a distant and elderly aunt that we discovered where they came from. When Ina passed away an old family Bible was found in her house — a pure rat killer of a tome of a thing, this. Listed in the blank pages at the front were the names of McCanns from the late 1840s to the 1990s; over a century of McCann history. Right there at the top of the first page was written in the most beautiful handwriting: ‘James McCann, b. 1847 Lurgancot, Parish of Kilmore.’
After consulting the Victorian OS maps and the tithe books in the National Library on Kildare Street, and finding a miniscule triangular plot of land surrounded by orchards marked ‘Peter McCann’ in 1846, M., B., myself, and a couple of other McCann treasure hunters set off for the townland of Lurcancot, half-way between the city of Armagh and Portadown in the occupied north of Ireland. It took an age to find the exact spot. Sure, places change a bit in almost two hundred years. But at the bottom of a tiny laneway, the entrance to which was flanked by massive hedges, off a country road scarred with an old battered sign reading ‘Sniper at Work’ and overlooked by a dismantled British Army installation on the hill, we found the triangular plot.
‘Fuck off!,’ exclaimed B. as the house came into sight, as — and you’re not going to believe this — right next to the bungalow was the arse end of a delivery lorry bearing the words ‘McCann Hauliers.’ We stood agog at the front door when it was opened. There, in front of us, towered a man, the image of my own uncle James, M.’s brother — who had died a couple of years before. We were home! This was family! Way into the night, crowded into this pokey wee front parlour, ‘the granny McCann’ filled in everything we had missed since we ‘took the boat.’
At the dawn of the Irish Republican movement, when Irish Catholics were being ‘hunted’ from the land and terrorised by the Protestant Peep o’ Day Boys — named for their preferred tactic of attacking Catholic homes at dawn, the McCanns of the area fought at Loughgall in the 1795 Battle of the Diamond; the event which led to the establishment of the Loyalist Orange Order, before taking part in Wolfe Tones’ 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion. McCanns from the area, in a part of the country relatively unaffected by the famine, had been involved in the land agitation and were prominent members of the Land League after our McCanns had taken the boat. Her son — the uncle James look-alike — then touched on a part of the family story we did know; the part about Dan McCann.
Dan came from another offshoot of the family, and — as it were — had kept up the family tradition. You might know of him too. He was born in Clonard in West Belfast in 1957 and before leaving school was caught up in the Troubles. After the British Army started massacring Nationalist civilians in Ballymurphy and Derry he enlisted in the Provisional Irish Republican Army and served as a member of the General Headquarters. In March 1988, while unarmed, he and two other members of his active service unit — Volunteers Mairéad Farrell and Seán Savage — were ambushed and murdered by the SAS in Gibraltar. He and his comrades are listed among the Laochra na Poblachta on the IRA’s Roll of Honour.
As is the case with many Irish diaspora families, always in the background of my own family in Scotland was the spectre of Ireland and the whole miserable and painful experience of its history — the nightmare from which we hoped, through time and dispersion, to awake. In our home it was muted. My dad distanced my brothers and I from the trouble and the Troubles of Ireland. Celtic shirts were banned. We were Kilmarnock people. His best man at his wedding was an Orangeman. He ignored the sectarianism and to this day refuses to be trapped by difficult histories and narratives. But, like all ghosts, it lingered. Just as Vox Hibernia called St. Patrick, so Ireland calls to all her children through memory and over time. Other members of the family maintained their connections to the old country, they lived the cultural life as diaspora children; they went to Mass, they said the Rosary, they drank in O’Neil’s, and they supported Glasgow Celtic. It was always there.
The Road to Damascus
A Kilmarnock boy, protected from the past, ignorant to all history save for the version deemed acceptable by the British state in our schools — which is no history at all, I was protected. Every effort was made to cocoon us from Ireland and Irishness, especially the Troubles, until, that is, a terrible oversight was made. We had a small family business; a commercial print shop, and after school and at weekends the dad would have us in the factory working us to the bone. Over the summer holidays he’d have us slaving away for £10 a week — a tenner a week! It being a family business, it wasn’t quite the kind of work environment where we could unionise and stick it to the man for better pay and conditions. Ours was not to reason why… and all that jazz. But, getting to the point, one summer I managed to negotiate a bonus. I’d quit my moaning and whining, be a compliant child labourer for the summer — God, I make it sound awful, don’t I? — accept the fag money on condition they packed me off to the aunty’s in Dublin for a week before the end of the holliers.
Mam was less-than pleased with the idea. She’d rather I went off as a UN Peacekeeper to Beirut than go to ‘Ireland.’ It took a helluva lot of explaining to get her to believe Dublin was miles from the craziness, but she gave in in the end. I was going to Ireland. So, I kept my side of the bargain. Overalls on, I shouted and swore at and kicked the aul’ Ryobi two-colour press — the way my father showed me — and did it without complaining [much]. But as the summer drew on and as the date of departure drew close the ‘tensions’ were mounting at Drumcree. The mither was not best pleased. She was looking at the UN brochures again. And on the morning of the flight — Prestwick ‘International’ to Dublin — didn’t all hell break out?! The RUC was forcing the Orange Order down the Garvaghy Road, and the Catholic residents were not exactly over the moon about it.
Sitting on the couch in the living room, mentally hurrying my dad home from work to drive me to the airport, the BBC lunchtime news was giving the highlights. The longer this went on, the more likely it was that the mother would put the foot down. But I was struck by what I was watching. This was mental stuff. It couldn’t have been more stereotypical if it tried; this big lanky fella in a Celtic shirt with wild ginger hair leapt forward out of the crowd of angry neighbours blocking the street at an RUC man in riot gear, pulled at his helmet, and hit him a mighty crack across the back of his skull. As loopy as the Orangemen were, this was uncalled for, I thought to myself. It was obvious ‘one side was as bad as the other.’ No wonder there would never be peace. This same clip must have been played three times before the dad finally arrived. Off went the telly, rucksack fired in the boot, and I was getting the seat belt buckled shotgun. Two hours later I was reading strange words on the other side of the Irish Sea: Fáilte go Baile Átha Cliath!
Aunty M. was waiting to pick me up and take me to her place — my holiday home for a week — in Dún Laoghaire. Marvelous, so it was. That night, as she was making the dinner, I was parked on her couch watching the evening news on RTÉ One. As you might expect, the big story was the chaos at Drumcree and the carry on on the Garvaghy Road — and there was that clip again, the one with the big angry lad getting his Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes. Only, this time it was different. Like, completely different. To be honest, I didn’t understand any of this. I wasn’t aware that the news could tell you lies with facts and pictures. But here it was. RTÉ was showing the same footage but with a few seconds added on to the start of the BBC’s ‘clip.’ And these few seconds changed absolutely everything.
This time the scene opened with residents holding a line across the street, shouting but otherwise perfectly peacefully. In front of them was a mass of heavily armoured RUC men in riot gear, and behind them was a terrifying and numberless horde of Orangemen making a god-awful racket. An RUC man — the poor victim on the BBC — reached into the crowd of residents and grabbed a young girl, a lassie of about 12 or 13, by the hair and tugged her out of the line. It was brutal to watch. Her dad, the tall man with wild ginger hair and a Celtic shirt, reached for the copper’s helmet, pulled it clean off and gave the shite a well-deserved clatter on the noggin. The scales were ripped from my eyes. The BBC wasn’t a news service. It was something else. It was something very ugly. A week later I returned to Scotland quite changed. This was all people were talking about in Dublin. It upset them. They appeared to know more about ‘the North’ than we did at home. My Republican education had just begun.
Theobald Wolfe Tone and 1798
‘Narrative’ is important when discussing conflict. Ireland is a place of contested history in a world of narratives and counter-narratives where History isn’t a simple thing, but a series of often competing his-stories; versions of the past spun to support various ideological agendas. Britain doesn’t have an ideological agenda, at least not in the minds of people conditioned by British education and media. Ideology is a bad word, and something only bad people have. The Soviets had an ideology, Irish Republicans have an ideology, ‘terrorists’ are ideological. But in reality Britain has the most powerful ideology of all. Its ideology is imperialist and so manufactures narratives in its schools and newspapers to rationalise and explain the normalcy of Britain’s place in the world and its behaviour in the world. Inside the United Kingdom the ideology of the British state is invisible precisely because it is normal. Ideology, as a system of ideas and ideals which forms the basis of economic or political theories and policy, is everywhere in the UK. It is all-encompassing and so invisible. Britain’s ideology is produced in the school and by the inscribers of culture and it is reproduced in its products — ordinary people. This is television talent shows, sport, popular culture and opinion. It is so ubiquitous it has become the wood lost in the trees.
Moreover, as the coloniser and occupier, Britain imposes this ideology on the nations it dominates — on Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Britain writes the history of its subject peoples and establishes the narrative of power, the myth that explains the rightness of Britain’s dominance. According to the British narrative Ireland’s history is simple: Britain, rather than being an occupying colonial power, is in Ireland as a peace-maker in a country torn apart by irrational sectarian division caused by religion and inexplicable and irresolvable ancient grievances. This narrative explains ‘Northern Ireland’ and legitimises Britain’s behaviour towards the Irish people. Without the British troops, you’ll remember, the Irish would have simply kept killing one another. But like every ideological narrative, this is a fiction. It is a lie constructed to hide the truth. Basically, when it comes to Ireland, British people are in The Truman Show.
Yes, England invaded Ireland. In fact, this was a gradual invasion which began with the Anglo-Normans in 1169. Yet, this never created a religious conflict. The English Anglo-Saxons and Normans were as Catholic as the Gaelic Irish. This was long before the advent of Nationalism, so the Gaels never understood this is a national domination. Over time the Irish and the Norman invaders buried the hatchet, they intermarried, and the new aristocracy became ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves.’ Even during the Elizabethan Plantations and the Jacobian Plantation of Ulster, there was nothing inevitable about sectarian conflict. What did cause conflict was the genocidal clearance of the Gaelic Irish population from the land and the settlement of a new Scots, English, and Welsh peasantry. You steal someone else’s land, and someone will get hurt. Ask an Israeli.
In 1789 revolution began in France, and quickly the idea of replacing despotic monarchies with a Republic spread across Europe. Recognising that the trouble in Ireland was caused by British colonial policy, Irish Protestants and Catholics felt that the best way to secure peace in their country was to establish a representative government for Ireland and become an independent democratic republic. What we are never taught in Scottish schools is that these were not exactly French — ‘foreign’ — ideas. These were Scottish Presbyterian ideas. Scots Presbyterians were some of the key thinkers behind the Republicanism in the American colonies that led to the American Revolution. In Scotland it was the Presbyterian minister and Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson who, in his 1767 Essay on the History of Civil Society, articulated the philosophy of early-modern Republicanism. In Ireland in 1791 it was this very Scots Presbyterian idea that brought Catholics and Protestants together under the banner of The Society of United Irishmen — the All Under One Banner of its time.
The father of Irish Republicanism was the Dublin born Protestant lawyer Wolfe Tone, and it was he who spelled out the creed of Irish Republicanism that has lasted to the present:
To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country—these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter—these were my means.
In essence, the idea of the Irish Republic was, from the beginning, an effort to end the sectarian divisions Britain stoked up in Ireland by making the break from England, ‘the never-failing source of all our political evils.’ Nowhere was this ideal more terribly and beautifully dramatised than at the highest point of Irish Republican mythology, when the flag of the Irish Revolution — the tricolour, now the flag of Ireland — was flown by the rebel forces in 1916 during the Easter Rising. Even in their ‘blood sacrifice,’ the women and men of the Irish Republican forces proclaimed to ‘all the children of Ireland’ that theirs was not a struggle for a sectarian state — such as Britain would make ‘Northern Ireland’ (‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’), but a free Ireland for Catholics (green) and Protestants (orange) and all and peace (white between them).
The Long War
It would be wrong to speak about Irish Republicanism and fail to mention the Troubles, the three decades and more of violent armed struggle waged by the ‘Provos’ — the Provisional IRA, the military wing of the Republican movement — against the British forces of occupation in the Six Counties. On many occasions, particularly during my time campaigning for Scottish independence, I have been asked to denounce the actions of the IRA and disclose which Republican organisations of which I am a member. But these are things I cannot do, and for fairly obvious reasons. What I can say is this: During the course of the ‘Long War’ awful things happened. Terrible mistakes were made, war crimes were committed, and the recourse to violence was always regrettable. This is a period of our history that will forever haunt Irish Republicanism and the Irish nation. It was perhaps the darkest period of our history. But this was a war. It was cold and brutal, and the enemy — the British state and the military forces of occupation — was murdering innocent Irish people. Britain had no right to be in Ireland.
We should begin by making it clear that the IRA formally ended its armed struggle on 3 February 1961. Then, ‘for the IRA, dedicated to a united Ireland achieved by force , the failure had destroyed the hopes of a generation — the gun would go on the shelf, the volunteers back to the rounds of private life, and Ireland would remain divided and unfree (Bell, 1970).’ Which is to say that in 1969, when the British Army was sent into the North, the IRA did not exist — certainly not as a battle-ready military force. However, like the phoenix that armed Irish Republicanism has always been, it sprang back to life as a result of the actions of the British Army on 30 January 1972 — more than a decade after putting down the gun.
In response to the Civil Rights movement, agitating peacefully for better democratic representation for Catholics — legally discriminated against in a British aparteid statelet in the north of Ireland, the British government made the decision to send 1 PARA (the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment) to Ireland, a unit highly experienced in the business of brutally crushing resistance and rebellion in the Africa and Asia. The paratroopers wasted no time in getting to work. On 9 August 1971, 1 PARA entered the Catholic housing estate of Ballymurphy in Belfast and, over the course of two days, went from street to street murdering innocent civilians — British citizens. Joan Connolly, a 44 year old woman standing on a street was shot for no reason and without warning. The soldiers laughed and joked as they stopped people coming to her aid. She lay screaming on the ground for hours before she died. The parish priest, Fr Hugh Mullan, was deliberately targeted. He was shot while going to give the last rites to a wounded man. A 1 PARA sniper then started killing people who went to help him. By the time this act of state-sanctioned terrorism was over eleven people were dead. The Ballymurphy massacre was never reported in the media. The plan was to terrorise the Catholic population.
On 30 January 1972 — Bloody Sunday — the Paras were called out again, this time to crack down on a Civil Rights march in the city of Derry. Perfectly aware of their defencelessness, the soldiers opened fire into the crowd and spent the next hours searching the streets and shooting innocent people. 14 people were murdered and over 15 others wounded. Again, the plan was to terrorise. It didn’t work. That night membership of the practically defunct Provisional IRA exploded — pun intended. Britain had ignited a war that would last until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a war that would cost more than three and a half thousand lives.
What about the ‘whataboutery?’ Whenever we discuss the Long War we are immediately confronted with the British narrative — the argument of moral equivalence that insists ‘one side was as bad as the other.’ This is a nonsense. There is no eqivolance. The Irish Republican Army was not a state actor. The civilian victims of British state violence were not combatants. The British military occupation of Ireland was an exercise in violent repression and the tactical violation of human and civil and political rights. Britain’s actions were violence by definition. The efforts of people to protect and defend themselves and their communities from such barbaric state violence — even by force of arms — is not and never has been defined as violence. Naturally, this poses a degree of philosophical difficulty to me as a pacifist. But given the established principle in international law of the right of people to defend themselves from state violence, the accepted idea that defence — even armed defence — is not violence, we can take comfort in the life-affirming aphorism that pacifism is not passivism.
Resistance in the Body
The fusion in Ireland of Catholicism and Republicanism has birthed what is without doubt Irish Republicanism’s most powerful weapon, the will to fight the most fundamental form of warfare in the suffering of the body — an extreme form of non-violence that at once stuns the oppressor and offers the oppressed the most sublime and sacred icon of resistance, the martyr. No empire in the history of human civilisation has been able to defeat the heroic martyred dead. One can ask what use there is in dying in national struggle, but the answer will always remain the same: What nation can there be without people willing to die for its cause. Britain has mountains of dead conscripts from the Great War; its known and unknown warriors — little boys who died on foreign fields in a war they neither wanted nor understood. It has millions of such dead, but it has not a single Terence MacSwiney or Bobby Sands; Irishmen who accepted and understood their struggle and took their war with the British Empire into the very cells of their bodies, and who in British prisons in Ireland broke the power of the mighty in the fragility of the frames. As MacSwiney wrote:
It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most who will conquer.
This is weapons-grade Catholicism, not necessarily religious Catholicism. It calls upon something deep in the Irish Catholic imagination, the mother’s milk of devotion and martyrology — something not understood by the British belly. In a secular reading and drama, this is High Mass — the perpetual sacrifice of Christ, the sainted women and men who offered up their lives for their faith, Daniel in the den of lions — the supreme vindication of defeat. It is nothing short of a warrior’s theologia crucis where the ignominious gibbet is transformed into a throne.
The hunger strikers died as an unavoidable consequence of the British occupation, of the presence of British concentration camps in Ireland. Their deaths, in the most mystical sense imaginable, give life to the Republican movement and in every generation of our struggle strengthen our volunteers and activists in the knowledge that no matter how brutal Britain becomes, we can go deeper, and deeper still — deep into the innermost recesses of our bodies and deeper still into the solid hard stone of our souls. This is the place of victory, because in that monastic cell there is no defeat.
Tiocfaidh Ár Lá
Britain, as an imperial power, is a monster. It is the author of lies. Perfidious Albion is unchanged in its bad faith, as we have seen in its dealing with Europe, with Scotland, Wales, and the people of Ireland still unfree in the Six Counties. What the Irish Republican knows, something we Scots and our friends in Wales are struggling to grasp, is that Britain can never be trusted. The Scottish and Welsh governments may continue to play this constitutional game for a while yet, but in time it will become all too clear to them that under the mask of liberal democracy Britain is the same Victorian devil it was when it starved Ireland and India, when it raped and brutalised Ireland with irregular soldiers, when it used every instrument of the state in its collusion with murder gangs. Britain will continue to string these nations along, talking words of honeyed peace and justice and democracy. It will talk about referenda and opinion polls and the constitution. But the moment these baubles no longer guarantee its position, it will call in the troops.
In Scotland and in Wales, when that moment comes — as inevitably it will — then their sons and daughters too will feel the demonic isolation of the concentration camp, internment, imprisonment without trial, torture, and their beloved shoot-to-kill policy. Only then will they know that their independence is at hand, for in that savagery Britain has always been overcome. It is at that moment when the inclination of the soul of the oppressed it to resist, and resist all the way into the basements of their being. Why am I a Republican? Simply this: I know the diabolical nature of my enemy and nothing in me will allow it to destroy me.
Tiocfaidh an t-am nuair nach mbeidh aon éalú ón bhfírinne. Beidh ar gach duine againn ár n-áit a ghlacadh agus seasamh. Ní bheidh aon trócaire ná aon fhéidearthacht cúlú. Agus sa nóiméad is dorcha beidh a fhios againn — tiocfaidh ár lá!
The H Block Song