My people have been in Canada since famine forced them out of Ireland in the late 1840s. When my family piled into the yellow station wagon for our summer vacation it was our habit to sing on the long road trip to our destination. One of our favourite family sing alongs was, Dublin in the Green. I have a clear memory of belting out the chorus: We’re off to Dublin in the green in the green/ with our helmets glittering in the sun/ where the bayonets flash and the rifles clash/ to the rattle of a Thompson gun.
Our dad told us the story of our Irish ancestor who was forced to flee Ireland as a rebel. And it may be that after the failed rebellion of 1848 this actually happened although I suspect it’s more likely that my ancestors were tenant farmers forced off their land by starvation or evicted by British land speculators. Nevertheless, when I was five years old I knew a good portion of the words of a rebel marching song. Whatever the facts may have been, my ancestors had been in Canada for a few generations when the violent struggle for Irish independence began and it was easy to romanticize armed struggle when one was safely planted in a new country that provided a safer and wealthier home than the one that had been left.
Catriona Crowe’s talk on Ireland’s decade of revolutionary violence from the 1913 Lockout to Independence in 1923 made short work of the romantic embellishments of my Irish Canadian origin story. As she discussed Ireland’s centenary commemorations of her country’s violent beginnings she painted a stark picture of the toll the brutal decade of insurrection and civil war took on the Irish people. There is abundant documentation and events, from books to digital archives, exhibitions, immersive theatre productions to post cards, cakes and knitted replicas of the General Post Office, and through all this Ireland has tried to memorialize its difficult beginnings in a way that honours the lives lost and allows the Irish to look frankly at their difficult beginning as a nation state. As she neared the end of her talk Catriona Crowe said, “There are things to be proud of and things to be ashamed of in our history and in that we are no different than any other country.”
Irish people paid a great cost in the years leading up to independence; part of that price was the migration of millions of Irish,including my ancestors, to the so-called New World. As Canada engages in our own peace and reconciliation process I can’t help but get stuck on the irony that my ancestors were forced by the colonial actions of a more powerful state out of their homeland, then we, in turn, benefited from a colonial system that oppressed the original peoples of North America. Perhaps as Canada moves into its bi-centenary we will have managed to produce a kind of reconciliation that allows us, like the people of Ireland, to look back frankly at our history and also to move positively into a future that embraces all people who are living in this land.
By guest blogger Nancy Jo Cullen. Follow Nancy on Twitter @nancyjocullen