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Monday, July 2, 2012

Bad dreams, long nights, and gypsies

From now on, maybe I will have learned my lesson, and I'll not start watching potentially disturbing movies at bedtime. I am not so sure reading a nice 'hi, I'm back" blog post from dear Mr. Kelly would have made any difference, either. His being unwell may add slightly to my mood tonight, but even if he was well and hanging out in my living room with my cat, I would still probably have had bad dreams this time. (Ok, maybe I would not have been dreaming, depending on whether we would have stopped talking yet, and whether I could stop thinking about the stuff of our conversation long enough to fall asleep. Anyway...)

The Dream: So, since one of the kids in the movie looks vaguely like Ryan might have looked at 15, it particularly bugged me watching those kids gearing up to go kill someone. If Ryan had been born 10 years earlier he could have been drawn into the fighting just as those kids in the film were. I, at 15, thought I knew enough to get by on my own- indeed at 17 I made an attempt to do just that- and if Ryan was anything like me and my friends at that age, in that climate of fear and violence... So, in my dream, Ryan and I both lived in some town in northern Ireland in the early 70's. He was Catholic, of course, and I was Protestant, but the town was small enough that we knew each other despite going to different schools and churches. And, in this dream, our folks and their friends, and various other members of the surrounding community made it impossible for us not to wind up on separate sides.

I was the same person I am now, reacting to everything as I am sure I would if I were transposed into that setting, so I was quite actively a part of the violence, not firing guns, but acting as an informant against the Catholic people in town, and procuring guns and other stuff for my brother. (I'm glad we were not born in that time and place- I'm not sure the Universe would have survived the 4 of us if we had been there then.) I woke up only after watching a skirmish in a park in the town, in which my brother and his friends were taking on the Catholic kids who had been blamed for one of 'our own' being beaten up earlier, and of course the dream ended when Ryan was killed, his body replacing one of those in the old photographs from the start of the film. Most bad dreams I can sleep through, but that was one image I could happily have lived without, and that it was completely imaginary just meant I saw more detail than I would have in real life.

I wonder now if most of the violence in Ireland is more like what I was creating in my dream, people killing each other for revenge or to preempt being killed, with no real ideology behind it. There are all those grand political goals and historical sources of resentment that usually turn up in accounts of violence in Ireland, and certainly some of the people involved killed to accomplish the liberation of Ireland from England, or to rid Northern Ireland of Catholicism. Some kids would of course pick up their parents' values and fight almost as proxies for their parents, too. But it seems that a lot of the escalation of violence, both during the Troubles and earlier in the violence preceding the 1922 treaty, stemmed from motives of revenge. The English would do something particularly nasty to an Irish person, and then a few Irish people would react, hurting English soldiers or civilians to even the score. And, even if non-Irish civilians in Ireland were sympathetic to the Irish cause, they would not long tolerate being targeted by angry Irish folks.

So, for all that there was probably 'othering' going on, creating 'us' and 'them' and demonizing 'them', on both sides, the dynamic is different from what went on between the English and the Welsh, or between the Travellers and Gypsies and everyone else. Catholic and Protestant people might have developed a steady distrust between them, but as far as I can tell, both sides still hated Gypsies and Travellers as dirty, sub-human creatures. If I had a caravan back then, I can't imagine willingly staying in Northern Ireland during the fighting, but then again, there is only so much space in an island that small, and it's not like the rest of Ireland was particularly better for these universal 'others'.

And the Welsh? Through the 1950's kids were still being punished in school for speaking Welsh. But it was the language, the culture, that was being targeted, not the people themselves. I suppose, in part, so much of Wales was employed in digging coal and doing other dirty manual labor that it was perfectly alright for the Welsh to be dirty and primitive, so long as they stayed in their part of the island. The Irish, on the other hand, were migrating to towns in Scotland, Wales and England, looking for work and trying not to starve to death. The Irish were not staying put, and even if they were, England had laid claim to Ireland, at the very least to the northern part, but really all of Eire if they could only keep hold of it. And, with the Protestant settlers several hundred years ago, England made it plain that they preferred to clear the Irish from Ireland- the Irish were considered an inferior race, lazy, dumb and worthless even as slaves, such that eradicating them would be a service to humanity. The Welsh ideally were being educated out of their language, the Irish were simply being killed off.

The Gypsies and Travellers, to the great annoyance no doubt of all their surrounding neighbors, could not be educated out of anything, because they don't stay put anywhere long enough to let their children be educated in any one place for long. This is still a major frustration in both Great Britain and Ireland- no one knows how many of these nomadic people there are, and their children don't mesh well with the local school systems that are based on the assumption that their pupils live in a particular place long-term. Thus, these people make themselves elusive targets both for those who want to educate them and those who wish to eradicate them. They do preserve themselves and their cultures by being nomadic, but this lifestyle also maintains their status as universal 'others' more permanently.

On the plus side of all this, I may never run out of things to write about on Ireland and Great Britain, long after this thesis is done, printed and bound. Who knows, but I might even manage to make it back to England, and maybe even to Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the course of the rest of my life after this degree. On the negative side, though, so many people had to go through so much suffering to get to what we have now, and while I like to think people are better now, I do know better. If humans were all better now, my thesis would be a pointless exercise. It is because modern and future humans will find new excuses to be nasty and evil to each other that it makes any sense analyzing past conflicts.

The 'races' of the British Isles, with the exception of Gypsies, all blend together now and it seems silly to think of Irish and Scottish and Welsh and English people as distinct races. The distinctions humans found to base these earlier racial types on were as meaningful and real as whatever new distinctions our children will invent. And, unfortunately, just as God could not just blow up Sodom and Gomorrah because there were in fact a few humans he liked among all the bad, I can't just give up and declare the whole human race evil and not worth the effort, because there are beautiful people on this planet whose lives make humanity as a whole worth saving for their sake alone. Realistically my own work is not likely to make that much of a difference either way, but it is on the hope that it might at least be creating a dim flicker of new understanding that most academics in these areas keep working.

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