History is a difficult prison to escape from, and the history of Ireland is as difficult as any. This is the view of historian Robert Kee, who says that nothing is more difficult in Irish history than trying to distinguish reality from myth in Irish nationalism.
We have been treated to two examples recently.
The film "Michael Collins," about one of the great modern figures of Irish history, is based on actual events around the time of the creation of the Irish Free State. But, as might be expected , the villains are more villainous, the heroes more heroic, and the events inflated for dramatic effect. As an Englishman, I find the sight of an armored car shooting indiscriminately at a Gaelic football match in Dublin hard to sit through, and if I were an Irishman, I might easily say how much I "hate" the British, as a New Yorker is quoted in The Times of London. Even if it didn't quite happen that way.
In October the governor of New York, George Pataki, approved legislation that compares British conduct during the Irish Famine to that of the Nazis during the Holocaust and has ordered that the disastrous potato blight of 1845-49 be taught in human-rights courses in New York schools. His action prompted a "disappointed" British ambassador, Sir John Kerr, to protest to the governor that the famine was "not deliberate, not premeditated, and not genocide." He wrote, "The famine was a terrible tragedy, but 150 years later, no serious historian has argued that those who lost their lives did so because of malevolent intent on the part of the British government."
In Britain and Northern Ireland both the "Michael Collins" film and the action of the New York governor have naturally drawn protests. One Northern Ireland politician has called for a boycott of the film as a polluted version of Irish history. Andrew Roberts writes in The Sunday Times that Governor Pataki's action tells us far more about modern American politics than about 19th-century Anglo-Irish history.
My Anglo-Irish grandfather was told in 1922 that he must leave Ireland immediately or be shot. A family home was burned to the ground. A great aunt was made to drink paint and went mad. We were all that was unpopular - Protestants, landowners, and, through several generations, associated with the Royal Irish Constabulary.
But my mother broke the hold of history, I believe, when she went beyond bitterness about the way we had been treated to asking why the Irish people felt that way about us. She apologized to an Irish Catholic senator for the selfish way families like ours had lived in Ireland for four centuries and for our indifference to the plight of Catholics.
OK, the Famine was not deliberate policy and an armored car did not trundle round the soccer ground. But the scale of death in the famine was horrendous and 12 people were actually killed and 60 wounded at the game. Protests at a misuse of history are quite in order. But the next step may be for an acknowledgment to the Irish, Protestant and Catholic, of our share of responsibility for the past and present.
Politics and peace processes have their part. But something more may be needed to help us break the historic cycle of revenge, to address the deep sense of injustice felt by many Catholics and the deep sense of betrayal by many Protestants. This point was made strongly in a sermon in Westminster Abbey this summer by Canon Nicholas Frayling, rector of Liverpool, the port that was originally set up for the colonization of Ireland. "The evil of prejudice is transmitted down the generations," he said, "and it may be that political means are insufficient to overcome it."
He said, quite courageously, echoing the main point in his book, "Pardon and Peace": "We as a nation should apologize unequivocally for our part in creating the horrible situation which now prevails on the island of Ireland.... That apology, which Christians call repentance, must be unconditional. It invites reciprocal forgiveness, but it cannot justly demand it. It is not to say that we alone have done wrong: God knows that blood will have blood and violence breeds violence, but if Christians go along with it, then we are acquiescing in it, and we have forgotten our calling in a fallen world."
This way of breaking out of history's prison has not yet become common at a national level. Its results might surprise.
Michael Henderson is an English journalist living in Oregon.