These are two short essays by Lucia Valente musing the current situation in Middle East and Irish history. She sees no difference.
Hedge Schools (i)
How Traditional Irish Hedge Schools gave hope to impoverished people
Countries can be destroyed and cultures decimated by imperialistic and war mongering societies. It has happened for millennia – it’s as old as privatization of property. Some cultures can survive such destruction albeit with much change and cultural losses, yet they do transform and survive. My own culture did just that.
As we look at the news and see the massive destruction far away from us – in North Africa and the Middle East – we know that it’s nothing new. Perhaps we can believe that for us in Europe, specifically were I live in Ireland, it has nothing to do with us.
Yet perhaps it has more resonance for us that we at first believe.
Reflecting on the news and the pictures of young children in refugee camps – we see children with no obvious hopeful future, no education, perhaps fractured home life, no opportunities to contribute in a good way to their society and culture. It may not speak to us – it may have no resonance.
Yet for me it triggers reflection of our history – the long hardships, the struggles, the starvation, the destruction – almost full decimation of the culture. Many of us really do not know our history – perhaps if we did, we would see the plight of suffering populations differently. The latest in the long list of decimated cultures and countries is happening right now Libya, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Somalia. If we were more cognizant of our history would we view these tragedies in a different light? Perhaps.
It is history repeating itself with the same forces of destructive power running amok. Do we think about the people and families whose lives have been damaged so badly?
We Irish were for generations held in the grip of one of the most powerful empires – with many Irish Catholics being unable to get an education, practice religion, own property, get meaningful jobs. Many Irish children of that period also had no obvious hopeful future, no education, perhaps fractured home life, no opportunities to contribute in a good way to society and culture.
Today children suffer because of displacement by unseen forces, macro political and economic forces that have destroyed their societies. In Ireland it was the result of colonization and Penal Laws (ii) that were in effect for many generations and only gradually were repealed. In that era the structure of refugee camps within Ireland did not exist per se. However, if you were an Irish Catholic, the country itself was defacto a refugee camp. Why? Because in our own country we could not live by our own cultural norms because the Penal Laws supplanted our cultural norms and it became almost shameful to be Irish in Ireland.
We know that Irish people are fighters – we had to be – if we did not fight for centuries we may have had the same fate as so many native populations who were subjugated and destroyed by colonial forces. Why were the Irish relatively successful in keeping our culture alive? Perhaps some of the reasons are the strong commitment to religion, culture and education. For generations of school children up until the Potato Blight in 1845 (iii) the hedge schools provided the foundation of their religion, culture and education. Through those hedge schools a sense of continuity, of community was reinforced.
These hedge schools were open air, yet hidden class-rooms, where small groups of children had the chance to receive a small amount of education and teaching from a travelling priest or teacher. It had to be conducted in secret because public policy restricted their education.
When I see pictures of the refugee camps I hope that we have the modern day equivalent to the hedge schools and that children can get some basic education and begin to have hope.
(i) Hedge Schools
(iii) The Potato Blight (I do not refer to it as famine because it is only one crop – the potato – that had blight. Ireland, then as today, had many crops and livestock – there was no shortage of food in Ireland
As I listen to the news about the people escaping from North Africa on boats that are often set adrift in the Mediterranean Sea and many die on this journey, my mind reflects back in time. We hear about many of them who die because their boats capsize while they are seeking safety in Europe. Enroute to freedom in Italy and Europe, their boats, which often are overcrowded and without the basic amenities for survival, sink. The result is that many thousands of wretched people die.
My mind wanders and I reflect on the journey of others fleeing persecution and misery. I see images of what it was like for hundreds of thousands of Irish people, who during the time of the potato blight in Ireland, died on their way to a better life in North America.
The ships that these wretched people travelled on were also woefully inadequate and it is hard to estimate how many Irish souls died on their way to freedom. They are called ‘coffin ships’ and I feel that the boats on which the North Africans and others are floating on in the Mediterranean are also ‘coffin ships’.
Again our world is faced with the injustice wrought on innocent people. A century and a half ago, Irish people had to leave their homes and their country because of horrendous public policy in Britain. Today people in war-torn countries in North Africa and the Middle East are equally desperate to find peace and safety. They have to take major risks to themselves and their children for a chance to have a humane life.
As I was reflecting on these thoughts I came across the following quotation by Mary Robinson Former Irish President. Given our history, my wish is that Irish people do have a deeper sympathy for the suffering of others
“With all of its pain and disorder, the past has constructed us in the actual and literal ways of generation and inheritance.” Now with factual assistance that past has the power to do something more: it can construct and strengthen our understanding and our sympathy in the present.
Mary Robinson, Former Irish President