The nice guy was right in the end

Apr 11th, 2009 | By | Category: Ireland

It is thirty years today since the record came as a present – on Easter Saturday 1979, the girlfriend of the time brought Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces to the house. “Better than an Easter egg”, she said.

Indeed it was.  The lyrics of the main track, Oliver’s Army, reflected the radical politics, that are only possible when one is eighteen years old. To young, radical, English eyes, Ireland was a case of British oppression and the Protestants were the bad guys; the successors to Cromwell and the supporters of occupation.  The passing years taught that no side had a monopoly of evil and that English perceptions of Ireland were more often wrong than right.

Two years on from that Easter Saturday, written in 1981, at traumatic times in Irish history, William Trevor’s Autumn Sunshine would express the ambivalence of Irish history. The gentle Canon Moran, Rector of a little Church of Ireland parish in Co Wexford would be confronted with an Englishman who believed he understood Irish history and would be compelled to struggle for a Christian response to bitter memories.

“At least Kinsella got his chips”, Harold pursued, his voice relentless. “At least that’s something.”

Canon Moran protested. The owner of the barn had been an innocent man, he pointed out. The barn had simply been a convenient one, large enough for the purpose, with heavy stones near it that could be piled up against the door before the conflagration. Kinsella, that day, had been miles away, ditching a field.

“It’s too long ago to say where he was,” Harold retorted swiftly. “And if he was keeping a low profile in a ditch it would have been by arrangement with the imperial forces.”

When Harold said that, there occurred in Canon Moran’s mind a flash of what appeared to be the simple truth. Harold was an Englishman who had espoused a cause because it was one through which the status quo in his own country might be damaged. Similar such Englishmen, read about newspapers, stirred in the clergyman’s mind: men from Ealing and Liverpool and Wolverhampton who had changed their names to Irish names, who had even learned the Irish language, in order to ingratiate themselves with the new Irish revolutionaries. Such men dealt out death and chaos, announcing that their conscience insisted on it.

The walk to Kinsella’s Barn had taken place on a Saturday afternoon. The following morning Canon Moran conducted his services in St Michael’s, addressing his small Protestant congregation, twelve at Holy Communion, eighteen at morning service. He had prepared a sermon about repentance, taking as his text St Luke, 15:32: ‘ … for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.’ But at the last moment he changed his mind and spoke instead of the incident in Kinsella’s Barn nearly two centuries ago. He tried to make the point that one horror should not fuel another, that passing time contained its own forgiveness.

“The man Kinsella was innocent of everything,’ he heard his voice insisting in his church. “He should never have been murdered also.”

Harold would have delighted in the vengeance exacted on an innocent man. Harold wanted to inflict pain, to cause suffering and destruction. The end justified the means for Harold, even if the end was an artificial one, a pettiness grandly dressed up. In his sermon Canon Moran spoke of such matters without mentioning Harold’s name. He spoke of how evil drained people of their humour and compassion, how people pretended even to themselves

He could tell that his parishioners found his sermon odd, and he didn’t blame them. He was confused, and naturally distressed.

Thirty years on, the Oliver’s Army was wrong and the gentle Canon Moran was right.

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