GDANSK, JUNE 2012. Spain beat Ireland 4-0 in a display of uplifting virtuosity, the sort of performance that makes even cynics like me call it the beautiful game once again. And yet, despite their sporting humiliation, the Irish crowd continued to sing the Fields of Athenry for hours and hours and hours after the final whistle.
You stole Trevelyan’s corn, they chanted to their baffled Polish hosts, in a bizarre and unintended irony, since most of those singing had never heard of Trevelyan nor knew who he was, never mind understanding the significance of the corn, which wasn’t really his anyway, except metaphorically.
Why irony? Simple. This is a song about a catastrophe in the history of the Irish — the Great Famine, our Shoah, which saw a million die of starvation and another million leave the country forever in conditions of the direst misery. Why do football supporters sing this song? Why do Munster supporters sing it? I don’t know. Do they simply not listen to the words?
The Famine ruined us for generations, creating the circumstances by which yet another abusive clique, the Catholic church, managed to get us under its heel, but let’s put even this most repellent calamity in perspective. The Irish supporters were singing The Fields in a country that has been overrun both by Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Stalin’s Red Army, a country crushed under the oppression of the Soviet Union for another fifty years until the shipyard workers revolted and said No more. Where did Lech Walesa make his iconic stand against Jaruselski’s communist regime, delivering his address of defiance from a forklift? Gdansk, that’s where. The very same place Ireland played Spain and lost 4-0. The city in which our green-clad gladiators were proudly singing about Trevelyan’s corn, even though they had not the slightest notion what it was.
Even more compelling and redolent of recent history, Poland is the country in which Germany built its most devastating murder factories: Sobibor, Belzec, Maidanek, Soldau, Warsaw, Auschwitz, Chelmno and Treblinka. It was in these places that millions upon millions of Jews and other undesirables were murdered, wiping out a central-European culture, extinguishing an entire intelligentsia on the orders of drab, unexceptional little men like Heinrich Hmmler, following the Wannsee conference.
When you find yourself in Poland, Latvia, Germany, Holland, Denmark, the Czech Republic or any of the former Yugoslavian states, you realise that violent history is in the memory of any middle-aged or elderly person you might greet in a coffee shop. And yes, I know that we too have a violent history. I understand that we have the right to be angry about the things that were done to our ancestors and by extension to us, but nobody in Ireland has seen the sort of thing inflicted on Poland by Blitzkrieg, by the Waffen SS or by the Red Army in its advance across Europe as German forces fell back. The mass murders, the mass-rapes, the bombardments, the starvation, the gassings.
We simply have no idea what these horrors were like but Poles do.
Their fathers, their mothers, their grandfathers, their grandmothers experienced at first hand what these things mean.
Am I trying to diminish the Irish famine? Certainly not. Our ancestors were treated brutally. They were starved off their lands and forced onto the disease-ridden emigrant ships. This country was raped for profit, but none of that is my point. We continue to deal with the seismic social impact of the Famine 170 years later, and we continue to sift truth from fiction, as every survivor of an atrocity must, but by now, our Shoah is at a remove, while that of central Europe certainly is not. The wounds are raw.
Am I trying to absolve the Poles of blame? No. Jewish survivors of the camps were murdered by Polish neighbours when they returned from Hell and tried to reclaim their homes, just as Irish people were beaten down by their fellow countrymen in desperate times. This happens and it is not good. Nobody has any business feeling superior in the dirty business of war or famine.
About Ireland, yes, we have been treated harshly, brutally, and yes there was at the very least a collusion between the authorities and the landlord classes, but this was far from unique throughout Europe. We are not unique. I realise there’s no league-table of atrocity, and if anyone had to explain the words of The Fields to a well-informed Pole, I suspect they’d get a short answer. You’re singing about something that happened a century and a half ago? Do you not realise where you are now? Have you not heard of Maidanek? Sobibor? Oswiecim? Treblinka? Stutthof?
That’s the problem with insularity. We tend to think that we are the centre of the world and that nobody’s suffering can possibly match ours. Isn’t it about time we got over our feelings of oppression? It’s a long time since any jackboot stood on us, but despite that, we still seem capable of making a gigantic mess. If we could overcome this idea that our grievances and tragedies are unique, then maybe we could also overcome the idea that we exist in some sense outside Europe, in an untouchable Celtic bubble of post-oppression blamelessness, and start to grow up for ourselves.
Clearly, the craven attitude of our prime minister in his approach to his European betters is a sign that we haven’t quite evolved that far, which is a pity, considering the drastic state of our affairs. Meanwhile, some of our leaders have weightier things on their minds. A Mayo Fine Gael TD, Michelle Mulherrin, who recently came to prominence with comments about fornication, will introduce a motion at next weeks FG parliamentary party meeting urging a change of Dáil rules.
Is this a change to make sure that parliamentarians are better informed? No.
That they are better advised? No.
That they speak more clearly? No.
That they stop droning from notes and say what’s on their minds? No.
That they learn to speak clear English? No.
That they have a better basic education? No.
Well, what is it then?
I’ll tell you. Michelle Mulherrin’s groundbreaking proposal is that Dáil deputies should wear better clothes. She doesn’t think t-shirts and jeans are suitable attire for our august parliament.
Just as well Michelle doesn’t run Google, Microsoft or Apple then, but wait. What am I talking about? Michelle is a government backbencher. They don’t run anything. They are, however, a useful barometer of how narrow our national outlook is, and I’m grateful to Michelle for illustrating the stultifying confines of our national vision. Never mind how intelligent or capable a legislator is. Focus instead on what he wears and force him to dress according to the standards you personally consider appropriate.
In a peculiar way, that attitude is not a million miles away from singing the Fields of Athenry in Poland. Both are obsessed with a small, narrow, local vision, both completely miss the point, and both are utterly irrelevant.