Who do you say that you are?

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The title for this talk is Who do you Say that you Are? You will remember a recent television programme of a somewhat similar name.
          And Jesus, according to the Gospels, didn’t query himself on who he was, but he asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And it was Simon Peter who answered, that he was “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. The other disciples had said that some men believed he was John the Baptist, others Elias, Jeremias or one of the prophets. But from the text it seems Jesus didn’t then respond to his own question: perhaps he didn’t know the answer.
          It is vital that we know ourselves, that we know who we really are, and from what setting we come. The phrase “Know Thyself”, it is said, goes back to ancient Egypt and was later carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Ancient Greece. It comes up with Socrates who said “an unexamined life is not worth living”, Plato, and many centuries later with Thomas Hobbes, Alexander Pope, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Samuel Coleridge.
          So, in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of contexts, the injunction to self-identify has always been with us, as those of us living in Ireland well know.
          Here, we’ll just concentrate on the matter of our religious/historical/social/community identity, which is a significant background to our personality, and character. We can then privately go on to pinpoint what else makes us, what we really feel, as distinct from what we were trained to feel, what are our ethics, our talents, or lack of them, are we introverts or extroverts, do we accept, even understand, our sexual orientation (you will have seen that Superman, the comic hero has finally come out as bisexual) where are we on the spiritual spectrum, is our career, even if its prestigious, the right one for us, is our marriage/partnership healthy?
          Some weeks ago, walking as many of us are doing frequently, along by the west pier in Dun Laoghaire my companion, someone for whom I’ve abundant admiration, suddenly bent down, picked up a snail and tenderly left it on a leaf away from the path. She was afraid it might be stood on and perhaps that the hot gravel was too much for the snail. I was bemused and related this incident to a sensitive relative. He said he would of course do exactly the same thing, as did another friend, a friend who while strolling the Dodder identifying plants, trees and every living thing, recites reams of Wordsworth. (Indeed, this friend isn’t too sure whether we should kill rats and snakes)
          So, my moral compass was a little shaken. It made me, a frequent garden snail killer, hesitate, wonder if there was a chink in a flabby moral armour, had I the feet of clay of someone who believed he was at least averagely compassionate. So, do I really know who I am, do you? Have we self-knowledge? There is interestingly an answer to this in the title of Fintan O’Toole’s new book, “We don’t know Ourselves”, although it is a phrase sometimes used by the recipients of joyful news. O’Toole, of course, is touching on something bigger, do we as a nation, know ourselves, do we think we know who we are, as distinct from our assumption that we are what we would like to be.
          Leaving aside the efforts we should make to see ourselves as others see us, and the moral issue around the snail (snails are now much safer in my garden), and of course much bigger ethical issues, it is vital for our mental and spiritual health that we understand and accept who we are, that we obey the injunction, “Know Thyself” and as a corollary that who we decide we are should generally be accepted by others.
          Why do we need self-knowledge? We need self-knowledge, according to the School of life, because it, offers us a route to greater happiness and fulfilment, while a lack of self-knowledge leaves us open to accident and mistaken ambitions. “Armed with the right sort of self-knowledge we have a greater chance of avoiding errors in our dealings with others and in the formulation of our life choices”.
          We can I believe get somewhat of a fix on who we are by examining our ethnic, religious, social and community history. For example, how did we and more particularly those who came before us, act and react to the foundation of this State 100 years ago, and to its emerging decades? Indeed, we might look at Protestants to illustrate the point.
          Deirdre Nuttall has written a wonderful book, Different and the Same, which illuminates the difficulties faced in this State since 1922 by many Protestants, people I as a child and teenager in Dun Laoghaire would rarely have met. It was a bit like what Austin Clarke depicted in the poem just read, The Planter's Daughter. Her house was “known by the trees” and “old men drank deep/and were silent”. She was there, in the village, but she wasn’t there for them nor they for her. Indeed, someone told me recently she knew no Catholics when growing up in rural Ireland. That, of course, would be rare now.
          The reasons for this are perhaps obvious. The Ne Temere decree made parents nervous that their children would form attachments to Catholics, marry them, and any grand children would be lost to Catholicism. There were worries that farms would pass into Catholic hands. Indeed, sadly many Protestants didn’t marry, or married cousins because of this worry. And, many Protestants feared losing their culture, a culture which often harkened to the days of Empire, and a culture which often grudgingly accepted the State’s foundation, and was dismayed by our subsequent retreat from the Commonwealth.
          Tony Farmer, in his book, Privileged Lives, A Social history of Middle-Class Ireland 1882 to 1989, says the common Church of Ireland attitude to the new Free State was to abstain. Many Protestants, as the writer Brian Inglis testified, “as soon as they found out that the new Irish Government could be trusted not to expropriate their land, debase the currency, or make general legislative mayhem, they settled down to ignore its existence”.
          Alex Findlater, the renowned grocer, said Irish Free State politics was simply not mentioned at Protestant tables. For Archbishop Gregg, of Dublin and later Armagh, the severance from Britain was a disaster, for him the British were the trustees of Christianity in a fallen world. It was a society in which the Protestant committee of the Bull Island golf club committed, in the words of Inglis, “slow social suicide” by excluding families “in trade” as the phrase went, Roman Catholics and Jews.
          Hence there was the Pirates of Penzance in the church hall, badminton games between different C of I parishes, private viewings of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, the Boys Brigade, discreet Poppy Day collections.... in some senses a parallel society, all fuelled I’d suggest by an oftimes ungenerous emerging State which sometimes refused to recognise that there lived among us a minority of a different hue, and a rampant RC church which insisted on the (now-deleted) Special Position of the Catholic Church in the Constitution.
          This minority, as W.B Yeats said, were “no petty people” although I think he was referring more to the upper echelons of the Anglo Irish, a sector deliberately excluded in Nuttall’s book. But Protestants were a niche population (and historically perhaps we could include ourselves here) which broadly speaking did not belong to the perceived official national narrative. As many Protestants interviewed in Nuttall’s research said, they were often made to feel they were not really Irish and were sometimes embarrassed by their ancestry, Cromwellian, Planter or whatever. Indeed, some would search around for nationalist connections such as links to the United Irishmen in order to dilute any perceived non-lrishness.
          Edna Longley, the literary critic, remarked in 1989 that if Catholics were born Irish, Protestants had “to work their passage to Irishness” and that if southern Irish Protestants are now more or less “uncomplicatedly Irish” the journeys to get there are anything but uncomplicated, according to an intriguing book called Protestant AND Irish (edited by Ian D’Alton and Ida Milne).
          And it must be recorded that particularly in rural areas some Protestants reported that they had more in common with their Catholic neighbours who were as financially stretched as they were, than they had with the Big House. In one case, the Protestants had to wait outside their church on Sunday until the gentry arrived and were comfortably in their pew. Positive relationships across the religious divide are also recalled in the book “Untold Stories, Protestants in the Republic of Ireland 1922-2002”, one witness referring to how RC and C of I adherents “treated each other with genuine courtesy, would have been good neighbours one to another, but the overwhelming sense was one of difference”.
          And, I haven’t forgotten Northern Ireland where the nationalist/Catholic minority suffered so much. In the 1920s, my father’s family were forced onto the Dublin train by a loyalist gang. He later studied to be a priest, left before ordination, and fell in love with my mother, a woman who had been brought up from the age of eight by grandparents, Empire loyalists, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Castle Catholics if you will, who stood when “God Save the King” came on the radio.
          So I’d suggest that to have self-knowledge we have first to accept and embrace all aspects of our ancestry, whether we are a hybrid coming from a mixed culture (like me....I was delighted by the way when DNA indicated I was 2% Asian)....or whether our lineage is clearly Huguenot, Palatine, Planter, Gaelic or whatever our religious persuasion, although these labels can be much diluted over centuries by inter-marriage, fosterage, or adoption.
          And this identity/self-knowledge issue touches to on how we or our ancestors have behaved. A week ago, Diarmaid Ferriter, UCD’s Professor of Modern Irish History, in a lively conversation at the Dublin Festival of History—he was talking about his new book on the Civil War—said we have to be ready to embrace and admit the awful things done by both the pro and anti-Treaty sides, actions which could be and were sometimes as despicable as those by the Black and Tans.
          In another context, the 1798 and the 1641 rebellions had their atrocities (Scullabogue and Portadown) which were hardly mentioned in my (Catholic) school history syllabus. A neglect which did no service to our young ears or healthy historical inquiry, to the mental maturity of our citizens, or to the forging of a modern nation.
          In fact, we liberate ourselves by accepting who we are, and were, what we or our ancestors did and didn’t do, as I believe Germany has done. It’s striking how many young people are taken to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial beside the Brandenburg Gate, how in many museums and in public discourse that country has recognised its evil past. Munich, once the nerve centre of Nazi activity, was accused some years ago of amnesia in regard to its past, although a museum there also shows posters from modern Far Right parties to indicate the dangers of such beliefs. (Indeed, Germany, as an aside, I believe has more openly accepted its Nazi past, than Austria).
          So a vital part of knowing ourselves, to be able to answer the question “Who do you say that you are?”, comes through acknowledging from whence we came, embracing/accepting, our family/community past which is in essence for us an accident of birth and history. Philippe Sands, the historian, in his award- winning book, East West Street, describes Lviv, the central European city from which his grandfather came, and from which the entire Jewish community had been extinguished.
          The city has been called a number of names, passing from Austria to Russia, then back to Austria, then briefly to Western Ukraine, then to Poland, the Soviet Union, Germany, back to the Soviet Union, and finally to Ukraine. Its inhabitants surely will have various identities all now within Ukraine’s jurisdiction. Similarly, massive border changes after two World Wars, posed many identity challenges, not unlike those which have faced the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.
          And if this analysis of our social, religious and political ancestry highlights distressing activities, assumptions, or uncivilised behaviour, we are not responsible, as the phrase goes, for the sins of our fathers, or their good deeds. We are only now responsible for ourselves, and like Bobby the Rabbit we have to go and face the world. In existential terms, we can make our own meaning, taking account hopefully of our true knowledge of our strengths, weaknesses, character and personality quirks.
          A very wise friend says that our ancestral/religious history is essentially a yardstick by which we can measure our future. It can restrict us or open us up to boundless possibilities. It can empower or impair us. In the words of the kid from New York’s Bronx, “you can’t know where you going to until you know where yous coming from”.

Paul Murray
Dublin Unitarian Church                                       October 2021


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