Tag Archives: peace

Use Your Words. Please.

It feels almost frivolous to write blog posts about my rarefied life in a world where people are being bombed out of existence and passenger jets are being shot out of the sky and genocides are quietly, systematically going on in various corners of the world and a virulent disease of horrific proportions is cutting a swathe through the people of West Africa. In fact, it doesn’t just feel frivolous: it sort of is.

But, as I so often have to ask myself, what else can I do?

Words, whether written or spoken, are among the most powerful weapons at our disposal. We can use them to rabble-rouse or to comfort; to propagandise or to tell the truth. We can use them calmly, or we can use them in the heat of anger. Sometimes, the same words can mean entirely different things, if said in two different tones of voice. Sometimes, too, writing words down can strip them of nuance and lead to misunderstanding. Two different people can have two entirely different, even contradictory, interpretations of the same written or spoken text, which means that words, our greatest treasure, can also be our biggest liability. Information is as vital a tool in our world as medicine or infrastructure or politics – nations and peoples can rise and fall depending on what words are in their holy books or on the lips of their leaders, and on how the people who hear or read these words understand what they are being told.

So, then, as a person who lives and breathes for words, perhaps I am not as helpless as I feel.

Of course, my sphere is very small, but I can choose what words to fill it with. The words I use go on to have a life without and beyond me, which means I must choose them carefully. My words are my only means of explaining myself to the world, and they will be my only legacy. I can hope that they will be understood as I intended them to be, but I know I have no control over that – once a word has left your pen, or your mouth, or your keyboard, and reached the eyes or ears of another, it is no longer yours. You are responsible for it, but it no longer belongs to you.

Photo Credit: Saint Huck via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Saint Huck via Compfight cc

I wish that world leaders could think about words this way. I wish those calling for war could consider that, in their need to ‘win’, they are throwing their own people on a pyre, and I wish they could be made to care that they are destroying lives and blighting the future. What good is it to stand triumphant over a smoking, blasted landscape? I wish those responsible for leading the world’s faithful could be more considered in the words they use, and the labels they choose to apply to others, and the interpretations they make of holy texts and scriptures. I wish people – those people with the loudest voices, and the largest platforms, and the greatest amount of words at their disposal – would use them more carefully, respecting their power, and being mindful of the consequences. Skewing the thinking of a people is not simply a game, or a way to win influence – it is dangerous, and something which can easily flare out of control, and it is wrong. It is also the easiest thing in the world to do, if one has the words and there are ears willing to hear.

I wish people would value doing right over being right. I wish they’d sacrifice the pleasure of shouting the loudest or the longest, or having the final word in an argument, or feeling like the one whose words are law, for the good of those who cannot speak.

This is why I am passionate about education and literacy. I believe people should be given the tools to distinguish between what they are being told, and the truth. I believe nobody should be forced to become reliant upon one source for the information they need to live their lives in peace. I believe people should be given the tools to make up their own minds, to come to balanced conclusions, to enter into rational discussion, and to understand that even though different peoples may speak different languages, the words are all the same.

All anyone wants is to live in peace, in relative prosperity, and to feel that they are safe. All anyone wants is to send their children out to play in the morning without fearing that they will never come home. All anyone wants is to have the dignity of a livelihood that is unthreatened by shells or tanks or rocket fire, or illness or militias or crushing rule. We have created a world where those who do not believe the same words that we do are ‘wrong’, whether those words relate to a god, or a political system, or an economic structure, or a history that may not have happened exactly as we have always been told. We have taken the greatest tool we have for bringing us together and turned it into the most efficient way of keeping us apart; if we’d had a blueprint for making everything wrong, we couldn’t have done a better job of it.

Words are powerful. My words, and yours. It is never too late to start using them.

Reasons to be Cheerful

Earlier in the year, I posted about the (as I saw it) deplorable acceleration in Ireland’s crime rate, and the increasing savagery of those crimes; in that post, I spoke about how Irish people were losing faith in their government and the Catholic church, and that only the system of law had any credence left.

Well, since then, the Gardaí – our police force – has imploded under the weight of a bugging scandal and the dismissive treatment of two whistleblowers who sought to bring corruption within the force to light and crime, very sadly, has carried on undaunted. I have stopped counting the amount of shootings and attacks that line every news bulletin, because there’s only so much darkness that one struggling mind can take. Sometimes it truly feels that Ireland is under a black cloud – partly of its own making – which will never clear.

But today I have a reason to be proud of my country.

Image: rte.ie

Image: rte.ie

Seo é Úachtaráin na h-Éireann, Michéal D. Ó hUiginn – this is the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. And today he, his wife Sabina, and our ‘Tánaiste’ (equivalent to a Deputy Prime Minister) are travelling to London to meet with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on the first State Visit to Buckingham Palace by an Irish head of State.

Perhaps, to a non-Irish person, this doesn’t sound like a huge deal. But it is.

A few years ago, when Her Majesty visited Dublin, I was still working in the city. Getting around Dublin during the weeks before the visit was complicated, as security checks were being completed absolutely everywhere. Buildings were checked. Sewers were sealed up. Barriers were erected to cordon off the expected crowds, for not only did the Queen visit Ireland that summer, but so did President and Mrs Obama, whose trip came a few days before hers. In practical terms, these barriers meant that a hurrying, short-legged pedestrian – i.e. me – racing to catch buses and make their way home after a long day at work was often thwarted in their efforts.

But, somehow, it didn’t seem to matter all that much. The Queen was coming to Ireland. The Queen. No British monarch had set foot in the country since 1911 – exactly one hundred years before – when we’d still been part of the Empire. This was huge. Of course, there was the usual sabre-rattling from the expected corners of the country; there were bomb threats. There were howling voices in the media decrying it as an insult to our fallen forefathers.

And then, there were ordinary citizens like me, praying that nothing would happen to Her Majesty or Prince Philip on Irish soil. Praying that they’d be safe, not only for their own sake but also for the sake of the future of Ireland and its relationship with Britain.

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Image: telegraph.co.uk

When the Queen stepped out of her car dressed in a green suit to shake hands with the then-President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, it was a lump-in-throat moment for me.

Her Majesty went on to lay a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance to honour the fallen in the cause of Irish freedom, and I watched it on TV and wept, as – I’m sure – did many in my country.

When she gave a speech at a State dinner in Dublin Castle – once, of course, a British stronghold in the city – and began it with a few words of Irish, it was stunning. I think it was at that point the country, and its relationship with Britain, turned a corner.

I hope our President and his wife will be safe in the UK, because I’m sure there are still dissenters who would wish to derail the peace that has been hard-won between our countries. I hope he acquits himself with as much dignity as Her Majesty did on her State visit to Ireland – I have no doubt he will, for he is a scholar and a gentleman. But most of all I hope the trip gives Ireland something to be proud of, something to lift the spirits; I hope it reminds us all how far we’ve come since the terrible times when it seemed we were going to tear ourselves in shreds, all for the sake of the indefinable idea of ‘freedom.’

There is more than one way to be free. Ridding ourselves of the burden of the past is a good first step toward the liberty we’ve fought so long for. But above all, let there be peace, and peace evermore, and let no more blood be shed.

Newspaper account of the Queen's historic handshake with Sinn Féin politican and ex-IRA member, Martin McGuinness Image: andrewsherman.blogspot.com

Newspaper account of the Queen’s historic handshake with Sinn Féin politician and ex-IRA member, Martin McGuinness
Image: andrewsherman.blogspot.com

 

Friday Flash

Can I just say how much I giggled at this morning’s Google doodle? I might even have air-punched, just a little bit.

Image: independent.co.uk

Image: independent.co.uk

Instead of following its own colour-coded design, this morning Google used a rainbow pattern, presumably as a comment on the controversy raging over the Sochi Winter Games and the statements made by the Russian government regarding gay people over the last few weeks. I, for one, think this is amazing. The Google doodle, that is, not the ignorant comments. Surely the spirit of the Olympic Games is one of unity, sportsmanship, peace and equality?

So, what part of that means excluding gay people?

Anyway.

I hope the Games take place without incident, without violence, without shows of hatred. I hope they highlight the ideals of fair play, equality between nations and peoples, and the unifying power of sport. I hope they show the world how great human beings can be.

In this vein, this morning’s Flash! Friday challenge was to take this wonderful image:

Panathenaic Stadium during the 1896 Olympic Games opening ceremony. Image: blogs.oup.com

Panathenaic Stadium during the 1896 Olympic Games opening ceremony.
Image: blogs.oup.com

and the prompt word ‘envy’, and craft a story around them. The kicker? As with every Flash! Friday challenge so far this year, the story had to be between 140 and 160 words. Easier said than done.

So, I came up with this:

The Spirit of the Games

He passed through the throng unseen, trying to understand. A huge, hard-packed racing ring led into the unknowable distance. Tiers of chattering people – even women – rose high all around. Unfamiliar flags fluttered overhead. That particular feeling – the only thing he recognised about this place – was in the air. Expectation. Competition. Conquest.

But where were the offering fires? The temple to Zeus?

‘Stop!’ he instructed a passerby, but the command was ignored. Confused, he looked down at himself, oiled and ready. He was unused to being overlooked, accustomed more to greedy stares, flashing hatred, raging jealousy. He thrived upon it. It drove him to win.

But where should he go? There were no slaves to direct him. He could not see the athletes’ enclosure anywhere.

Then, a cheer rose from the crowd. He turned. A group of men, oddly dressed, thundered toward him.

‘Wait,’ he said, hands raised. ‘Please!’

But they passed through him, scattering his shade to the gods.

**

I’m off to stretch my writing muscles, oil up my typing fingers, and get my brain around the high-jump of my MS of ‘Emmeline.’ I started inputting my ‘final’ edits yesterday, thinking ‘Oh, yes! This’ll be a breeze. No problem whatsoever. I know exactly what I want to change, and I’ll get through them in about an hour.’

Famous last words.

Of course, what has happened is that every sentence I read has something in it that needs tweaking. Just slightly, but enough to take up precious cogitatin’ space.

As Captain Oates, my dear old friend, once said: I may be some time.

Never Forget

I’m not sure why I get so emotional around this time of year. The closer it gets to Armistice Day, the more my heartstrings swell at images and footage of people all over the world paying their respects to their war dead, and remembering their own experiences of war. Clearly (although I’m old) I wasn’t around during the war and Ireland was (notionally) neutral during WWII, so I shouldn’t have a huge connection to any sort of commemoration service.

And yet…

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Image: telegraph.co.uk

I watched a special programme aired by the BBC over the weekend in which a man who is now eighty-eight years old returned to the beaches of Normandy where, as an eighteen-year-old, he had landed with his compatriots in an attempt to liberate German-occupied France. He described his journey toward the beach, and how the fear of what awaited them was almost outweighed by the seasickness caused by the rough waters; he relived the feeling of the flat-bottomed vessel making landfall and the knowledge that nothing but his own speed and agility would save him as he raced up the beach toward the German lines, with bullets zipping – like ‘a load of birds singing’ – past his head.

He recalled picking up the bodies of his fallen comrades once the battle was over, boys of seventeen and eighteen years of age. ‘They never had a life,’ he said, gazing around the beach, and he wept, remembering his friends, boys he had trained and fought and laughed with, all of whom gave their lives in order that future generations might be free. I wept too, because there was something so deeply moving about a man of such age and experience demonstrating how the pain of war never truly leaves you, and how the memories of what you experience during a time like that are always there, just beneath the surface.

It also made me think about the terrible loss of life, and the unimaginable sacrifice offered up by so many hundreds of thousands, without which none of us would be living the life we have.

It’s such an easy thing to forget, the suffering of generations gone before us. I often wonder whether the world we have created is something that a fallen soldier from the Great War or the Second World War would be proud of. ‘Yes – this was worth dying for. This world is the perfect Utopia we dreamt of as we crawled through the muck of the trenches or fought hand to hand in the villages of France.’ Is this what a soldier would say if it was possible to bring him back for long enough to take a look around? I’m not so sure.

I wish there was no need for war, and I certainly wish humanity would stop fighting and killing one another over things like natural resources and money. Fighting for freedom and liberty, the right to live without the burden of tyranny, fighting to save your country from the oppression of an aggressor – that, I can do my best to understand. Without wishing to malign any country’s serving military, I nevertheless have to say that I think some of the wars being fought in our modern world are a lot harder to comprehend. Then, the average soldier has very little to do with the causes behind a war – he or she simply does their duty, and to the best of their ability.

Having said that, any man or woman who gives their all in the service of their country deserves to be respected and remembered, and perhaps it’s my innate pacifism that makes me so upset and sorrowful each Remembrance Day.

My thoughts are also with all those thousands of people killed, injured and left destitute by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. It makes me very sad, and angry, that it’s almost always the people who have the least who suffer the most during natural disasters, and I can’t help but think that climate change – which is, almost always, nothing to do with the people who suffer as a result of it – has a role to play in the terrible weather events of the last few years.

All in all, it’s a time for reflection and togetherness, and an opportunity to honour the memory of the war dead – who fought for what we now have – by helping one another, and doing our best to create a world they would be proud of.

Try to spread a little kindness today, in whatever way you can.

Image: monastery.com

Image: monastery.com

 

Learning from the Past

Good morning. It’s one of these:

Image: tumblr.com

Image: tumblr.com

Despite this, I hope you’re doing reasonably well so far. If it’s any consolation, think of this: schoolchildren all over Ireland are returning to classes today after their two-week Easter break. The sound of them being ripped out of their beds and flung out their front doors, wailing about how everything in the universe is unfair, is filling the air all around. You’d almost feel sorry for them.

Today’s post, I fear, may be slightly on the depressing side. I just wanted to warn you in case you’d prefer to go off and make a cup of tea, or have your breakfast, or whatever it is you might be doing. I want to talk about history, and the value of learning the lessons history has to teach us, and ask questions like ‘why do we hurt one another over things that aren’t, on balance, worth hurting one another over?’ As with most of my profound moments, this one was born out of my television viewing, so you can blame the BBC for what follows.

As we are wont, last night The Husband and I sat down to watch our regular antiques programme after a busy, and lovely, day spent with friends. Sometimes, watching this hour of TV is a mistake from my point of view. I tend to get very emotional at times when objects with huge personal and/or historical significance are being described, or when a person is talking about something that is deeply meaningful to the history of their family. Last night, of course, was no exception. A woman was interviewed about her family treasure – a collection of letters and documents relating to her father, who was an active member of the Norwegian resistance during World War Two – and I found it profoundly moving. She had kept the shoes he’d worn when he escaped from an internment camp, where he’d been placed after he was caught spying on a German military facility and which he’d worn as he trekked to freedom. She showed a photograph of him demonstrating a technique he and his brothers (one of whom was tortured to death by the Nazis) had developed as children in Norway for getting around in snowy weather – she called it ‘tree-hopping’. It basically involved using the supple trees as pole-vaults, and launching yourself from one tree to the next instead of walking through the snow. He’d used this technique to escape from his captors – not only did it give him speed, but it also helped him to leave no tracks. It was amazing to think that a game he’d played as a young man would one day save his life.

Then, before we went to bed, we switched on the news and learned about the troubles currently besieging Cairo. As of last night, the rioting around a Christian church in that city, which has so far claimed the lives of five people, was being blamed on a piece of graffiti that had been misinterpreted.

A piece of graffiti that had been misinterpreted. I still can’t quite believe it.

Someone had daubed a swastika on a wall, and someone else had interpreted it as a cross – the symbol of Christianity. The wall upon which the daubing had been done happened to be that of an Islamic centre. Because of that – because the symbol was misconstrued as a cross, and not because it was a swastika – rioting began, and five people have so far been killed. My husband even made the point that the swastika symbol may have been the ancient version, the one still held sacred in the religions of the East, instead of the one we in the West would be more familiar with – the one used by the Nazi regime. Either way, and no matter what was intended by the use of the symbol, the frightening thing is that ignorance of what it meant, and a misunderstanding of the intention behind it, has led to horrifying violence and a standoff which is still happening.

The contrast between these two pieces of television, one in which the messages and lessons of the past were clearly in evidence, and one in which the consequences of forgetting about the past, or not learning from the horrors that humanity has already put behind itself, was stark. I was disgusted that people had been killed out of something as simple as a misunderstanding, and a misunderstanding born out of a lack of knowledge, and it underlined my conviction that learning from the mistakes made by our forebears is a hugely important thing – perhaps the most important thing – that we, as a culture, are given charge of.

Why is human life seen to be so cheap sometimes? We were at a Christening yesterday, and nothing would give you more of an appreciation for how precious and beautiful life is than to watch babies being celebrated by their families in this way. There were four babies being christened yesterday, and every one of them was a treasure. The church was full of children – the families, siblings, cousins and so on of the babies being christened – and the place was bedlam with noise, crying, laughter, and the other small cacophanies that tend to follow little people around. How do we go from treasuring our tiniest people to murdering one another over a splodge of red paint on a wall?

Anyway. Happy Monday. Let’s hope that things get better from here.

Image: voxxi.com

Image: voxxi.com

 

 

Troubled Waters

I slept badly last night. Or, rather, I slept, but it was disturbed and not at all restful. This was because I spent the whole night having the same nightmare over and over, and eventually I woke myself up early because I couldn’t face going through it again. The dreams were so upsetting that when I woke up, and realised for sure that what I’d been dreaming about hadn’t happened, I almost wept with relief.

I often wonder what the point of nightmares is; why do our brains feel the need to pump our dreams full of terror? In this case, I think perhaps my brain was reinforcing my love for a particular person by making me dream about what life would be like without them. At least, that’s how I’m going to try to rationalise it! Perhaps it was a way of dealing with the grief and horror of losing someone close, without actually having to go through it for real. Still, though. Whatever the reason, I really hope my brain leaves me in peace tonight and lets me sleep undisturbed.

I wonder, too, if my troubled sleep last night had anything to do with the news bulletin I watched yesterday evening. I saw footage of people dying, elections being interfered with, people being savagely attacked as they tried to exercise their franchise in an attempt to bring some sort of peace to their country, children living in camps for Internally Displaced Persons, countries where whole generations of people have lived and died in war… is it any wonder I’d take all that to my sleeping world, and that it would disturb my rest as it disturbed my waking life? Add to that the trial of a man in Japan accused of murdering a young Irish woman who grew up not far from where I grew up, the gangland and sectarian crime still rife in parts of my country, and the parlous state of the economy, and you have the perfect nightmare brew.

Ireland's police force - An Garda SiochanaImage: en.wikipedia.org

Ireland’s police force – An Garda Siochana
Image: en.wikipedia.org

In Ireland, the police force is called ‘An Garda Síochana’, which means ‘The Guardians of the Peace’ in English. By and large Ireland is peaceful – certainly, I’m lucky to live in a place where the worst I have to contend with is noisy neighbours. But there are parts of Ireland, as there are parts of every country, where the Gardaí have a harder job. Peace was hard-won in this country, and I’d hate to see a return to the ‘bad old days’; desperation still drives a lot of people, though, and the causes that divided and hurt so many people in the past are still alive and well, albeit quieter. Sometimes, when I think about how thin the layer of civilisation is, and how it relies very much on everyone co-operating, I tend to get a bit light-headed.

The old saying – that ‘we’re always only three (or four, or nine) meals away from anarchy’ – has often played on my mind. When that’s coupled with my innate suspicion of getting too reliant on technology, and my natural tendency towards anxiety, I fear I’m only one step removed from the tinfoil hat brigade.

Image: bigrab.wordpress.com

Image: bigrab.wordpress.com

But I remind myself how well the world does work, despite everything, and how there are always more people who want to work together and strive for the same goal than there are people who want to tear it all down and dance amid the ruins. I’d like to see a society where every person is valued and cared for, and where compassion is the ruling force – ‘where love is Lord of all’, as the old song goes. But keeping my own home, my own mind as a haven of peace is probably as close as I’ll get to that.

As a weird little finishing note, I’ve just texted the person about whom I had all the disturbing dreams last night. Their reply read something like: ‘That’s so weird. I spent all last night having crazy dreams about you! Get out of my head!’

Is it time for this? After me: Doodeedoodoo, doodeedoodoo….

Image: katymunger.wordpress.com

Image: katymunger.wordpress.com

 

A Time for Remembering

As well as being my favourite time of year, November can also be a time when people spend some time remembering their lost loved ones. In Ireland, in the tradition in which I was brought up, November is the month of the dead; names of lost loved ones are placed on church altars, and they are commemorated and fondly recalled at every Mass. I always felt it was a lovely tradition, and it feels fitting that we should do this as the year slows down, and as we begin to prepare ourselves for the ending and rebirth that is part of every winter. I was brought up to believe that remembering our dead in prayer benefits them, and I still believe this; I definitely feel that taking time to remember the dead benefits the living in many ways, too. It’s not good to cut off grief and refuse to feel it, despite the fact that it seems much easier to deny it than to face it – it’s better, I think, to take the time to go through your sorrow, and honour the memory of those you’ve lost. Setting aside a particular time which is devoted to honouring those who’ve gone before us seems like a wise and kind thing to do, in my mind.

On Sunday, I watched some televised footage of various Armistice Day celebrations. This is always something that moves me very deeply, particularly as I watch the servicemen and women marching past the Cenotaph in Whitehall, in London. Their quiet dignity and pride – pride in their country and their fallen comrades, as well as the values for which they stand – makes me feel their losses and understand, in part, why they choose to fight. Personally, I abhor the very thought of war, and I wish there was no need for armies, navies and air forces, but I admire the self-sacrifice and courage required to do what you feel you must in order to bring about the betterment of the world, or your country. It takes bravery far beyond anything I possess to put your life on the line, day after day, in the service of others, and anyone who does make that choice has my respect.

In this country, we have a tortured history with relation to the World Wars and those who served and died in them. Ireland was part of the United Kingdom at the outbreak of WWI, and so many Irish people signed up to serve as part of the British war effort. Due to Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War, Irish people who chose to fight with the Allies at that time had to join the British Army, which was seen as a form of treason. Horrendously, their courage was seen as a choice to turn their back on their own country, and not as a choice to do their best to make the world better for everyone. The families they left behind were often ostracised, and their grief was belittled and ignored. It’s only now that we’re beginning to commemorate those who fell, and pay the proper respect to their memory – it’s like a huge wound has begun to heal, and it’s a wonderful thing. Over the last few years, gravestones have been erected to mark the final resting places of over 200 servicemen and women in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin; all these noble people fell in the name of justice and right during the World Wars, and their graves had, until recently, been ignored by all but their families and descendants – and even, sometimes, not even them. It often happened that people served under false names, in order to avoid bringing shame to their loved ones, which makes their resting places harder to trace now; as well as that, some families refused to admit to having veterans from the World Wars among their number for a variety of reasons, including political.

The wearing of the poppy during late October and November, with which most people in the United Kingdom (at least) would be familiar as a mark of respect to the war dead, is still controversial in Ireland. Some people refuse to wear it due to the long struggle this country went through to gain its independence from colonial rule, and the poppy was considered, for a very long time, to be a mark of adherence to a regime of cruel tyranny due to its connection with the British Army.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row…

Ireland has a painful history in relation to the British Army, and it is true to say that, in the past, the British Army did not always act honourably in Ireland. The truth of the history of my country fills me with horror and sorrow, at times, but I do feel that we – as free, democratic European citizens – owe everything we prize to those who fought, and it’s up to us to bring about the peace that they died for. I do find it terribly sad that someone would refuse to wear a poppy for reasons which aren’t directly connected with remembering the war, and to my mind the actions of the British Army in Ireland, while sometimes reprehensible, are not connected with the war dead. The poppy commemorates those who gave their lives so that we could be free, a sacrifice I cannot imagine having to make, and because of that I find no difficulty in wearing one.

I would be happy to see Ireland owning her war dead, and remembering them with pride, instead of overlooking their existence because to remember them is too painful. I think this has already started to happen, and it makes me glad to think that, one day, we might be able to heal the wounds opened by the wars so long ago. Facing up to our troubled past, and laying the pain to rest by honouring those dead who were laid to rest without fanfare or ceremony all those years ago, is a worthwhile challenge for us to take on. We owe it to those who fell in battle. If they were brave enough to die for us, shouldn’t we be brave enough to live for them?