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Tom gives us a history lesson on Easter Rising, Ireland and healing

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It was 100 years ago this week that the bloody Easter Rising ripped through Dublin, setting Ireland on a course toward independence after centuries of brutal British rule. The Rising actually failed and all of its leaders were rounded up and summarily executed, but the tide had finally turned for the Emerald Isle.

When I was a kid, my father (whose family came from Ireland) was passionate about many things, but he was off-the-charts nuts about Ireland. I'd listen to his stories and marvel at his mastery of names and events, but, in the end, I really didn't get why he wallowed in the vile mistreatment that had been visited upon his forebears. We Americans had also gained our independence from Great Britain, but we didn't hold a grudge. I remember thinking that England was probably our closest ally in the world, so why the hate?

Part of the disconnect can be traced to the fact that, while I was growing up, my dad was in and out of the VA hospital with World War II-related injuries (an encounter with a land mine left him with shrapnel embedded near his spine). I was brought up by my Italian mother who, unlike my father, had a sense of humor and said some of the funniest things of all time in Italian. That (and the cooking) made me answer, "I'm Italian" to the question "Besides being an American, what are you?" (I had to phrase that last sentence in that manner so that right-wing talk radio people don't get a hernia.) I always thought that they only thing Irish about me were my green eyes; they kept from having to wear green on St. Patrick's Day.

My dad was an early supporter of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, a stance he attributed to his Irish heritage. (In the movie The Commitments, one character explains, "The Irish are the Blacks of Europe...") My dad's unwavering stance and his union activities (he used to march with Cesar Chavez) helped set me on my lifelong path as a Democrat. (Even if I had started off as a Republican, there's no freakin' way I could be one now.) When he wasn't in the hospital, he was an active participant in American politics, but always in the back of his mind, there was Ireland. (The bloody rioting in Northern Ireland referred to in the most understated manner as "The Troubles" coincided with our Civil Rights movement.)

Colonization is, by definition, subjugation on a grand scale. The British practiced it on a global scale, but, for whatever reason, they saved the worst for those who were closest to them. The famous Irish nationalist Thomas Meagher (pronounced "Mar") once said, "England has many fine virtues and its conduct toward other countries has always been just, generous, and magnanimous. But why do those virtues stop at the Irish Sea? Toward Ireland, her conduct has been mean, unjust (and) contemptuous."

(If you ever want to read about a wild life, well-led, find a biography of Thomas Francis Meagher. He was a leader of the Young Irelanders in the Rebellion of 1848 at the height of the Potato Famine. He was sentenced to death, but was instead sent to a prison in far-off Tasmania. He escaped, made his way to the U.S. and became a Union General in the Civil War. Shortly after the war, he died mysteriously while serving as acting Governor of the Montana Territory. Crazy story.)

Meagher (and my dad) were right. For centuries, people in Ireland weren't allowed to practice their own religion. They couldn't speak their native tongue. Education was forbidden and if an Irish boy was sent to a school in another country, he was not allowed to return home, educated. Here's one of my favorites: For a while, anyone caught playing a harp in Ireland would have his/her fingernails removed. But, Irish people kept playing the harp and the British came to see all Irish music as subversive. So, shortly before her death, that old hag Queen Elizabeth I proclaimed that her troops should "hang the harpers, wherever found, and destroy their instruments."

And yet, the accordion was allowed to play on elsewhere. Where's the justice?

The Easter Rising began April 24, Monday of Easter Week. Back then, the Irish adhered to the Julian (Eastern Orthodox) calendar for the determination of Easter. Our (Gregorian calendar) Easter this year was March 27; in places like Greece, it will be this coming Sunday, May 1. The thinking was that, with England totally involved in World War I, the rebels could seize control of Dublin and the revolution could spread throughout the country before the British could even think about mobilizing an armed response (if they responded at all).

If you pardon a somewhat-simplistic analogy, the problem was that the Irish rebels consisted of too many Trostskys and not enough Stalins. The fighting lasted until Holy Saturday, April 29. A few years later, the Irish Free State was declared and in 1937, the sovereign country of Eire came into being. The remaining animosity was so great that Ireland officially remained neutral in World War II. To not choose sides in a fight in which one of the combatants is Adolf Hitler is some serious residual hate.

Maybe after 10 years, the wounds can begin to heal.

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