I was reading Stephen Fry’s Autobiography recently and was struck by a wonderful anecdote he relates, which demonstrates just how close we are to history. He describes an event he had organised in honour of the journalist Alistair Cooke. They shook hands and Alastair Cooke reminded Fry, that his hand had also shook the hand of Bertrand Russell, a famous English philosopher. Further, Bertrand Russell’s Aunt, had one danced with the Emperor Napoleon.
Think on that, five people linked, from the end of 18th century to the beginning of the 21st. Consider also, that for a great deal of that period, Catholics in this country were second class citizens. It took a Kerry Man, Daniel O’Connell, to mortally wound this vicious discriminatory system, though it wasn’t until 1871 that we were finally rid us of this heinous imposition.
Many of us will have been held in the arms of grandparents, who themselves will have been held in the arms of grandparents, who were alive in a time when Catholics were forced to pay for Protestant Churches. That’s how recently laws were allowed, which harmed and oppressed citizens rather than helped and protected us.
Well that’s not exactly accurate. Everything didn’t become wonderful and equitable in 1871. Neither did it in 1916, 1922, 1937, 1973, 1993, nor yet even today. An exclusionary law, based on nothing more than prejudice and custom, remains on our statute books. We still bar gay men and gay women from marriage.
For centuries, the Protestant Ascendancy felt no quibbles about imposing their values on disempowered Catholics. They were in charge, thus they felt entitled to behave as they saw fit. It took centuries and it took heros like Daniel O’Connell to remove this hated rule from our country. Unfortunately, it seems the lessons that should have been learned and remembered from that short short time ago, have been forgotten or are being ignored.
We appear to feel entitled to impose a singular and narrow version of morality on others. On people without the numbers to resist this discrimination. We persist in condemning gay men and women to second-class citizenship. Would we endure laws which encroached on a Catholic’s marriage rights, inheritance rights, reproductive rights? No, we fought wars to ensure this would never happen again in this country, yet we allow it, nay willfully enact it, against our gay neighbors, our gay brothers and sisters, son and daughters. We allow it against our gay grandparents, who can remember the grandparents who were forced to pay tithes to another person’s Church.
There are many things wrong with our country. Many things that call for our immediate attention. Not least is the struggle many of us have with debt, unemployment and other financial wounds. It can all seem so disempowering, wondering what negotiations are being held in what EU country today and what will our politicians achieve. Did any of us envisage a time when we would have to so care about the economies of Italy, China, the US? Did any of us really think there would be a time when the outcome of the French Presidential election would be assessed in terms of what it added to or subtracted from our bargaining position vis a vis the Germans and the IMF?
It’s like being back in school and being forced to study a subject where the exam will determine the rest of our lives, yet the answers have yet to be decided on. It is in fact a perfect time to stop caring about things that don’t pay the mortgage, the bills and for the new and eye-wateringly expensive school books. But today we are writing the history our grandchildren will be studying. Today we are deciding what our grandchildren will think of us.
We get to decide if our grandchildren will assess our generation as that which fought and struggled for equality, just like our ancestors did, in the midst of economic turmoil, or do we bequeath them a legacy of condemning gay men and women to continued second-class citizenship because we had neither the interest nor the inclination to see past our own prejudices and financial woes to rid our nation of yet another Penal Law.