After the intensity of all of our Titanic commemorations I am still mulling over the vast array of stories that I took, and continue to take, in. One of the things that has lingered with me has been the Titanic’s lesson of pointing out the error of Northern Ireland’s too simplistic caricature of our green/orange divide.
A Catholic priest friend had been sharing with me how difficult it was for him to excite his parish to attend a City wide commemoration in St. Anne’s Cathedral. The sense was that this ship was built by Protestants in Protestant East Belfast so why would Catholics from West Belfast be interested. This came out again a couple of days later on local TV news when someone from West Belfast was campaigning to have a street named in commemoration of a bomb that went off there in the Troubles. His argument was that this was to West Belfast what the Titanic was to “the other side.” The Caricature is simple. Titanic is a Protestant story.
I would argue that our divisions are much messier and blurred and indeed less divided! Fair play to the Irish Independent newspaper for highlighting the messiness of this particular caricature with a wonderfully produced Titanic supplement last weekend. The Irish Independent’s magazine concentrated on the Irish who were lost or who survived the disaster. What this did was make me realise that though the Triumph of the building of the Titanic was mainly an Ulster “Protestant” thing, the Tragedy of the Titanic was mainly an Irish “Catholic” thing. As I trailed through statistics trying to find Belfast people caught up in the ship’s sinking I came up with very few names; not many more than the nine from Harland and Wolff all there on business. The island of Ireland’s Titanic, story after it left Thompson Dock to sail to Southampton, is a different story altogether. It is a century’s old Irish story; immigration. When the Titanic docked at Cobh, County Cork to take on passengers, on April 11, 1912, 113 Irish people boarded the ship, most seeking a new life in America. Of those 73 perished.
As Ulster Catholics dismiss the Titanic as a Protestant story on the north east edge of the island, the Irish President is commemorating the Irish loss on Titanic in the south west edge of the island. One of the issues that everyone on the island of Ireland needs to come to terms with is the messiness of our history. It is not as easily divided as the caricature would like to prejudice. The Pope celebrated King Billy’s victory at the Boyne, Presbyterians were vibrant contributors to the United Irishmen, Presbyterians kept the Irish language alive when it was in danger of dying and the All Ireland Gaelic Football Cup is named after a Protestant! Like the Titanic story, most of the stories of the last 800 years are not divided neatly into the stories of one side or the other. Most of Ireland’s history is “our” story. It is messier and more mongrel-like than the thoroughbreds of sectarianism would want us to believe. It is a riddled with injustice, violence and deep pain. It is a history that needs contributions of repentance and forgiveness. Most of all we need to peek out over our caricatured history to gain a truer, more honest perspective.