Ordinary Decent People

(The Nationalist, 16 March 2001)


This year, 2001, is the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria. Naturally, people in England are commemorating the occasion, and, here and there, one hears expressed a nostalgic longing for Victorian values, so beloved of Mrs. Thatcher.

Victoria was on the throne for sixty-three years. During her reign the British army fought in seventy wars, most of them aggressive wars of conquest, not to mention “punitive expeditions” to teach the native his place. May God deliver us from such “Victorian values”!

Before we Irish people start thinking that we were above all that, and would never have taken part in it, since we, after all, were a colony, let us think a little. During Victoria’s reign, an average of 40% of her army was made up of Irishmen; they had a disproportionately large share in its numbers. They took the Queen’s shilling without asking too many questions about what it involved.

In Australia, white settlers on the island of Tasmania, used to hunt and shoot the original inhabitants, the Aborigines, for sport; they exterminated them. On the Australian mainland, they killed them by giving them poisoned food, and clothing contaminated by diseases new to them. The Aborigines died by the thousand. Given the large proportion of Irish people in the Australian population, is it realistic to assume that we had no part in that?

Many Irish people emigrated to the United States because they had been dispossessed of their land and could no longer find a living at home. Some of them joined the US army, which, during the nineteenth century, undertook wars of aggression against the Native Americans (Indians.) They dispossessed them of their land. The Irishmen in the US army carried out on the Indians the cruelty and injustice practised in Ireland, only that it was worse. General Philip Sheridan of the US army, who coined the phrase, ‘The only good Indian is a dead one’ was born in Cavan.

There is no room in Irish history for “holier than thou”. A historian Mark Cocker, in a book called Rivers of Blood: Europe’s Conflict with Tribal Peoples, wrote that, by a conservative estimate, the number of people killed by Europeans in their wars of colonial expansion in Africa, Asia and America was not less than fifty million. And Irish people had a full hand in it. They served in the armies of France and Spain as well as of Britain.

The hard fact is that “ordinary, decent people” can and do commit terrible crimes. We are capable of angelic goodness – and diabolical evil. There is no room for us to be naïve and simple-minded, thinking that we personally would never do things like those above. We are sinners, and evil has a grip on us. Can we face that? The Belfast-born writer, C. S. Lewis, wrote that ‘There are two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God “Thy will be done”; and those to whom, in the end, God will say, “Thy will be done”’.