Repentance-An Irish Perspective
01 August 1990

For many years, although some of my closest friends in Ireland were Catholics, in my inmost feelings I felt superior to them - intellectually, socially and in terms of religion.

I was discussing with an Oxford historian friend the massacres of Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere - which Russia recently admitted were carried out by Soviet troops. He suggested that Russian glasnost about past dealings might need to go back further than the Second World War. `You have a situation between Poland and Russia going back centuries like that between Ireland and England,' he said.

Many in my community in Ireland, the descendants of the Church of Ireland ascendancy, owe our property and wealth to the land grants of Cromwellian times. My friend remarked that Cromwell and his Puritan soldiers in Ireland reminded him of Hitler and his troops when they invaded Russia - they felt that they were dealing with a subhuman race and that that justified a ruthlessness completely at odds with their beliefs and behaviour in the Civil War in England.

For many years, although some of my closest friends in Ireland were Catholics, in my inmost feelings I felt superior to them - intellectually, socially and in terms of religion. Some years ago I felt very ashamed of this. I also realized that in a situation like Ireland, with such deeply held attitudes, political agreements need to be reinforced by a change of heart in individuals like me if they are to be really effective.

Repentance has a much wider connotation than personal sin and my own human nature. I and my community need also a sense of repentance and forgiveness for the misdeeds, the greed and selfishness of our forebears, especially when we are still benefiting materially from what they did.

What right had we to feel intellectually superior when our crowd destroyed the ancient seats of learning in Ireland and for centuries, especially under the Penal Laws, deprived the Catholics of all education?

As for our pride in our wealth and our social standing, during those centuries some 90 per cent of the land was in the hands of the Protestant community. Even 50 years after the formation of the Irish Free State it was calculated that 40 per cent of the capital of the Irish Republic still belonged to the Protestant fourper cent of the population.

This says a lot for the Catholics' spirit of forgiveness and tolerance. In 1921, the policy of the new Irish government of no revenge against us Protestants meant that we had the opportunity to grow up as full Irish citizens.

Neither had we any justification for feelings of religious superiority. In our preparation for confirmation we used to assert, `My duty towards my neighbour is to love him as myself.' The truth was, of course, that deep inside ourselves we did not really think of the Catholics as our neighbours and equals.

An honest look at these things- or glasnost - brought to me a liberation from falsehood and also a sense of forgiveness; a comprehension of `the truth shall set you free'.

It dawned on me that an unexpressed sense of guilt passed down from generation to generation on one side could be more responsible for sowing the seeds of violence than an expressed sense of injustice passed down the generations on the other side.

If glasnost is the forerunner of perestroika, can complete glasnost be the requisite for peaceful revolutionary change?

If we in these islands in the west work towards a new perestroika based on a close look at our own consciences, Mr Gorbachev might discover a pattern for the next stage of restructuring in the East.

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