State of Grace
To Forgive Divine?
I've made fun of my Catholic school education, but I suppose some lessons I've learned about humility stuck. One such lesson was about turning the other cheek, which is something I used to try to do for most of my life. I vividly recall my part in a debate back in the newsroom where I once worked. I argued that a kernel of good remained in even the most vile people and somewhat naively posited that we were all innocent children once upon a time. The older and wiser news-people -- those who had covered numerous senseless killings and other acts of violence by former "innocent children" -- had a hoot over that one. Yet I still cling to the belief that there must be something at the core of each human being that is good, that was perverted somewhere, somehow along the way. Otherwise, really, why are we here?
I raise this subject for two reasons.
First, I recently came across a number of interesting comments from great thinkers like the Dalai Lama, John Lennon, leaders of a Native American tribe and my personal family hero, Gearoid O'Sullivan.
The Dalai Lama said:
Merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience and good will not be enough to develop them. We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them.
He also said that of our enemies we must find the things in them which are good and admirable and recognize those qualities when we are prone to thinking ill of them.
This reminds me also of something a friend from my local writing group observed, describing an approach taken by the Hopi Native American tribe. The Hopi believed that when a person acts in a way we perceive as "negative," we ought to skip beyond our first response and look for six other possible reasons that might explain that person's poor behavior - and perhaps compel us to act more compassionately toward that person.
Then too, there's that lyric from John Lennon's "Mind Games" that always struck me as powerful in its simplicity: "Yes, it's surrender . . . you gotta let it go." Indeed, hatred and anger will eat you alive, harming you more than the recipient of these feelings. To be sure, it's easier to not think of those who provoke anger than to actually feel compassion or empathy or forgiveness toward them. But somehow, I think it's the latter state that makes us at peace with our world -- and is a worthy state to work toward.
Letting the Bad Feelings Go
I returned a week ago from a trip out west, to visit with the sole surviving child of Gearoid O'Sullivan, the subject of the novel I am now writing. In a nutshell, he was one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Ireland.
I'd waited so long to meet Sibeal, once I learned of her existence. I poured my heart out in a rambling letter asking if she'd speak with me . . . and waited a while for a reply (she'd been ill). Then suddenly, there in my inbox, was a magnificent gift, a simple message from her husband Brian saying yes, of course, she'd love to speak with me! Somehow I knew a telephone call for a conversation this momentous would not do. And so I flew out to meet with her and had a wonderful visit. I hope and expect there will be more opportunities to meet again.
What can I say about that first meeting? Brian kindly picked me up at my hotel and drove me to their lovely home. What a lovely man, a perfect gentleman. He made me feel so at ease -- immediately. And when I walked into their home, filled with photos and memorabilia, there was Sibeal, seated on the coach, sipping tea and reminding me so much of my late grandmother and so many of my Irish aunts. Her understated greeting at so emotional a moment (well, for me!) was so typically Irish. I felt immediately at home, where I somehow belonged, fit in.
Of course, It was amazing too to find a woman who actually knew this man I have been researching for so long, this great figure who has been in the shadows of history for so many decades. This man who deserves to have his story told correctly.
Sibeal, now in her 80s, was named - as were her siblings - by Gearoid. The name Sibeal is pronounced She-bail and is the Irish form of Isabel. In just a few days I've grown to love and admire and to feel very protective of her. She is of a kind I know so well - the no-nonsense Irishwoman who faces adversity with a stoicism, who harbors sorrow without giving it air and light. I think I understand what is going on beneath it all, and my heart goes out to her. I might say exactly the same thing of Brian. It hurt to leave them and board my flight back home.
Sibeal has given my book about her father her blessings, and with the help of Brian, has answered many of my lingering questions. Yet one thing I am wrestling to understand, but I suppose sums up the potential for goodness that dwells within each of us, is her father's beliefs in later life with regard to those who were once his bitter enemies.
I'll preface this by noting that just before he died at age 58, of cancer, Gearoid was told by his doctor that he had the body of a much older man. After leaving military service and concurrently with his political service, Gearoid made his career as a barrister for the western circuit of Ireland (primarily County Galway - heart of the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking region of the country). This was surely stressful, as it meant traveling to and from his family's comfortable home in an upscale Dublin suburb, staying in hotels for days and weeks on end.
But Gearoid's physical condition also traces back to the many brutal beatings he suffered at the hands of his English captors. He had been imprisoned for his part in the Irish Rising of 1916, and again for making a "seditious" speech in the days leading up to the Irish War of Independence (a prison term during which he also went on a hunger strike). During his internments, he was beaten, threatened and even had a gun held to his head - all physically and emotionally draining , to be sure. There were likely numerous encounters with the dreaded "Black and Tans," returned English World War I veterans who could not comfortably fit into normal society and so were sent to police the Irish - often in brutal fashion.
Worse, after the assassination of his best friend, cousin, confidante and frequent roommate Michael Collins, Gearoid was left to carry on with the already dying dream of a Gaelic Irish state. That didn't happen, of course. Instead, the new state erupted into civil war with pro- and anti-Treaty forces battling it out in the streets. As adjutant general for the new "Free State" government, it was Gearoid's terrible duty to act upon jury decisions against those within the Republican, anti-Treaty forces -- many convicted of murderous acts. (I should explain that, among other things, this Treaty with the English created the six-county area commonly known as "Northern Ireland," as well as fealty to the King of England.) Sometimes Gearoid was forced -- in his role as adjutant general of the official military forces -- to give the final authorization on death sentences imposed by military tribunals, sentences ordering the execution of men he had once fought side-by-side with and had considered his friends. I can only imagine the anguish he would have felt in signing these death warrants. It was his belief, and the belief of others, that these sentences reflected the "will of the Irish people." I do know that the very idea of Civil War tore Gearoid apart, and am sure this grim responsibility did as well.
The more I learn, the more I am convinced that it was the intent of Collins and the brilliant thinkers and advisers who surrounded him (including Gearoid) to lure Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland by making this new state an enticing and robustly successful venture. (There has been some talk, however, of a different plan -- building the new Free State up and then tackling the liberation of Northern Ireland).
When Collins was assassinated by anti-Treaty forces, the dream of what this new state could be was already dying a sad death. Within a few years, so too did the governmental careers of intelligent young men like Gearoid who began their service to country bursting with idealism. These were men, and women, born and bred in an era of Gaelic cultural revival sparked by poets and playwrights such as William Butler Yeats and J.M. Synge, by the founding of the Gaelic League and of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Young and smart, these revolutionaries were filled with passion for the possibilities that might exist in a new free state, where cultural touchstones -- the ancient Irish language, traditional music and sport, and the art, poetry, drama and literature of the Gael -- could be openly appreciated and further developed.
No Unkindness Toward the English
Yet Sibeal told me that her father forbade negative talk about the English in their home, and never himself had a bad word to say about the English -- who were at the time enduring the dreadful hardships of World War II, a war in which the Republic of Ireland maintained neutrality. Gearoid had also made his peace with deValera, who served as President of Ireland during its bleakest and some would say most morally and culturally oppressive days from the 1930s through many, many decades to follow.
DeValera was largely responsible for creating the division that led to Civil War between those who supported the Treaty with England and those who didn't (deValera claimed it was not the Treaty he objected to so much as not being informed of its contents before it was signed). Not true, say some historians and some of Collins' compatriots. Many believe "Dev" manipulated Collins into an untenable position with respect to the signing of the Treaty by refusing to attend the Treaty conference himself and also by refusing to take phone calls (including a crucial one from Gearoid just the evening before the document's signing) about the offer English Prime Minister Lloyd George had put on the table. As the leader of the new state (a position alternately known even then as "President"), deValera had the natural responsibility to participate in these talks -- but did not do so. Some speculate he chose political advantage over his rival, Collins, instead of duty, as he knew what the only possible outcome of the talks could be and so made himself scarce.
Yet Sibeal said her father not only made a point of not speaking ill of deValera, nor any of those who fell on the other side of the Civil War (and this includes Gearoid's own brother Tadgh). Indeed, at one point toward the close of his life Gearoid even accepted a government post from deValera.
I was especially happy to learn that Gearoid later made amends with his brother Tadgh, who took up the anti-Treaty cause and was jailed by the leaders of the Free State. Sibeal recalls spending many a happy summer at Tadgh's creamery in rural County Cork, along with her brother Gearoid Jr., who would later become a priest.
Gearoid Sr. was a broad thinker, a tolerant man who wished his children to have equally expansive minds and open hearts. He chose to send his children to a private school in Dublin, rather than send them to the National School (where they would likely receive a narrow, homogenized education). At their private school, their schoolmates were of many faiths and races, and their curricula was more widely focused than that of the National School. However, social studies classes in both the National School and in private schools did not cover the Irish rebellion - emotions were still too ragged and raw in the aftermath of the Civil War to venture there. Sibeal also recalls -- perhaps not too fondly -- of coming home from school for supper and then returning to school to complete her homework! (Now that I would love to see in the U.S.!)
Gearoid also challenged his children to become the best at whatever pursuit they chose. Sibeal opted for a career as an operating room nurse. At a pivotal moment in her studies, she turned to her father for advice when faced with the option of going straight to work or continuing her education an additional year in order to receive certification in midwifery and in social work. Gearoid encouraged her to pursue the path of greater knowledge, pointing out that a nurse worth her salt ought to be able to deliver babies.
What an amazing man he was! I would think he met the Dalai Lama's definition of actually practicing compassion, reason and patience, of showing grace and tolerance when nothing he had experienced would have justified such behavior. I by no means compare him to the Jesus I learned about in my Catholic school classes, but I do recall the words Jesus the man is known to have said of his executioners: "Forgive them," he'd said, "for they know not what they do."
In my life, I have had the experience of being betrayed by people I once trusted unquestionably and thought of as friends. It has been an uphill battle to find within me and within my own heart the kind of selfless forgiveness that Gearoid demonstrated. And yet I know that until I -- indeed each of us is capable of reaching that place, we can never be the people we were before the transgression, whatever it was. So, I continue to strive for that state of perfect grace, much as Gearoid, my beautiful ancestor, did during his all-too-brief but amazing life. I am so inspired to tell his story that my pen dances across the page.