I have been to the Vietnam wall in Washington, twice. The second time was every bit as emotional as the first. It was the trouble in the world when I was a kid, until it became us. It cuts a scar in the landscape appropriate to the human mess it left, not just in those who died but in the quiet way old men come to say goodbye to their much younger fallen comrades.
I’ve often thought of that great book Lost Lives as our only moral equivalent. Every name, regardless of side or motivation, is included, stacked, classified and accounted for. Fintan O’Toole did his country some considerable service by pointing out that this great tome of recovery and compassion is no longer in print.
It has prompted the Irish government to consider buying the rights. One back bench government TD laid out the logic…
Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan describing the book as a “monument to the people who died” raised concerns in the Dáil this week that the book will not be re-printed and that its objective record would be lost.
“In many instances, the dead are being invoked for a particular political purpose. There is nothing wrong with that, but legacy issues have become part of the territory on which political division in Northern Ireland now operates.
The Dublin Bay South TD said if the Government let the opportunity pass it will be too “contentious and difficult for us to get any collective agreement between communities in Northern Ireland as to how we can put together one complete memorial for all the people who died”.
However, one of the authorial group has raised an objection to resurrecting this great work in this way.
The BBC reports:
Lost Lives co-author Brian Feeney fears it could be “contentious”. Mr Feeney told BBC News NI that he would be “very concerned” if the NI Executive or Irish government purchased the rights to the book.
“At the moment, and everyone says this, the book is not contentious, but if politicians got their hands on it it would be contentious,” he said.
“I would be certain that there would be edits to the book.”
That last is probably true. The amount (and the nature) of the primary materials available to Brian and the others back in the 1990s has likely increased, if not actually multiplied. It is worth acknowledging too that it sprang from an incredibly generous and optimistic moment in our history which the stop start history of our institutions have ground down.
We can see that in the narrow and selective ways we have sought to handle the legacy of 25 years of low level terrorist engagement, the uneven effects of which are being felt today in communities which mainstream politics it seems would rather forget or leave them to mind their own internal affairs without any interferences from the outside.
The genius of Lost Lives was, and remains, its inclusivity. Its tragedy, in its temporal form as a book, is that it has been relegated to the fragmentary search realms of Google Books. The reason why it sells for ridiculous prices ought to be obvious. Once you have bought a copy the chances of you ever wanting to sell it again are vanishingly small.
But it is also true that a book which no one of the next generation is able to buy or access is merely an idea, or much worse, an abstraction. As Fintan notes, this matters, because:
…the book, painstakingly, and one might almost say reverently, compiled by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea, is not just history.
It acts on the here-and-now. It does something to you as you read it. It brings the dead to life. You start to weep, not just for them, but with them. They cease to be “legitimate targets” or tit-for-tat scores. Their humanity is restored.
Such a process is crucial not just for understanding the past, but knowing what human (as opposed to ideological) qualities we need to live a better, less bitter life that those chronicled in this great book. The drift that Fintan notes into ‘amnesia and selective memory’ is also an invitation to exclude large numbers of our own citizens from our personal ‘circles of empathy‘.
Access to the real stories of what happened to all of those who died be they civilians (by far the greatest number of casualties) or pro or anti State actors, is vital for restoring proportionality to our political lives across the island. Let’s hope whatever concerns Brian has can be addressed without compromising or destroying the integrity of the original project.
We owe it to future generations, as the poet says, not to…
“…tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est,
Pro patria mori”.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty