March 15, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Susan Irvine Russam

Susan Irvine Russam is 60 and lives in Holywood, County Down. She was at Holywood High School (now Priory College) Queen's University Belfast, University of Glasgow and Ulster University. She has been Chief Executive of GEMS NI since 2001. 

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Susan Irvine Russam:
"When I was a child of about 9  in or around 1965 from my Great Aunt Sally who was born in 1898."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" SIR
"They are part of history my memories are second hand from my Great Aunt ( the family were staunch United  Irish black mouth Presbyterians from Ards Peninsula - Betsy Gray and the tales of ’98) my mother was born in 1922 and my father in 1919 (England) I was not aware of the men and women until I read about the 1916 Easter Rising for A Levels  and later as an adult Although my Great Aunt did have a Cockerel named after Daniel O'Connell, “The Liberator”  Within my family I learned and was able to see the signatures of my maternal grandparents and great aunts and uncles who had signed the Ulster Covenant. I always found that the Easter Rising was seen by my Great Aunt and other relatives around at the time as a minor event compared to the Great War – even though they lived 100 miles away, Dublin could have been on another planet to them.  When I reflect on the men and women, the act or the stated ideals I see what happened in 1916 as being blemished in the eyes of people of my generation (I was 13 in 1969) brought up in Holywood with an English father who fought in WWII and wasn’t a unionist or a nationalist by the events of 1969 onwards. As an older adult looking at the events of 1916 I see it as a key historical event, one that led to the loss of lives; but also, one where the British already embroiled in the killing fields of WW1 got the mood of the Irish people very badly wrong."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" SIR
"Again from my Great Aunt - I had 8 great Uncles her brothers who all fought in WW1 I had the privilege of being able to read the cards and censored postcards from her brothers sent from France to her and my Great Grandmother my Aunt was the youngest of 12 8 boys and 4 girls. Six of the sons went to War 5 came back with 2 seriously wounded/disabled and one gassed. I remember feeling upset as a child in learning her brother Thomas died - not in battle but of blood poisoning and my Great Uncle Edgar (who joined the navy as a stoker in 1914 when he was 16) who, when he enlisted in the Army in 1916 was shot through the right jaw with the bullet exiting from his left jaw (among other places) and had to use the blade of a dinner knife to eat his food as he could only open his mouth a fraction of an inch. 
As the field surgeon who saved his life only had the rudiments of equipment.  My Great Uncles and my Father (WW2) spoke little of the horrors they witnessed and endured and did not glorify war. Back in the 1960’s Remembrance day was solemn and observed."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" SIR
"They did their duty as of the time."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" SIR
"It is part of the history of this island and as such the events are important to those who hold their nationality dear (Irish or British) I’m not into symbolism."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" SIR
"I have a family connection and memories of my Great Uncles as old men it is part of my memory not my identity."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" SIR
BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" SIR
"The Irish state is entitled to commemorate the events of 1916 and equally Mrs Foster is equally entitled not to attend these events which I assume are not part of her role as First Minister of NI."
BJS: "As a person on (or from) the island are you happy with the where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" SIR
"No we are still stuck in the cycle of politicians who rely on instilling fear of “the other side” in people for their vote."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" SIR
"That my grandchildren will not experience the same learned hopelessness that their parents and grandparents lived with in terms of democratic choice."

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