April 04, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Mick Fealty

Mick Fealty was born in Belfast and raised in the religiously mixed community of Holywood in Co Down. In his early adult years he worked extensively in schools across Ireland and Britain and western Europe. For much of the last twenty years he has lived in England working as a qualitative researcher and consultant advising companies and third sector organisations on digital engagement as well as finding time to be the founding editor of what some have suggested is NI’s ‘blog of record’, Slugger O’Toole.

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Mick Fealty:
"Max Caulfield’s "The Easter Rebellion”. I mean, I knew of it before, but Caulfield’s gripping account was handed me by a schoolfriend who clearly thought I wasn’t sufficiently up to speed with the national story. And it’s true to a large extent I wasn't. Twentieth century British and European history had been on the curriculum. My Catholic school education had compensated for the official gaps in Irish history, but only really up as far as Land reform and Home Rule. The Rising, and much that happened thereafter, remained a closed book. What I later learned took me far beyond Caulfield’s gripping action drama."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" MF
"In latter years, yes. My father was born the year before the Rising and his father, a farmer in what was at the time a fairly remote part of Donegal, died the year after. So we were generationally close to the Rising but far removed from the politics of the act itself. More real for us was the border, which separated our broader family into living lives in two states. Mundanely familiar with the north and west of the Republic, our visits to Dublin and contact with the public history of the Rising came after the Troubles began. The long length and day-to-day ferocity of the Provisionals’ campaign threw an early pall over that story."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" MF
"Probably much earlier than the Rising. The fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice in 1968 was probably my earliest memory of WWI, and the Somme would have featured heavily in the TV and press coverage then. However I had not really grasped the centrality of the Ulster Division story until Frank McGuinness’ play "Behold the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme” came to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. It was later still that I learned just how many Irishmen also died fighting on the same side during that very same offensive."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" MF
"To be honest, without McGuinness’ work it remains something of an incongruous line for me to follow. My parents were at ease with talking about the UVF Hospital in East Belfast at the very time that a successor organisation with that name was planning and carrying out the abuction, torture and murder of innocent Catholics. Aside from that cognitively unbridgeable gap, the experience and sheer scale of the human sacrifice at the Somme silenced many when they returned home, be they Catholic Irishmen or Protestant Ulstermen, as much if not more so than the subsequent progression of domestic politics."
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?" MF
"For me, no. My sense of belonging to the island is much deeper than a single generational act. Perhaps I have the same ambivalence that many of us carry, often blithely, towards our nations. On one hand, I don’t regret it: it brought forward a generation of leaders who served what began as a deeply impoverished nation pretty well. But since independence was then bought at the price of near permanent disunity of the island it also comprises one of many wounds of a nation which too often pretends to believe in the unity of the people, whilst failing repeatedly to act with any confidence upon that same belief."
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?" MF
"In the tragic sense that the effects on those who took part were profound, yes. Also in the sense that within two years of history two bitterly opposed sets of “Volunteers" found themselves fighting side by side in the trenches of the western front. But again, it should be remembered how short lived such an immense sacrifice was to have on life at home. Fighting on the Somme did not in itself secure any political objectives for either of set of men. In the case of the Irish Volunteers, by dint of their absence from home, perhaps some of their larger ambitions were destroyed for generations."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" MF
"As usual, quietly, at home."
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)?" MF
"An opportunity was lost at the beginning of the 'decade of centenaries' to make all these events more open and more challenging. The lack of southern interest in the Covenant in 2012 has proven definitive. So Easter Sunday was sombre, state led, aimed largely at the home audience and therefore hard to fault. But there was no space created for unionists. Some argued it was wrong to have children place daffodils rather than lilies at the column of the GPO. Lilies associate with death, and daffodils with spring, new life and beginnings. We are inclined to make too much of death without casting a sufficient eye onto the future."
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?" MF
"No. But it’s the nature of health democratic society never to be happy. As the Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko on a visit to Belfast once said "democracy needs to be remade every day. It requires the consistent disruption of silences and the [utterance] of things that people do not want to hear.” 
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" MF
"That we can find sufficient political will from within our (still separate) selves to set to and build the structural and metaphoric bridges that our children and grandchildren - in lives that are likely to be much bigger and broader than the ones we were lucky enough to inherit from our parents and grandparents - will need to take from us."

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