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Thursday, 6 April 2017


If you hit me with a brick I’ll still be angry about it five minutes from now. On the other hand, I don’t care that  your Cro-Magnon ancestor stole a bone from my Neanderthal forbear. Somewhere in between those extremes of time lies the point at which a sensible person will say “There’s no point in obsessing about this any further. I am more than the sum of my ancestors’ resentments.”

Some examples are worth preserving for the amusement they provide. The fanatical Protestants of Northern Ireland who make such a cult of their hatred for the Bishop of Rome need to be aware that England only invaded Ireland in the first place because Pope  Adrian IV said it was OK. I always get a chuckle out of that one.

Unfortunately a whole industry has grown up to encourage people to carry historical grudges past the point of common sense. A related phenomenon is the habit of identifying ourselves and others by one strand of our mongrel heritage as if it were the only one. In a country like Australia people  choose to say that we’re Irish or Greek or Spanish or Tongan or whatever. But the truth is that even if my ancestors had all been Irish back to the Dark Ages I would still be a mongrel, just like you.

My great-grandfather was a convict. He and his brother were transported to Tasmania in the mid-nineteenth century for giving a bloke a hiding in a dispute over the ownership of some potatoes. By our standards the laws under which he was sentenced were monstrously unjust. That doesn’t mean that I automatically take the side of any opponent of the British Government (then or now). It doesn’t incline me to favour the IRA ( I despise it). I don’t think of Ireland as “the old country” (sorry: I mean “ould”). I don’t know all the words to “Mother Machree” and if I did I wouldn’t admit it. I’m not Irish. In fact if you count percentages I’m more Pommy than Irish and I’m not proud of that, either.

When I was young people with convict ancestors used to keep quiet about it but now it’s  regarded as something to boast about. Both positions are absurd. When it was a disgrace it wasn’t my fault. Now that it’s fashionable it reflects no credit on me.

At the turn of the eighteenth century Daniel Defoe highlighted the dubious ancestry of the English in “The True Born Englishman”. What he wrote then is still true. It is equally true of everybody else. To classify people by nationality is ridiculous.

The wonder which remains is at our pride,
To value that which all wise men deride.
For Englishmen to boast of generation,
Cancels their knowledge, and lampoons the nation.
A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.
A banter made to be a test of fools,
Which those that use it justly ridicules.

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