Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ireland and the Monarchy: Two New Books

Flying to and from Indianapolis for Christmas this weekend I had plenty of time to read. My two choices (one a Christmas gift), though quite different, fit well together as they both dealt with the complex relationship between Ireland and the British royal family. From a Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb by Timothy Knatchbull is a poignantly personal account of trying to come to terms with the trauma of the IRA bomb that on August 27, 1979 in Mullaghmore, Ireland killed his twin brother Nicholas (14), grandfather Lord Louis Mountbatten (79), grandmother Doreen Lady Brabourne (83) and friend Paul Maxwell (15). Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy by Mary Kenny (see other posts labeled "Ireland" for previous links to her articles on this blog) outlines (superficially from the Middle Ages and then substantially from Queen Victoria to the present) the historical background against which the particular outrage that bereaved Knatchbull transpired.

This cannot be not a conventional review, for I am still not sure exactly what I think of Timothy Knatchbull's book. I am glad I bought and read it and would certainly encourage all readers interested in its subject to do so. Certainly it is moving and beautifully written. As Nicholas Knatchbull became a real person and not just a name on a family tree, I occasionally found it necessary to put the book down and gaze out the airplane window for awhile, appropriately enough at plenty of clear blue sky, away from other passengers. Particularly important and effective is the emphasis on how the bond between identical twins is such that for one of them to lose the other is to lose part of himself. "We never doubted that our relationship was for life," writes the author in a heartrending photo caption. This is not a comfortable book to read, not only because the subject matter (despite uplifting elements) is so inherently tragic, but also because the reader is liable to wonder if he is being made privy to emotions and details so private and sensitive that he is intruding. (Reportedly that was the view of the author's older brother Norton, Lord Brabourne.)

Clearly Timothy Knatchbull, a survivor of one of the most heinous crimes of a conflict that produced many, has found a sort of peace, and that is to his credit and benefit. What can a reader, remote from the horror of terrorism, who has never known the pain he has, say other than to admire his resilience and eloquence and wish him well? But I am still not sure that "Peace" and "Forgiveness," however fashionable since the Good Friday Agreement, should be the only permissible reactions to the legacy of IRA terror. The Knatchbulls (who continue to love Ireland and its people) are remarkable for their lack of bitterness, but if other victims' families do not feel that way, are they wrong? Even if an individual can "forgive," should the State? Is it right that the man convicted of murdering those four people (two of them teenagers) in 1979, released as a result of that Agreement in 1998 and never publicly repentant, is able to live out his latter years in obscure quiet freedom with his wife, while Nicholas Knatchbull will never spend time with a wife or anyone else because that man murdered him? I tend to think not, but intend no criticism of the author, who is probably a better man than many, by raising these questions. I do wonder though if a general problem with aristocrats and royalty in the modern era has been that they are basically Nice People who perhaps do not fully grasp how evil their enemies are, at a time when Niceness is not enough and will not save their civilization.

Mary Kenny's book, though not without its personal touches in the form of first-person recollections of the author, is a more straightforward and comprehensive history. Conventional wisdom on both sides of Irish conflicts has tended to paint a picture of Irish Catholics being unanimously resentful of the British monarchy as a symbol of "oppression." (I don't think any reasonable Protestant, Unionist, or monarchist would deny that British policy in Ireland was not always particularly benevolent, as Kenny though not a propagandist does not let the reader forget.) Kenny paints a more nuanced picture in which Irish nationalism and Catholicism coexisted with affection for members of the royal family, sometimes even in the same households, with King Edward VII being particularly well regarded of the six monarchs discussed in depth. There were, of course, those in the Catholic/Nationalist camp who really did hate the royal family, in some cases combining strict Catholic morality with Puritanical disdain for the "flummery" of monarchy--exactly the same attitude I used to encounter among Catholic republicans, particularly those of Irish descent, when I used to try to promote monarchism in traditional Roman Catholic forums.

Altogether Crown and Shamrock, whose narrative is too complex to adequately summarize further here, makes for intriguing reading. However, I wish it had been better edited: its pages are marred by needless mistakes such as "Haakon I" for Haakon VII of Norway, "1995" for the 1997 death of Princess Diana, and "opionion" for "opinion," as well as a more serious type of error in which the facts of the Eulenberg scandal in Imperial Germany are completely jumbled. Hopefully subsequent editions will correct these lapses. Kenny concludes by eloquently hoping that the Republic of Ireland will finally invite Queen Elizabeth II for an official visit.

Ireland is, frankly, a difficult topic for English-speaking monarchists, especially those who are either Roman Catholic or who (like myself) are not but generally respect the role the Roman Catholic Church has played in history and like to think of it as a traditional bulwark of "Altar and Throne" monarchism. Unlike most of Europe's other Catholic nations, Ireland never developed an enduring unified monarchy of its own (surely a factor in its subjugation by England). While (as Kenny points out) many early nationalists were monarchists, the Irish national cause became increasingly identified and equated with militant republicanism, perhaps especially among its diaspora sympathizers in the United States. When considering Continental topics such as the French Revolution or the Spanish Civil War, my sympathies are every bit as pro-Catholic as those of my militant traditionalist Latin-mass-attending friends, but when it comes to the British Isles, it's just not that simple. These two books don't pretend that anything about modern Irish history is simple, but taken together, From a Clear Blue Sky and Crown and Shamrock will do much to enrich the reader's understanding of the painful background their subjects share.

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