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06.16.10

How Long, How Long Did We Sing that Song?

When Britain’s David Cameron apologized for the Bloody Sunday killings he healed a deep wound, says novelist Colum McCann—and appropriately for Bloomsday there were echoes of Joyce in his words.

Some people take fiction to be the truth. Others take truth to be a fiction.

Yesterday the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, made a dramatic public apology for the events of Bloody Sunday when, in 1972, thirteen civil rights protestors were shot dead on the streets of Derry. Cameron stood in the House of Commons and said that the events of the day were “unjustified and unjustifiable.” He said that the government was responsible for the conduct of its armed forces. He said there were no ambiguities, no equivocations. The killings were a catastrophe. Generations were bereaved. And he was sorry, his government was sorry, indeed he was sorry on the behalf of his country.

Nothing was a more visible inherited scar on Northern Irish history than Bloody Sunday and the apology goes a long way towards allowing it its truth.

Sometimes it takes the best part of 40 years to open up a nation’s ribcage and twist its heart backwards for a truth which is, ultimately, also a grace. Cameron held his head level—not high, not low—when he talked about the Saville Report. There were no whistles, no boos, no snide footnotes. He became the son of a time when he was little more just than an ordinary son.

History throws icons at our minds. No television images of Bloody Sunday are more iconic than those of Father Edward Daly, a Catholic priest, waving his bloody white handkerchief in the air as he tried to escort a dying young man to safety through the backstreets of the Bogside. The handkerchief seems, in the footage, to have a life and a grief all its own. It folds over onto itself, the red core, the white core. Father Daly turns the corner into another corner. It all seems like corners. There are details that make it seem so far away now: the sideburns, the wide flares, the cobblestones. One wishes it was only cinema.


Footage from the 1972 protests in Derry.

Video screenshot

But it wasn’t cinema. It was thirteen people dead and a couple of thousand more lined up along the ditches of what was euphemistically called “The Troubles.” Ultimately, over thirty years, 3,594 people died. You cannot kneecap a statistic, though you can sometimes make it limp.

Harold Evans: How My Paper Exposed Bloody SundayOne of the things about Bloody Sunday was that it was an event that was ripe for manipulation, or shaping—or, if you want, a fiction. In fact the word fiction is derived from the Greek “fictus,” which means to shape. Each side used the events of that January day for its own narrative purposes. The British army got immediately down to language—they turned civil rights marchers into rioters, priests into agitators, and slingshots somehow became Thompson machine guns. On the other hand, the Irish Republican elements used Bloody Sunday to delude a whole generation of teenagers that the bullet was better than the ballot.

Everyone was bound to lose because there was no texture of truth in either of the fictions.

It is of course a spectacular coincidence that David Cameron made his announcement the day before Bloomsday, the anniversary on which James Joyce’s immortal novel, Ulysses, takes place. Surely there was no obvious literary intention there on the British Prime Minister’s behalf. But the thing that immediately sprang to mind was the conundrum faced by the central character, Leopold Bloom, an Irish-Hungarian Jew who sits in a Dublin pub on Little Britain Street (of all places!) contemplating the idea that a nation is “the same people living in the same place.” He later revises his answer to those “also living in different places.” It is a parliamentary answer, and Bloom gets a biscuit tin thrown at his head for his, shall we say, troubles.

But in his sincere and reflective apology, Cameron has gone a long way in solving Bloom’s notion of what constitutes a nation, and not just the Irish nation, or the British nation. We live—increasingly—in an intimate and fluctuating everywhere. Our borders are malleable things. The real borders are the wounds that we carry and, consequently, the emotions that accompany them: their history, their legacy. We are the sons of our sons. Nothing was a more visible inherited scar on Northern Irish history than Bloody Sunday and the apology goes a long way towards allowing it its truth. It is, in many ways, an acknowledgment that there is a right—a human right—to grief. How long, how long did we sing that song?

Many will say that it was the only thing Cameron could do. He was backed into a corner by the Saville Report. He is still early in his relative political honeymoon. He is a Tory looking for liberal support. And others will say that it is a distant echo thrown off the bombed-out rubblelands. They will say it was many years in the making, and the echo comes back shallow anyway. Others still will want to call the British soldiers to further justice, sue them, jail them, shame them. But that would be the age-old doubleturn where justice gets perverted into revenge.

Let’s take the apology. Let’s celebrate it. A wound was acknowledged. A further grief was stared into oblivion. It is, in its way, its own piece of literature. It was almost as if Anna Akhmatova had stepped in alongside the questioning Bloom to say—as she does in one of her poems—“You’re many years late, how glad I am to see you.”

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Colum McCann won the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction for his novel Let the Great World Spin.