IT is hard to know if the suggestion from New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio, that he might remove the statue of Christopher Columbus which has dominated Manhattan’s Columbus Circle since 1892, the 400th anniversary of the Genoese adventurer’s arrival in the Americas, is serious or not.
It may be a reflection of the times we live in when so many people imagine that by removing the symbols of our warts-and-all past we can remake it and dress all of our tomorrows in a brighter frock.
It must be assumed, or at least hoped, that Mr de Blasio realises this would be like painting over dry rot spreading through a house — a critical, lethal issue has been hidden from view but it has not been resolved. It may be that he is trying to show how preposterous an idea is by pointing out its extreme and ultimate conclusion. However, he may not
be in a position to axe Columbus, as de Blasio must stand for re-election in November. Nevertheless, that debate will fuel America’s great modern tragedy — its seemingly irresolvable and increasingly destructive culture war.
A version of that remaking plays out here too but — thankfully — it is usually the stuff of summer school jousting rather than the kind of civil unrest where lives might be lost. That sober reflection seems appropriate in a country that houses its parliament in one of the most imposing monuments to our divided past. Leinster House (formerly Kildare House) was built in the 1740s by James FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare as his Dublin residence. Should the building be razed because of its origin? Of course not. It, like all of those Confederate statues dotted across America’s southern states, serves as a symbol of a putrid world that could not withstand the advance of civilisation and democracy.
It may be because our civil war was more recent than America’s that there are still, to this day, people who feel obliged to destroy monuments honouring views that did not reflect their own. Earlier this month — yes, that recently — the monument to five members of the National Army chained together and blown up at Talbot Bridge near Knocknagoshel on March 6, 1923, was damaged, the second attack on the monument in three years. Both sides in that soon-to-be-commemorated conflict committed atrocities but it deepens the tragedy that they fester and occasionally burst a century after the conflict began. As Seán Lemass acknowledged when he said: “Both sides had done terrible things and both sides knew it.” It is well past the time to remember in silence.
There is, though, one monument to that conflict, one that has a real impact on our lives, that should be swept away. When he spoke at Béal na Bláth — a high altar of Civil War symbolism and wishful thinking — in 2010, the late Brian Lenihan suggested the fates of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were irrelevant, the fate of the country is all that really matters. How right he was but both parties cling to the belief that they are irreconcilable. And all the while those sent to Leinster House to represent the people and needs of this Republic become more fractured, less effective and weakened. What a price we pay for redundant, destructive tribalism.
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