In a world increasingly uncomfortable with elitism, and even though we watch more or less passively as the world’s business leaders accumulate wealth on a scale that would make even the Medicis or Rockerfellas splutter with envy, we will, over the coming days, celebrate the essence of elitism, of human exceptionalism and apartness.
We will celebrate that most incomprehensible, but most admirable human characteristic — we will honour heroes and heroism. We will celebrate the human determination to prevail, to endure, and how it can turn a dire, life-challenging situation into one that demands to be remembered.
At least three or four significant anniversaries fall around this time, and each involved that stoic sacrifice and single-mindedness which can only be described as above and beyond the call of duty — as heroic. In terrible situations, the magnificence of human spirit and conscience shone through what must have seemed impossible gloom. Exceptional courage might not always have meant the difference between death or survival, but it always made the difference between victory and defeat.
Next Tuesday, April 26, is the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. An explosion at the poorly maintained nuclear plant released huge quantities of radioactive particles, which spread over much of the western USSR and Europe. It was the worst nuclear power-plant accident in history and one of only two classified as a Level Seven, the top classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Despite the obvious and lethal threat, rescue workers did not hesitate to enter the site to try to control the fires and prevent further loss of life. They did this knowing that they might, eventually, pay the ultimate price. Many have. The scale of that disaster can be gauged by the fact that, today, 30 years later, a multi-billion, international effort is entombing the remains of the plant in a concrete shroud that will, hopefully, isolate its toxic contents for many, many lifetimes.
The grim fate of some of those Chernobyl workers sets the bravery of the Japanese rescue workers’ response to history’s second Level-Seven event — the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, five years ago — in an unquestionable and heroic frame. Their country and homes were awash. A tsunami swept away families and buildings, but they focussed selflessly on the task of stabilising the timebomb plant.
Seventy years before the Chernobyl disaster — on April 24, 1916, 100 years ago tomorrow — a drama driven by dogged, never-say-die courage began, when six men, led by Ernest Shackleton and a crew of five, including Kerryman Tom Crean, left Elephant Island in the James Caird to cross a raging ocean to get to South Georgia to arrange the rescue of 27 crewmates stranded on the forlorn island.
Their story is well-known, so, suffice to say, the first man to climb Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, who knew about courage and endurance, described the voyage as the greatest survival journey in history.
There is a link between the James Caird’s journey and tomorrow’s events in Dublin, which mark the exact centenary of the 1916 Rising. When his career in the British navy came to an end, Crean and his wife Ellen opened a pub, The South Pole Inn, in Annascaul, Co Kerry. Whether through reticence or prudence, he never spoke of his adventures, unsure of what reaction they might provoke in an area that imagined itself staunchly Republican. It is progress of sorts that his self-imposed omerta would not be necessary, nor encouraged, today.
Tomorrow’s 1916 events in Dublin are, tragically, the subject of garda concerns around security and the threat posed by the usual, dangerous fantasists marching in berets and hiding behind sunglasses and masks.
How ignoble their presence seems compared to the real heroism at the centre of tomorrow’s events. Every drama needs its anti-heroes, but these clowns are tragically out of place and out of touch in a society that, long ago, gave up the Armalite for the ballot box — that, in itself, was a gesture of underestimated heroism.
The men and women of 1916 earned their assured place in our pantheon of heroes. We are all eternally in their debt for the freedom we enjoy, each and every day. There could hardly be a better way to honour them than to emulate their heroic patriotism by re-energising our lacklustre efforts to build the equitable, non-violent society they dreamt of.
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