Late in Patrick Radden Keefe’s riveting new account of the Irish Republican Army, he quotes anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who observed, “for the majority of the human species, and for tens of thousands of years, the idea that humanity includes every human being on the face of the earth does not exist at all. The designation stops at the border of each tribe... sometimes even at the edge of a village.”
What do anthropology and tribalism have to do with Northern Ireland? There is a very particular antagonism between Catholics and Protestants dating to the 16th century, when one tribe became two; and some of the Troubles are rooted in the Norman invasion of 1169. Keefe reaches for Lévi-Strauss late in “Say Nothing,” after having failed to fully comprehend the killing of Jean McConville, the “Disappeared mother of 10,” as the newspapers and the BBC dubbed her. How can tribes ever reconcile? One of the things that gnaws at him is Gerry Adams. An architect of the Good Friday agreement of 20 years ago, which stipulated the disarming of paramilitary groups like the one that killed McConville and secretly buried her, Adams still takes no responsibility for killings such as hers that he allegedly ordered.
People can do awful things under the banners of their duck and rabbit gods. Reviewing “Milkman,” a novel by Anna Burns set during the Troubles, Ron Charles of The Washington Post called it “a #MeToo testimony in the context of a civil war, a world in which every element of daily life – newspapers, movies, bars, cars, even butter – is tagged as us or them with potentially deadly consequences.”
Part of what fuels that conflict is an argument about who is David and who is Goliath. Catholics in Northern Ireland see themselves as a minority deprived of rights and opportunities by a Protestant majority that is loyal to imperialist Britain – which is true. But it is also true that Protestants are a minority on the island who fear loss of privilege and place if it were ever reunited by the Irish republicans.
You see the same shift between Arabs and Jews, which predates Mohammed’s arrival in Medina in 622. Israelis view themselves as a tiny democracy cinched by the territory west of the Jordan River and surrounded and outnumbered by Arab dictatorships and their vassals – which is true; but from the Palestinian perspective, Israel is the Goliath that keeps them in thrall. So Israel, which had to throw off the British through a campaign of bombings and assassinations in order to be born, becomes the Brits; which partly is why the IRA aligned itself with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
And then, 10 days ago, members of the New IRA, formed by bitter-enders after the Good Friday agreement, shot and killed Lyra McKee, 29, a journalist, in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
After finishing the Keefe book, we wanted some form of an ending, which seems beyond our reach. We watched interviews on YouTube with Gerry Adams, the vintage ones from the days when the BBC had actors dub his voice because, being both a news-maker and an outlaw, in the cracked logic of the government, he could be seen but not heard.
Then we saw “Derry Girls.”
If we cannot have reconciliation, we can at least have history repeating as farce. “Derry Girls” is a ribald BBC Four sitcom about Catholic high school girls, set in the 1990s in Londonderry and shot on location there. Lead Saoirse-Monica Jackson is from Londonderry, as is Lisa McGee, the writer and creator. The Troubles are at the heart of the comedy but the naive teens and their adult relations scarcely notice. At one point they discuss whether it is true Adams cannot be heard because his voice is too sexy.
Netflix shows “Derry Girls” in other countries with subtitles, including in Arabic and Hebrew. Last fall, its first season was the most watched in Northern Ireland since records were first kept in 2002, with a 64.2% audience share – which can only mean that many Protestants and Catholics were fleetingly, blessedly, feeling the same way about the same thing.