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By Professor Kevin Whelan

On 10th June during the annual paupers patron at Coolcotts cemetery in Wexford town, Professor Kevin Whelan gave the keynote address. In a powerful talk on the importance of memory, he suggested that 'to be forgotten is to die again. We would like to thank Prof. Whelan for his permission to publish this talk here on 'The Hook of Faith'.

Think for a moment of our parents or our grandparents: While they may have died, they are still very much alive in our thoughts and especially at significant points in the year like Christmas and birthdays. In that sense they remain a valued and significant force and presence in our lives, even though they are no longer physically with us.

Then let us think of the people beneath our feet here and the ignominious way that they were once discarded as so much human garage into a pauper’s grave.

Rattle his bones over the stones

He’s only a pauper that nobody owns.

When I was a child, these words from an old poem or nursery rhyme always stuck in my head.

And in Ireland, where every inch of our land has been paid for in the blood of a man, we have known victims of the Cromwellian War, the 1798 Rebellion, the Famine, 1916. We pay due respect, as we should, to those victims, who we regard as heroic. But there are other dead as well - those who died as a result of harsh social and economic policies that treated poverty as a self-inflicted condition, resulting from character flaws. And these are the ones who were treated in both life and death with contempt.

Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin at the end of the 18c described it perfectly:

Ní ins an bochtaineas a bheith síos go deo is measa ach an tarcaisne a bhaineann leis.[It is not being always sunk in poverty that is the worst but the contempt that follows that]

So in coming here tonight we honour our people here by bringing them back into our minds and indeed our hearts. The most powerful circuit in the world is the one that connects our brain and our heart, our intelligence and our emotions. We should always have the courage of our feelings as well as the courage of our convictions. A crucial component of a Christian life is the concept of caritas – badly translated as charity, but more accurately love of our fellow human beings –, that the Bible constantly exhorts us to exemplify? Matthew poses the difficult question: ‘If you love those who love you, what reward should you have’? It’s easy to love those who are loveable but the really hard bit is finding it in us to love those who are not like us, who can be a pain in the neck, cranky, ungrateful, who live chaotic lives or make poor choices?

In a more secular but hugely significant way, we are citizens of a Republic which claims to treat everyone in the same way, with equality, dignity and respect. The 1916 Proclamation states; ‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally’

So as citizens we are asked to cherish equally all those who live among us while accepting their difference. In that sense, the Republic of Ireland can and should be judged by how well we treat our most vulnerable citizens: those who are damaged, fragile, ill, discarded, stigmatised, poor, and who are casually dismissed by a consumer society as losers in the game of life.

And that obligation should also extend backwards. We have a responsibility to remember, not just the heroic and successful but the vulnerable and the damaged. There is an absolute fundamental human necessity for memory - not merely as a form of knowledge, in an inert way, but as an action or a process. Memory is not a passive inert thing but an active force, in the sense that we talk about ‘exercising our memories’. Memory is not a parcel that is passed on from person to person and that remains unchanged in the process of transmission. Memory changes as we transmit it, as we tell the story, and depending on to whom we tell our story. We can choose what we remember and what we forget. So memory is never just oriented to the past but it is equally about the future. What we chose to remember shapes our future. Memory can serve as a midwife to our future through our understanding of what has happened in the past. Memory can also be a healing force as it shows us is always possible to see things, to hear things, to tell things, to feel things another way. Memory changes as we tell the story and as we hear others stories. The stories we tell and the stories we choose not to tell determine what it is we remember. With memory, there is always a choice.

That is another version of memory as a dead weight: the sense that in Ireland we look back to much, that we have too much memory[Irish Alzheimers- where we forget everything except the grudge- members o fthe CIA Catholic Irish Alcoholic ). We are handcuffed to our history in a way that is inherently toxic.

A frequent response to all that would be to urge us Irish people to forget about the past, and, in the famous phrase, ‘move on’, to enjoy our modern guilt-free consumer life, with our almond milk and our flat whites. This is a common liberal view: if only we foolish Irish people, trapped in our small fields, and small minds, trapped in our narrow streets and narrow minds, let go their tribal versions of history, then our country would be so much better off and so much more more sophisticated. Forget your history and learn coding. Give up your oul’ Irish and learn French.

That suits a particular neo-liberal’ mind set. And yet, that view itself constitutes a problem.

The great American doctorOliver Sacks, who worked extensively with people who have lost their memories, concluded that a person who is amnesiac is incapable of acting in the present or, crucially, of planning for the future. Therefore, the question, at an individual and communal and national level, is not whether we should remember but how we should engage with the past. We cannot sweep it under the carpet. If we refuse to acknowledge issues, they come back to haunt us. The nation or the community without a sense of its history is like a person without a memory. We cannot become amnesiac or be urged to become so, without damaging ourselves, and also damaging the generations that come after us.

It is certainly the case that in Ireland, we have endured a traumatic history. It is also the case that current political divides are based as much on a claim onthe past as they are on contemporary social or community divisions. The past is constantly resorted to as a mandate for political action. In this sense, the Irish past lacks ‘closure’. You can lament that but you also have to name it and take responsibility for it. Every community needs to understand that it has a responsibility for its version of the past. The past can never just be seen in the rear-view mirror as we hurtle towards our metaversed and relentlessly monetised futures.

Memory is equally oriented to the future as to the past and we can choose what we remember. Patrick Kavanagh once said ‘Imagination blossoms on the stem of memory’. Memory is linked to imagination, it is what allows us to think new things and to be other than what we are now.

Imagine a beautiful vase being smashed and then imagine the challenge of putting it back together again. There is great craftsmanship and imagination in putting the vase together the first time round, but it is a considerably greater challenge to put back together what has been smashed and broken.

We are here in the Paupers’ Graveyard tonight because we are all drawn to an act of ethical memory and imaginative engagement. Let me quote Leonard Cohen: Anthem [1992]

Ring the bells that still can ring,

forget your perfect offering,

there is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

I now want to quote from a 16c play about Thomas More - possibly Shakespeare? More is complaining about the expulsion of strangers from England and the cruel indignities inflicted on the poor.

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage

plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation...

By this pattern

not one of you should live an aged man

for other ruffians as their fancies wrought

with self-same hand, self reasons, and self right

would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes

would feed on one another.

Here in the paupers’ graveyard, we are acutely aware that these horrible injustices were inflicted on generations of Wexford people. Poor people died and were cast unceremoniously into cold graves. The state, the church and society treated them harshly and their lonely deaths were not a figment of our imagination. They are buried here beneath us and we tread on their graves.

They are our ancestors, our people: They are us as we are them. They were real people and they were genuine casualties of history. What happened here was not a figment of our imagination: it involved the death of flesh and blood humans, once full of hopes and dreams and expectations, who fell through the cracks of history, became isolated and ended up in this forlorn place. ‘Tá an mí ádh gnóiteach’ [Bad luck is always busy] as the proverb says. Amaryta Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist said that ‘Poverty is not the lack of money; it is not having the capability to realise one’s full potential as a human being.

A proper funeral is a ritual not of transition but of separation, the end of the earthly existence of the corpse: proper burial, proper ritual, proper naming of the dead is essential to their - and our - resting in peace. That is why we come here tonight: to try in the best way we can to restore dignity to these casually disposed of people flung like garbage into mass graves here. We honour them with our presence, our finest music and song, our desire to atone for a huge injustice inflicted on these nameless people, who are our people, our Wexford people, our flesh and blood and bones, our past. We are them and they are us. Tonight, we are our brothers’ keepers. We are our sisters’ keepers. We are the keepers of their memory. What surrounds us here, what summons us here is our story and our experience, that will always remain embedded in the experience from which it emerged. You cannot just pull out the past by the roots. It must come above the surface to flower. And every flower blooms in its own time.

Each community has a responsibility for its version of the past, but also for how that version of the past impacts on our future. What is it that allows our dead to have an afterlife and to live on in our lives? Only when we can find a way to make the silence speak. Only when we listen with the ‘ear of our hearts’ (At Benedict). Imagine that from each grave here a periscope suddenly emerged which allowed the children, women and men buried beneath us to peer out at us and to hear us. What would they make of us? We cannot heal the hurts of their personal history but we can and we must always be witnesses to its now silent victims.

The people buried here can only live on if we modern Wexford people care enough about them to remember them. For so long,stuck down there in their loneliness and grief, their only constant visitor was rain, the one thing that never abandoned them. We must remember their past as a way of shaping our future. We can’t change Wexford, we can’t change Ireland, we can’t change our fragile and bloody world without changing ourselves, and being here tonight is a way of changing ourselves through an act of remembrance. We may be vaccinated against tetanus, chickenpox, the mumps, the measles diphtheria, Covid but never against memory. There can never be an effective vaccine against memory and our presence here tonight is proof of that.

Rattle his bones over the stones

He’s only a pauper that nobody owns.

To be forgotten is to die again.


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